A strange thing happens when avid reader and personal trainer Coral Ambrose finishes reading her latest book: she realizes that she has no more room on her shelves to store it. Shortly on the heels of this realization comes another – she needs to get rid of some books… but how to decide? How can she bear to part with any of them? A visit to a strange bookseller helps her gain clarity to her problem, when the loan of what appears to be a plain messenger bag allows her to literally appear in the pages of whatever book she puts into the bag. While this appears at first to be great fun and a great escape, each novel takes Coral deeper into her own quirks and foibles, back into the murkiness of her past where darkness and dragons lurk, and she rediscovers a secret she didn’t know she’d kept.
Don’t let the self-published appearance of The Novel Life of Coral Ambrose by Bonnie Ballou drive you away – this high-quality novel is insightful, entertaining, poignant, and outright hilarious, especially for those readers who, like Coral, took the school librarian’s admonishments to always treat books with respect a bit too seriously. This book is best summed up as just good fun. Coral is a likable heroine and her real life and fantasy life reflect one another in surprising but also rational ways. One genre spills seamlessly into another in this literary romp, as Coral’s real life struggles become mirrored in her literary life, and as she works to understand her books, her history, and herself. The ending is satisfying and it’s the kind of book that makes you feel as though you’ve been somewhere, feeling equally good to be back once you’ve completed the experience. It’s an ode to a lifelong love of books and will surely be appreciated by true book lovers and those who love authors playing with genres.
Interview with Bonnie Ballou
Q. Do you wish that you had a bag like Coral’s?
A. Yes, but I’m concerned about how addictive it would be. I’m the sort of person who has a hard time stopping a video game once I start. I can only imagine what I’d do with the messenger bag.
Q. If you had to choose just one book to visit, what would it be?
A. Let me get back to you in about a year when I’ve had time to think through all the books I’ve read and loved.
Q. What made you decide to make the bag man-made rather than magical in origin? Did it originate as a therapy tool or did that emerge from the writing?
A. This is a great question and you’re the first person who asked it. There was about a six month period when I walked for miles and miles going, “Magic? Or science? Magic? Or science?” I landed on science because once I opened the door to magic I would really have needed to invent some sort of fully fleshed out system of magic. Like where it comes from and who can do it and whether it’s for good or evil or both. I felt like that would pull focus from the plot of the book, which is complicated enough as it is. The use of the bag was an idea that emerged fairly early.
Q. How long did it take to write The Novel Life of Coral Ambrose? Where did the original idea come from?
A. Five or six years ago I started writing a different book – sci-fi. It had a plot, there were characters I loved, and I had written perhaps 75 percent of it, but didn’t feel happy with my narrative voice. So I sent myself back to writing school using authors who were well-loved and successful as the instructors, meaning I reread and analyzed what popular writers have been doing, and wrote little stories trying to sound as much like them as possible. This was really fun. But then I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could put a lot of story fragments told in completely different narrative voices together into one cohesive plot? That was almost three years ago.
Q. Coral owns quite a few books, is your own shelf stocked with as many as her shelf?
A. Not anymore. I used to keep them all. And my husband keeps all of his – he reads as much as I do and our tastes don’t overlap much. That’s a lot of books piling up over the course of a marriage. Now when I finish a book I decide right away if I’m likely to ever want to read it again, and if not, is there someone I know who would like to have it, and if not, it goes to charity. My husband’s books are still piling up which is the cause for exasperated looks and fits of reorganization around our house.
Q. Your book has been called “a madcap literary fantasy,” but also mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction epic, western, etc. Was it difficult to write a book that spans so many genres or exhilarating, or did the story naturally lend itself to that?
A. That was the most fun part. The least fun part has been trying to tell people what the book is about, or even what genre it is. It makes marketing difficult.
Q. What is the one thing you most hope your readers will come away with after reading your story.
A. The heavy answer is that sometimes as adults we need to revisit the decisions we made as children that continue to control our lives now. The light answer is that there is a whole world of books of all different genres out there and people who think they only like one or two of them ought to loosen up a little.