Kali VanBaale’s story “The Girl in the Pipe” appears in Midwestern Gothic’s Summer 2017 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I’m a born and bred Midwesterner and I’ve lived in Iowa my entire life, for better or for worse. Having grown up on a farm, my emotional connection to the land is strong and definitely comes through in my writing. Once a farm kid, always a farm kid, wherever I go. But I’m also influenced by what I live with and see every day—Midwestern attitudes and complexities, that mix of hard work, generosity, and polite passive aggression.
We’ll talk all kinds of shit behind your back but if your house burns down we’ll be there first thing in the morning with hammers and nails to help you rebuild it. And probably bring you some kind of casserole, too.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
For me, the most compelling aspect of the Midwest is the space. No doubt it drives some personalities crazy, everything so far apart and landlocked, but my personality needs room to breathe, stretch my legs, hear my own thoughts in silence. I can look out the back windows of my house and see nothing but sky. My strange soul often craves isolation, I think, because the vast horizons and quiet fields of my childhood still run in my bloodstream.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
Sense of place permeates every aspect of my writing because place has been such a powerful force in shaping who I am today. I grew up on a farm far from any towns, let alone cities. I learned from an early age how to entertain myself and to value the combination of hard work and imagination. I also learned what it means for your life to literally be dependent on the ground beneath your feet and the sky above your head to put food on your table and clothes on your back. That powerful thread creeps into my writing often—the primal relationship humans can develop with an environment.
Discuss your writing process—inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I write every morning, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to noon, without fail. I’ve always said that my discipline and tenacity are far stronger than my actual talent. I don’t experience writers block because I’ve trained my brain that at 8 a.m., when I close the drapes, turn on my lamp, and sit down at my desk, it’s time to write. No excuses.
I also teach creative writing online in the same office, at the same desk, so when I break for lunch, I turn off the lamp and open the drapes back up. That way my workspace looks different during the afternoon teaching time. It’s a good trick.
As for writing process, I’ll say upfront that mine is horribly inefficient. I tend to start with vague story ideas—a character, moment, or scene that interests or haunts me—and write my way into it. It can take dozens of 50- to 100-page drafts and false starts just to figure out what it is exactly I’m even writing about.
I write the majority of my first drafts long hand in spiral notebooks, and they’re very messy and skeletal, full of scribbles and arrows and notes in the margins. I then type my handwritten pages on the computer and clean up as I go. Once I have a somewhat working typed first draft, I go back in and pretty much dismantle it. Rewriting, revising, moving around, cutting, adding. In my current work in progress, I cut 20,000 words and two whole characters at one point. My stories come to life in the revision stages, for sure, so I’ve learned to embrace revising, no matter how many drafts it takes or how messy it gets.
How can you tell when a piece is finished?
Honesty, I can’t. I’m never done. Thank God for deadlines, otherwise I could revise a single story for the rest of my life. If I have some kind of deadline in place, then I have an end point to work towards.
I hate reading any of my published work for that very reason. I still see things I want to edit and change. I have to constantly tell myself that was the best story you could write that day for who you were in that moment, and just let it go.
Who is your favorite author and what draws you to their work?
Twenty years ago, I read a novel called The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, and it stands as the book that made me want to become a writer. I can’t explain why, or what it was about that book in particular, I just loved it. And I’m a crazy huge fan of Jane Hamilton the person. She’s a super cool lady. Smart, funny, and incredibly insightful. I’ve met her a few times at conferences and she’s always so generous and only a tiny bit afraid of me when I have super fan freak outs.
I also love the works of Sherwood Anderson and Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road knocked me sideways and I return to that novel often whenever I’m struggling without something in my own writing.
I have a long list of friends whose writing I really admire, too. At the top would be Donald Quist for his complex and insightful world views, and Mathieu Cailler, who always somehow manages to convey his joy of writing in his writing. Plus, he’s figured out some secret sauce to publishing short stories I’m still trying to get my hands on.
What’s next for you?
I’m hard at work revising my fourth novel, which partly involves the real-life abductions of Des Moines paperboys Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin in the 1980’s. As soon as it’s finished I’ll turn it over to my agent. She also represents my third novel, The Cure for Hopeless Causes, which is currently out on submission with editors. Eek.
I’ve also been chipping away at a short story collection for several years and have vowed to finish it once and for all within the next year because I’m sick of looking at it.
And finally, I teach fiction and nonfiction workshops for the Lindenwood University MFA in writing program, and craft workshops for various writing conferences and organizations, like the Iowa Writers’ House.
Where can we find more information about you?
I have a website, www.kalivanbaale.com, I’m on Facebook as Kali VanBaale Author, on Twitter @kalivanbaale, and Instagram @kaliprocrastinating.
And that’s exactly what I’m doing whenever I’m on social media: procrastinating.