Writer Spotlight: Kali Van Baale

Kali Van Baale is an Iowa author, an alumnus of Upper Iowa University, and 2006 winner of the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novelist Award for The Space Between (River City Publishing, 2006). In addition, her stories have appeared in Voices of Caregiving (LaChance Publishing, 2008) and Voices of Alzheimer’s (LaChance Publishing, 2007). She shares about her life as a writer, including her inspirations, research process, and a few writing tips.


Have you always been a writer—born with a crayon/pencil in your hand?

Pretty close! My mother loves to tell the story about how when I was 4-years-old, I nearly convinced her one day that my Aunt Gail had a baby but the baby was very, very sick and died. And my Aunt Gail was so sad and heartbroken and she cried and cried and cried. It was all, of course, not in anyway true, but so detailed was my fictional account that my mom actually called my aunt just to make sure.

Where do you draw inspiration for your writing and would you describe what your writing process is like, such as whether you use an outline or free thought, have writing rituals, or a routine?

I’ve gotten story ideas from the news, family, my own life experiences, even song lyrics. I’ll get a little seed of an idea from some random source and tend to let it germinate in my mind for some time before I actually start putting sentences together. Instead of a formal outline, I take copious notes while I’m in the thinking, “germinating” stage, and then try to organize the notes into stepping stones that will later lead me through the story.  Next, with an idea of characters, plot, time and place taking shape, I do research, often spending several months reading at the library, on the internet, conducting interviews, etc… I always end up with far more information than I’ll actually need, but I prefer to have too much than too little. Research gives me tremendous inspiration to create the details of the story. 

After the research stage, I start writing my first draft, using my notes as a guide. My ultimate goal is to just get down the bones of the story, from beginning to end. Once finished, I’ll go back to the beginning and start adding more meat to the skeletal frame, while heavily revising, changing, rewriting what is already there. Then I step away from it for a breathing period. I like, at this point, to give the working draft to an ideal reader or two–a colleague who’s work and editing skills I trust and respect–to let them read and critique. With their thoughtful comments, it’s back to revisions and rewrites, sometimes two or three more times. It’s finally “finished” when I’ve nearly gone blind and am ready to tear my hair out.

Your debut novel, The Space Between, won the 2006 Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novelist Award and was also published by River City Publishing. Would you share your whole experience with us, from crafting your manuscript to the day you held your published work in your hands?

I spent a year and half writing and then another year and a half revising The Space Between, finishing it just two days before the Fred Bonnie contest deadline. I first read about the award in Poets & Writers mag and carefully researched the award history and background of the publishing company, trying to be smart about how and where I spent my money. Six months later, my award letter arrived in the mail (along with, ironically enough, another rejection letter from an agent). Later that year, I edited the manuscript with River City’s in-house editors, started up a website and put together a small marketing plan. The day my first box of books arrived and I held a copy in my hands, I cried like a baby. I think from relief after so many years of fearing the day would never come.

What risks did you take with this work, and how did you find your characters’ voices amidst the issue that could have overshadowed them?

From the beginning, I knew I wasn’t writing the story to provide answers and solutions, only to give a voice to a character not commonly heard from in this particular situation. And I tried to write the character as equally full of flaws as she was full of sympathy. A risk certainly, because the subject matter is such an emotional minefield, but I worked very hard to just stay focused on the character’s journey and avoid the sensational aspects.

Some say tough problems are excellent resources for fiction—I’ve noticed a contemporary thread to your writing: varied topics yet present-day situations. You’ve written about death, adoption and Alzheimer’s disease, what is your research process, what was your driving force to complete each piece, and how did you continue, persevering through difficult areas?

As I mentioned before, I do an enormous amount of research for my novels, but I do believe aspects of my life and what is going on around me at the time bleed into the larger work.

As for my published essays and short stories, they have all, for some reason, come from personal experience, and I wrote them very very quickly. Probably because they were so personal. Like ripping off a band aid.

Much is said about the publishing process, what has been your experience? What are your thoughts on self-publishing, indie publishers, and traditional publishing houses? And how do you see e-publishing enhancing or detracting from the market share?

I have one word for my publishing experience: humbling. For every one high moment I’ve experienced, there have been six low moments. This business knows how to keep folks in their places. Starting my career with an indie publisher was the perfect place for me. I was very green and needed lots of on-the-job-training. The smaller publishers can offer more time and attention and in my case, it enabled me to learn as I went.

I think self-publishing can really work if it’s with the right company. Like anything, there are self-pubs who put out quality work and those that don’t. Even worse, those that cheat their clients, which sadly, is common in the self-pub realm. My very limited experience with traditional publishing houses thus far, through my agent’s queries to editors for my second book, has been about what I expected. They’re extremely picky, move like molasses, and always thinking with one half of the brain toward the art, the other toward the dollar.

You share a lot about yourself on your blog. My favorite part is your welcome or invitation: “an author’s buffet without the sneeze guard.” and I also enjoy reading your entries, finding a bit of myself in both “The Island of Misfit Toys” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Curly.” What are some titles of unposted blog entries, those that you scrapped, or topics that we will see in the future?

 I wrote one blog that I never posted called “The Never Ending Slice of Humble Pie” about what I just mentioned above–the humbling nature of the publishing business. It sounded too whiny so I scrapped it. But it was very therapeutic to write, though. My parents recently sold their farm and house I grew up in, so I have an upcoming blog planned on that topic.  

How do you see your writing enhanced or sharpened as a wife and mother? What comes to mind when I say the word RAGBRAI? Would you share a bit about the word, and how you connect with it?

I’m not one who believes being a wife or mother gives a writer any kind of edge, but I will say this: Because I’m a mom, I definitely don’t screw around when I get a chunk of quiet time to write. I get right down to business.   

As for RAGBRAI, what I connect with it, is P-A-I-N. Suffering. For those of you non-Iowans, it’s the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (the ENTIRE state of Iowa). Or as I like to call it, the Ride ‘O Death. (And in case you haven’t guessed it, I’m not an official spokesperson for RAGBRAI.)  

What did you read while you were growing up, and what would I find on your coffee table as reading material today? Similarly, who influenced your writing and how is it visible in your work?

 I remember reading a historical series called the Sunfire books, each with a girl’s name as the title and said girl was always torn between two boys. For example, Rachel was about a young immigrant woman who worked in the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that caught fire in the ’20’s and was torn between an outgoing fiddler and a moody floor boss at the factory. I loved those books and read every single one. I went through a V. C. Andrew’s phase, read a lot of Danielle Steele, Stephen King and Dean Koontz in high school and college.

Today, I seem to gravitate toward darker or more character-driver literature. Right now I’m reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett and loving it. My shelves are filled with Anne Marie MacDonald, Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth Strout, Laura Moriarty, A. Manette Ansay, Judith Guest. I think those authors all share the quality of creating colorful, complex, not-always-likable characters, but utterly fascinating characters nonetheless. That’s what I always aspire to create and probably why I’m so drawn to their work.

You quote E.L. Doctorow in one of your posts –“writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia” Tell me why that’s worth quoting and if you have a tidbit to tell, what would Kali’s quote be?

I think it’s a form of schizophrenia because writers are always walking around physically in one world, but mentally in another. Thinking about a tense conversation between two characters while walking through the cereal aisle at the grocery store. It’s a very odd existence sometimes and hard for non-writers to understand.

My favorite quote of all time of any quote I’ve ever read: “I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.” –George Burns (And I may have it etched on my headstone.)

Do you rely on any particular resources, thesaurus, grammar guide, or search engines? May I throw out a few words for you to share what they mean to you as a writer? Controversy? Taboo? Education?

I use a thesaurus sparingly, Strunk & White constantly and Google incessantly.



Education=Never, ever a bad idea or waste of money. But never, ever a replacement for simply experiencing life.

What are some techniques, trends, and suggestions for other writers? What should new writers be aware of as they enter the industry, and what would be on their must-do list?

My biggest piece of advice for writers is to push everyday to improve your story. Don’t write three pages and think that because you’ve sent it through the printer, it’s done. An agent once told me that the most common mistake she saw from writers over and over again was sending out their manuscripts one to two drafts too soon. Writers: MUST revise. Multiple times.

 And the most important thing to remember about the publishing industry is that it’s designed for those who run marathons, not sprints.


Is your book club reading a Kali Van Baale book? Looking for a speaker for your event? She would be happy to join you! For inquiries or availability, contact her directly: kalivanbaale(at)msn(dot)com.


Upcoming Events
  April 19th, 2010 @ 7 pm
Deep Song Reading Series
Where: Te Paske Gallery in Korver Visual Arts Center, Northwestern College, 101 7th St. SW, Orange City, IA
Details: Kali will give a reading from her debut novel, The Space Between, and discuss her upcoming works. This event is free and open to the public. Contact: Richard Sowienski, 712-707-7102.
 June 21-June 27, 2010
Wildacres Residency Program
Where: Little Switzerland, NC
Details: One-week private artist’s residency.


Awards and Honors:

2009 Iowa Arts Council major artist grant, untitled third novel
2008 full scholarship to the Key West Literary Seminar and selected for the Robert Stone Advanced Fiction Workshop, Mercy Road
2007 American Book Award, The Space Between
2007 Independent Publisher’s Silver Medal for General Fiction, The Space Between
2007 Iowa Reader Literary Award for Fiction, The Space Between
2006 Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novelist Award, The Space Between

3 thoughts on “Writer Spotlight: Kali Van Baale

  1. Congratulations, Kali, on getting published and receiving so many awards and honors for your books.

    I know people who’ve participated in RAGBRAI and while I admire them, I think you have to be a little crazy to enjoy it.

    Love the George Burns quote. I’m adding that one to my favorites.

    Best wishes for continued success!

    • Hi Misty, thanks for stopping a minute to share some thoughts: I agree, I admire those who ride across county/state/country! I hadn’t heard the George Burns quote until Kali shared it here. Always nice to be inspired by others words.

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