Monday, September 6, 2010

Mondays With Mike: Kali VanBaale & the Modern Dickens Project

MY INTERVIEW THIS week is with my friend Kali VanBaale. Kali’s first novel, The Space Between, was a 2007 American Book Award winner and was published by River City Publishing in 2006. It deals with a subject we too often read about, school violence. The book follows the mother of a high school student who has killed several of his friends and then himself. It is an interesting look at a painful situation and it is done with class and an empathic touch and should be recommended to anyone involved in any way with school violence and bulling. Kali is also involved with the Modern Dickens Project, a kind of All Iowa Murder Mystery, which we want to talk about, too.

Mike: Welcome, Kali. Before we get to the Dickens Project, tell us a little about The Space Between. It involves a topic that you were never directly exposed to, so how did it come about and what was the reaction to the book?

Kali: My first seed idea for this story came to me two years after the Columbine tragedy. I was six months pregnant when the shootings occurred so it was a very scary, confusing time to be bringing a child into the world. On the second anniversary, I was watching the news and old footage of that April day and my thoughts kept coming back to the mothers of the shooters, how they would ever begin to put their lives back together. I kept wondering if they rushed to the school like all the other parents—worried, terrified and trying to find their children, oblivious to what had really happened. The image of a woman then came to me, standing in front of a row of buses as they unloaded, searching for her son in the crowd like so many other mothers, only to discover in the same second that not only was he dead, but he was the gunman. My driving force from that point on was uncovering what would happen to this woman and her family.

M: Have you heard from anyone who was actually involved with a school shooter?

K: Only once. Several years ago I spoke at a book club and met two sisters who were present during a Des Moines-area school shooting back in the late‘80’s. They still spoke of it as if it had just happened that morning.

M: Is The Space Between still available? If so, where can it be purchased?

K: Yep! You can still get it on and Barnes&

M: Besides the Dickens Project, what else are you working on?

K: I’m two chapters away from finishing the first draft of my third book. Can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel! I also periodically work on revisions on my second book with my agent, who has been tirelessly working to find it a publisher.

M: Okay, The Modern Dickens Project. What the heck is it?

K: Good question. The Modern Dickens Project is a serial novel designed to feature untold Iowa stories by undiscovered Iowa authors. The novel itself is being written by a series of one-chapter contests held for 12 consecutive months.

M: Why "Modern Dickens"?

K: Another excellent question! Imagined by Van Meter native and Des Moines businessman Chris Draper, the project is named after Victorian author Charles Dickens (you may have heard of him!), whose classic novels OLIVER TWIST and A TALE OF TWO CITIES were first published in installments and incorporated the social issues of the time in entertaining, fiction form.

M: How does a "serial novel contest" work?

K: At midnight on September. 1, 2010, an opening chapter, written by our guest Iowa author John Domini, will be posted on The Modern Dickens Project website. Any writer who is an Iowa resident or has a strong connection to or interest in Iowa, is then challenged to continue the current story. Participants have until midnight of Oct. 21 to write and submit a chapter draft that builds on the previous chapter. (The Editorial Board is allowing extra time for the first contest.)

A winner will be selected and notified on November 1st, and they will receive a $100 honorarium and an author spotlight on the MDP website. A lightly edited version of their winning chapter will be posted to the website on midnight of the same day and the contest will open again for Chapter 3, (with the standard 21 days to write and submit for the remainder of the contest) and so on and so forth, chapter by chapter, month by month, for twelve months, resulting in a collective thirteen chapter novel.

There is no entry fee. I repeat, NO ENTRY FEE. We wanted this contest to be open to anyone with a vested interest in our state, without financial limitations or constraints.

After the yearlong project concludes, the Modern Dickens editors will work with the winner of each chapter to polish the pieces, with a release date for the completed novel December 2011. The team is currently working with several interested local publishers and also plans to release it first as an e-book.

M: How did The Modern Dickens Project come about?

K: It's an interesting story, actually. As I mentioned earlier, the MDP is the true brainchild of creator Chris Draper. A writer friend and I, who were conducting a publishing seminar together, were contacted by Chris after he saw our flier in a local coffee shop. He was still in the early stages of the MDP at that point, and had the basic website, some donated funds, etc., but as a businessman and engineer, was looking to bring in area authors for more ideas and connections to the writing community. We met several times to hammer out the basics of the project at first, then started developing more specifics. I brought in two members of our editorial panel and Chris later added a third. I obtained an Iowa Arts Council mini-grant to help fund the remainder of the website construction, while Chris worked to get the MDP a nonprofit status and other financial resources. With the editorial board in place, we immediately focused on finding a "guest author," an established writer with a great reputation who would pen the all-important opening chapter, the chapter that would set the tone, style, location and characters. Years ago I was profiled in a Des Moines Art Scene publication with another Des Moines author named John Domini, as our books were published in the same month and carried similar themes. On a long shot, I emailed him an outline of our wacky idea, told him what we were looking for, and held my breath. Lo and behold, he said yes! Turns out John isn't afraid to take a chance and embrace the wacky.

Chris's real end goal of this project, though, is to eliminate the need for anyone to ask the question, "Why Iowa?" He believes that our product is our community's ability to pull together, and his hope is for us to be one of those projects that embraces a re-looking at how we think of things. And I speak from experience here, the man's enthusiasm and vision is contagious.

M: Who makes up the "Editorial Board"?

K: Our board is comprised of a very lovely and brilliant group of ladies who bring a wide-range of experiences and taste to the judging table. (And they work for free! But that's not why I called them lovely). First, we have Rachel Vogel, a recent Drake University grad from the journalism/magazines program. She is our Managing Editor and handles our day-to-day correspondences, questions, fires, etc. Tracey Kelley and Murl Pace round out our board, both of whom bring extensive editing and fiction writing backgrounds to the table when selecting a winning submission each month. Chris will also read submissions and give input throughout the process, and the five of us have worked collectively on our aggressive project timeline, marketing, promotion and other odds and ends. I serve as Editorial Advisor and do most of my work leading up to the open of the contest.

M: So what's the opening chapter like?

K: It's all-Iowa flavored whodunit with a mix of current social issues tailored to our state. The story opens in the Iowa State Capitol where a young female Iraq war veteran receives a death threat via text message. She's in town for a controversial gay wedding of an acquaintance, and carries more than her share of baggage from her past. Right on the heels of the threat, she's pulled into a murder in the East Village area. Where it goes from there is up to you undiscovered writers out there!

As John Domini so perfectly said: "This is a mystery, but it's not just a mystery. One hopes it's somehow funny and a discovery on a level other than whodunit. The good mysteries all have that."

John's opening chapter and complete submission guidelines can be found at Or email Rachel Vogel, Managing Editor, at

M: Can somebody from out of state join the fun?

K: Absolutely! We only ask that writers have a genuine interest in writing about our great state of Iowa.

M: If somebody wants more information on you or your writing, how can they contact you?

K: Shoot me an email! or go to my website:

M:Thank you, Kali.

K: And thank you, dear friend!

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