Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus are the Melbourne-based cofounders of Books on the Rail, an initiative that encourages Aussies to put down the iPhone and pick up a book. Together, Ali and Michelle wrote The Book Ninja, published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster Australia, which has been sold to nine different territories around the world. Ali is also Creative Director and Co-founder of Hedgehog Agency, Melbourne, and Michelle is a primary school teacher. Ali and Michelle’s second book, While You Were Reading, is published in 2019. See more at www.aliandmichelle.com and www.booksontherail.com.
Let’s start with the two of you. You’re best friends (I’ve seen your photo and you actually look more like sisters… perhaps there is a story there) and you write together. The Book Ninja was released last year, and now your latest novel While You Were Reading is out. Can you tell us about the writing process and how two people write one book?
It’s true, we are long lost sisters, separated at birth, only to find each other years later over an emotional and shocking reunion. Just joking! But wouldn’t that be a great story? The truth is, after over two decades of friendship and now a co-writing career, we are slowly morphing into one identical person.
A really important part of our co-writing experience has been creating a detailed and transparent plot map, and then dividing and conquering the chapters from there. The plot map became our bible as it wasn’t unusual for one of us to be writing a chapter that followed a chapter that hadn’t yet been written! The great thing about co-authoring a book is that it continues to be written while the other person sleeps, holidays, plans a wedding or moves houses. Being able to keep larger plot goals in mind allowed us to work efficiently, while still giving us the space to have moments of creative spontaneity.
We then spent a lot of time editing and putting ourselves into each chapter of the story. This was a particularly helpful part of refining our writing earlier on, when our writing styles were quite different. Now, two years on, we seem to have created a new narrative voice that sits somewhere in the middle of our two voices!
Do you ever argue about what goes into a book, and what doesn’t?
Very rarely, but usually only about one particular topic. Sex! Really, the only time we clash is over how ‘explicit’ we should be when it comes to our characters in bed. We’ll let you guess who’s usually team raunchy and who’s team prude! Otherwise, luckily, it’s very smooth and happy sailing between the two of us.
Being alike (not just in appearance) has certainly been an asset for us throughout our writing journey. We have similar senses of humour and aspirations for our characters, and actually find it really helpful to have one another to tell it like it is – when something’s really working, or when no, someone wouldn’t say I love you after half a date.
While You Were Reading is described as “A love story for book lovers that celebrates much more than romance.” Can you tell us more?
It definitely is! It’s quirky, romantic, modern, and celebrates all the different types of relationships one has. Friendships, familial bonds, work wives, and of course the fictional characters which stick with you long after finishing a book. We wanted to paint a picture of how dynamic and ever-changing these relationships are. And the many different bonds needed to create a full life.
You are the founders of Books on the Rail. Tell us about that, and also if you leave your own novels on trains.
In 2016, we launched Books on the Rail in Melbourne after Ali moved back from London where she met Hollie, the Books on the Underground founder. We started by leaving our own books and those purchased from second-hand bookstores on Melbourne trains and trams. The first book we let loose on the rails was The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons – an absolute favourite of ours.
Since then, we have developed a thriving following and now collaborate with publishers and authors, distributing their notable and up-and-coming books. Thanks to our crafty crew of Book Ninjas (we have over 1000 and counting!), Books on the Rail is now Australia wide, with over 7000 books in circulation.
What started as a passion project (and an excuse for the two of us to spend more time with each other) has grown into a book sharing movement driven by passionate book worms and random act of kindness ninjas. We have been so overwhelmed by the response to this movement – it is clear that a love of reading is alive and well in Australia!
Will you continue writing together and if so, what are you working on next?
Yes! We have become extremely codependent in the best possible way. Now that our second book baby is out in the world, we have started to dream about a third story. We have some ideas around another bookish rom com, and also find ourselves being drawn back to our first characters – Frankie and Sunny from The Book Ninja. We would love to revisit their story and see where their journey might take us next.
Who answered these questions? ☺
We co-wrote them of course 🙂