SPR Nov. 19, 2015
Book Jumping with Bonnie Ballou
Tell us something about your book. The basics: what’s it about?
It’s a frequently humorous story about a young woman who experienced trauma in her childhood and is having trouble as she enters adult life, but who finds healing by diving into books — actually entering books. The experience of living inside a spy novel, a thriller, a romance, a Western, and so forth, becomes real. It’s told in the styles of the different genres she enters. Although I use genre tropes as a source of humor the goal is not satire. She only enters books she likes. The story arises from my life-long love of reading.
How did you come to self-publish? Did you try to get published traditionally?
I sent out many agent query letters. Then I paid for a professional rewrite of my query letter and sent out many more. When agents get 200 queries a day and they see a book by a writer with no proven commercial track record whose genre is a mashup of nearly all of them they don’t know what to do with it. There are many different ways to say a polite no, and I think I’ve read them all. But I believed in this book. So self-publishing was the next step.
What self-publishing service did you use? Happy with the service?
I used CreateSpace and KDP and found the process surprisingly easy.
What avenues have you taken to market the book? Have you gotten reviews, interviews, TV, print media coverage?
Many reviews and a few interviews, and a lot of social media. I keep a blog called “Thoughts on a Half Century of Omnivorous Reading” (www.bonnieballou.com). It’s not an author blog nor a book review site but general thoughts from someone who has loved books a long time. I tried a Facebook ad. I also tweet (@bonnie_ballou). If I could figure out a way to get television airtime I’d do it.
What drove you to write this particular book?
This is a question I love to answer. I have a background in theater and writing scripts, and changing the voice is something that comes easily to me. When you’re writing a script you have to make all the people sound like themselves and not like you. When I was writing my first novel, a science fiction, and having trouble with it, I recognized that the problem was not the characters or the plot, it was that I couldn’t get the narrative voice right. So I gave myself an assignment. I studied how well-respected authors who had sold a lot of books wrote, and tried writing short pieces emulating them as closely as possible while still making my own story. Until fairly recently in history this was how all artists learned: they copied the masters until they earned the right to do their own thing. I loved my little Western and my cozy English mystery and the others and thought, wouldn’t it be fun if I could figure out a way to write an entire book stringing all the genres together into one cohesive plot?
So what do you call the genre of this book?
Magical Realism. Coral lives in the normal modern world, but there is one thing – just one thing – that’s outside of this world, which is the messenger bag that takes her into books.
Who are your greatest writing influences?
You know how they had to put a short time limit on Academy Award winners who wanted to thank everyone from their kindergarten teachers through the grips and gaffers? Every book I read, both good and bad, taught me something about writing. From a purely instructional point of view I’ll call out Beat Generation novelist Herbert Gold who taught an honors writing class at the University of California at Davis. I took everything he said to heart. His voice is in my head with everything I write. Most recently I got a motivational kick in the pants from Jim Butcher’s blog (Dresden Files, etc.).I had been working hard on The Novel Life Of Coral Ambrose and came to a point where I no longer knew what I was doing and whether there was any point to it. I was aware that I had essentially no chance of being published traditionally. And I had started doubting if I even knew what a story was. I happened to read the first Dresden Files book and liked it, then I read through the whole series, one book a day, because he has an ability to keep pages turning. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if I could ask him how he does that, and found he had graciously written at length not only about how he does it, but how only you can kill your dreams, on his blog.
What’s your writing regimen? Any tips for keeping focused?
I don’t have a regimen. If you read Stephen King’s On Writing he says he keeps a strict writing schedule. First thing every morning he sits at his desk, which faces a non-distracting wall, and stays there until he has written a certain number of words. Then the rest of his day is free. This is the exact opposite of how my mind works. I get my best writing done when I first wake up in the morning and I’m lying in bed. That’s when I’m willing to let go of bad ideas I was working on and I can free-associate new ones. Most days, frankly, I write nothing, but I’ll mull things over when I’m driving or out for a walk. Then suddenly I’ll have ideas and I’ll work for hours and hours and be resentful of phones that ring and dogs that need to go out and family members who have the audacity to talk to me. If you’re going to take writing advice from someone you should probably take it from the guy who wrote a ton of books and is a household name.
Would you self-publish again?
Any final words of advice for those looking to self-publish?
Be ready to spend money to do it right. Pay for a really good editor. Your friends are not good editors. They may be your first readers and may help in many ways but a professional editor will ruthlessly show you what needs to be improved.Then pay for a really good cover. I made a mistake and thought, I’m pretty artistic, and my sons went to art school, we have this covered. We didn’t. My cover hurt sales and now I’m paying a professional cover designer. I lost momentum thinking we could do this ourselves. On the bright side, a better cover is coming soon!
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.