Ali Berg is the Creative Director and Co-founder of Hedgehog Agency, Melbourne, and Michelle Kalus is a primary school teacher. Together, they co-founded Books on the Rail, an awesome reading initiative where members set books loose on public transport to be taken, read, shared, and (of course) enjoyed. They also wrote The Book Ninja, published in 2018, and their second book, While You Were Reading, is out now.
We asked Ali and Michelle a couple of questions about the new book, how Books on the Rail inspires them, and what’s up next for this dynamic duo – read on!
Tell us about your new book, While You Were Reading!
A&M: While You Were Reading is about a young woman who gets swept up in one hell of a love quadrangle! And one of the pieces in this puzzle is a Mystery Writer – the annotator of a book found discarded in a secondhand bookstore. During the early brainstorming of While You Were Reading, we loved the mystery and romance inherent in falling in love with somebody’s mind. Of being intoxicated by their deepest thoughts. As the blurb for our book reads, we also wanted to write a love story for book lovers that celebrated much more than romance! It’s quirky, modern, bookish, and draws together all the different relationships one has. Friends, family, work wives, fictional loves, baristas! We hoped to create a relatable picture of the many bonds needed to create a full life, and how these relationships ebb and flow.
This is the second novel that you’ve written together. What was it like co-authoring a book the second time around, compared to the first?
A&M: The second time around was in some ways a lot smoother, but in other ways, a lot more pressure! While writing our first book, we thought that only our mums would read it. Then, once it was published, we realised that quite a lot of other people in the world were actually reading our words! Plus, Frankie Rose, the main character in our first book, The Book Ninja, is an author. She has written two books. Her first? A best-selling novel. Her second? A major flop! So we were a little worried we had written our fate.
But, on the other hand, our writing has become a lot more seamless since writing our first book. Originally, with The Book Ninja, we started writing piano style, sitting side-by-side while we jotted down every word. Now, we write separately, splitting up the chapters between us, which is a lot more efficient. We’re practically the same person now, and can tell what the other person is going to write before it’s even written! So it was a lot faster to get this second book out of our heads and onto paper.
If you could each give While You Were Reading a theme song, what would it be?
A: Great question! ‘My Own Mystery’ by Melbourne singer LANKS, which I actually listened to quite a bit while writing. The whole book is about a mystery, finding out who the person behind the scribbles is, and also who Bea really is as a person. Plus, LANKS wrote the song about a long distance relationship and the struggles it comes with, and Bea feels similar things throughout a lot of the book.
M: ‘All You Need is Love’ by The Beatles. Because it’s such a happy song, about one thing, love! That’s exactly what our book is. It’s Uplit, happiness in a time when we need it most. It’s about the love of books, friends, family and of course, soulmates.
What do you hope readers will discover in While You Were Reading?
A&M: That our romcom doesn’t just celebrate love between two people. It explores 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’re also the masterminds behind the Books on the Rail movement. Could you tell us a little about that and how it inspired you to begin writing?
A&M: 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.
Our first book, The Book Ninja, was inspired by this movement. It’s about a woman who drops books on public transport to try and find a man. It was an idea we have had ever since we saw people making friends on social media through the books that they dropped, and then saw someone else find. While You Were Reading is also inspired by this movement. It’s about how one book can change your life, which we see happen all the time through Books on the Rail!
Are there any amazing stories of people who have discovered a life-changing book through Books on the Rail that have stuck with you?
A&M: Yes! So many. One of our favourites is someone who contacted us to tell us that their boyfriend had gone travelling for a long time as part of a tour for his band, leaving her in Melbourne. She discovered a copy of Pachinko on the rails, and although she would never usually read historical fiction, decided to pick it up. She became obsessed. She read it all in a few days, and then decided to indulge in every historical fiction she could get her hands on, which made it easier for her while her boyfriend was out of town! We love introducing people to new genres, or just to books in general.
Scary question time: what is your favourite book and why?
A&M: Now this is a hard one – it’s like asking to choose your favourite child! But, if we had to say one book that has been truly life changing, that lingered in our mind long after finishing it, and spelled a good one to two year book hangover, it would have to be The Bronze Horseman trilogy by Paullina Simons (okay, you got us, that’s technically three books!). This book is romantic, intense, and catastrophically beautiful. If you love love and you love historical fiction, then this is the book for you. Plus, it’s the first book we dropped on public transport as part of Books on the Rail, before Books on the Rail was even a thing! So, it’s very special to us.
Which books do you have on your TBR pile right now?
Do you have any unusual writing and/or reading habits?
A: Yes! Michelle likes to sniff books and usually includes the smell in the review she gives me.
M: And Ali listens to really loud classical music while writing. Something I only discovered recently!
And finally, what’s up next for you two?
A&M: 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 romcom, 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.
Thank you Ali and Mich!
While You Were Reading
Meet Beatrix Babbage – 29-year-old dog-earer of books and accidental destroyer of weddings. After ruining her best friend's nuptials, Bea relocates to the other side of the country in search of a fresh start, including meeting new people, living life to the fullest and finally pulling off balayage. But after a few months, life is more stagnant than ever. Bea’s job is dead-end. Her romantic life? Non-existent. And her only friends are her books, her barista and her cleaning lady.
Then Bea stumbles across a second-hand novel, inscribed with notes. Besotted with the poetic inscriptions, Bea is determined to find the author ... and along the way, she finds herself entangled in one hell of a love quadrangle...