Barbara Stewart’s debut novel, The In-Between, tells the story of fourteen-year-old Elanor “Ellie” Moss, an outcast seeking a new life in a new town. But her dreams of a new beginning are cut short by a family tragedy. After this, Elanor’s encounters Madeline Torus—a confident, attractive, and brave counterpart.
The novel’s opening line, “I was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident,” was one that haunted her for years before she could finally find a story to hang it on. She says that the line was inspired by stories her father told about his own mother.
“Before I was born, my grandmother was in a really bad car accident,” Stewart says. “She was pronounced dead at the scene. Her near death experience and the stories I’d been hearing since I was a kid were really a catalyst for a lot of what Ellie goes through. My father used to tell me that my grandmother before the accident and my grandmother after the accident were two completely different women.”
This inspired her, she says, as she tried to imagine the woman she never knew, the one who existed and thrived before the accident. If that served as some basis for the plot, the book’s unsettling atmosphere—the sense that Ellie both belongs and doesn’t belong where she’s—came from Stewart’s direct experience with having left behind her longtime home in Wichita to return to her native New York state. She’d relocated in part, she says, to spend time with her maternal grandmother. One week before she and her husband left Kansas, that same grandmother died. That, she recalls, coupled with a somewhat unusual living arrangement, heightened her own sense of displacement.
“We were not moving into our own house, we were moving into my in-laws’ camp, where we were planning to stay for an entire year,” she says. “And so when we got up here all of our stuff was put into a garage. And I realized that I’d done a really poor job of marking all of the boxes. I remember just walking through this maze, wondering, ‘Where’s my blow dryer? Where’s this? Where’s that?’ It’s a horrible, unsettling feeling. At the same time I was really angry and sad because my grandmother was one of the reasons I wanted to move closer to home and now she was gone.”
Stewart says that the eerie, hazy atmosphere of the novel had something of an unlikely source—her own bad eyesight. This she said, was something she used to create some of the tension and drama that Ellie experiences throughout the novel.
“I once thought a flock of turkeys was a pack of Rottweilers, so I played around with light and dark and shadows a lot and really tried to capture that unsettling feeling of not trusting your own eyes.”
Stewart studied creative writing at Wichita State University at the end of the 1990s, focusing on short stories written for adult audiences. Her decision to write a Young Adult novel was somewhat unexpected but also liberating.
“I always felt like there was a part of me that was censoring myself. I was always trying to flatten out my characters and I was afraid of drama. But one of the things about teenagers is that there is a lot of drama and emotions run crazy high,” she says.
The In-Between has been well reviewed to date with critics calling it “creepy” and “addictive” and hailing Stewart as a bold new voice in Young Adult fiction. She’s already at work on a second novel and the British publication of her first book is just on the horizon.