Saturday, August 15, 2020

Kali White

Kali White VanBaale is the author of the novels The Monsters We Make, The Good Divide, and The Space Between. She's the recipient of an American Book Award, an Independent Publisher’s silver medal for general fiction, the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award, the Eric Hoffer Book Award for General Fiction, an Iowa Arts Council major artist grant, and the Great River Writer’s Retreat. She's also writes and publishes short stories, essays, and articles, and serves as the managing editor of the micro-essay journal The Past Ten.

Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's a core faculty member in the Lindenwood University MFA in Writing Program and regularly teaches writing workshops at various conferences and festivals. In addition to writing and teaching, Kali is an advocate and state lobbyist for mental healthcare reform.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I typically go through multiple titles before landing on the one that finally feels right, and this book was no different. I think I went through four working titles in all.

The novel premise is based on the idea of one crime exposing another. The story begins with two missing paperboys two years apart in the early 1980s, but the cases themselves are just the center tentpole the main plot is built around. They set in motion a chain of events for my fictional characters who live in the same neighborhood as one of the missing boys—twelve-year-old Sammy Cox, who also has a neighborhood paper route and is keeping a terrible secret, his eighteen-year-old sister, Crystal, who dreams of going to college to become a serious journalist and is desperate to win a major writing scholarship to pay for school, and Sergeant Dale Goodkind, who has been assigned to both missing paperboy cases and has a complicated past of his own clouding his professional judgement.

The title then comes from the idea that by dehumanizing criminals as “monsters,” we can blind ourselves to perpetrators who are just average, everyday people. It also eventually becomes, by the end of the story, the title of Crystal’s essay she submits for the scholarship application.

What’s in a name?

Since the story is set in 1984, I gave the younger characters popular 80s names. As a Gen X kid I went to school with so many “Crystals,” and I ended up with “Sammy,” which is a form of the Hebrew name “Samuel” meaning “God has heard,” because it felt so relevant to Sammy’s character carrying a devastating secret. Their mother is named Tina, a popular name in the 1950s when she was born, because I’ve known so many hardscrabble single mothers named “Tina” in my lifetime.

As for Dale Goodkind, I one day stumbled upon a story by a writer named Terry Goodkind and just loved the last name and all the ways I could play around with different meanings and metaphors. Eventually, his last name became a critical plot point in the story.

I spend a great deal of time deciding on character names and often go through several before I settle on the one that finally feels right for that particular character (much like titles.) I’m careful to use names appropriate to the era the story is set and when the character was born, and that are common to the region the characters live. I’ve always loved meanings and origins of names, likely because of my own first name with the Hindu spelling “Kali,” the goddess of energy and destruction (which I’ve been teased about most of my life.)

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I think young Kali would be very surprised by what adult Kali writes. As a teen, I mostly read Danielle Steel and Harlequin romance novels with a few Stephen King books in the mix. Apparently, I preferred either hardcore romance or hardcore horror, and not much in between. I don’t ever remember reading any true crime or mystery/suspense novels until well into adulthood. I didn’t become interested in that genre until after I finished my MFA and started reading a lot of Midwestern Gothic stories, and then really got into true crime stories and documentaries. My tastes definitely evolved into grittier, darker stories.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or ending? Which do you change more?

Beginnings, for sure! That first blank page is so intimidating. I also have to write my way into a story to a certain degree, before I start to understand what the story really wants to be about, which means I usually have multiple false starts. I probably re-wrote the beginning of Monsters five or six times. Endings come so much easier. I always have some idea of what the ending will be before I even start writing and pretty much write my way toward it for three hundred pages.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think there’s some piece of myself, to varying degrees, in at least one character of every story I write. In Monsters, the character of Crystal Cox is a strong reflection of my younger self in how she so badly feels the need to prove herself to the world and feels like an underdog in everything she does, but also that she wants to do right by the world and make her mark. I vividly remember feeling, as a teen, that I was often underestimated because of my humble background or whatever, but it only made me fight harder to prove everyone wrong. In that way, Crystal ended up becoming a fictional version of my young self.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Shortly after I started writing the first draft of Monsters, the movie Spotlight was released and it was hugely inspirational for my writing. At that time, I was still figuring out the character of Crystal, who I regarded as the moral center of the story, but who was still lacking some definition in my early drafts. But once I saw Spotlight, I suddenly knew who she was. She was a truth seeker. She wanted answers, no matter how difficult they would be to uncover.

I also frequently listened to the Spotlight soundtrack because the music itself was inspiring with its feeling of heavy urgency. I listened to different soundtracks that felt representative of each character: Crystal’s was the Spotlight soundtrack, Sammy’s was the Doubt soundtrack, and Dale’s was the Fargo movie soundtrack among others. Before I start writing a book, I always put together a long playlist that becomes the “sound” of the story in my head. It actually tricks my brain into getting down to work each day just by hearing the music that I associate with the character or story.

And honestly, writers need all the tricks they get.
Visit Kali White's website.

--Marshal Zeringue