Janet, could you please tell us briefly a little about yourself and your writing? How would you like us to introduce you?
I’m the author of The Paris Library, which takes place in Paris and Montana. I’m originally from Montana, where my parents were wheat farmers, and grew up in a small town of 2,000 people. I was always a writer, even as a teen, I kept a journal.
When I was a child, my mother drove my grandmother, who never learned to drive, to the grocery store and to the library. From these weekly treks, I understood that books were just as nourishing as food. My mother and grandmother introduced me to books, and my mother is in every word that I write.
Growing up, I was fascinated by my neighbor, a war bride from Normandy. She made me want to learn French. Even as a child, I understood she was incredibly brave to leave behind her friends, family, and language for a new life with a G.I. she didn’t know very well.
I’m an American in France, and before that I worked in Ukraine. My first novel, Moonlight in Odessa is about an email-order bride. In both of my books, I write about starting over, and about the way place shapes us. I write about my own struggles to learn new languages and customs. I want readers to know that they are not alone.
Where can people find your work? (Besides Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester–though they should totally check here first!)
At all independent bookstores as well as online.
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
I love to connect!
My twitter handle is @skesliencharles
My Instagram handle is @jskesliencharles
My FB author page is Janet Skeslien Charles
You can find a photos and short biographies of the real-life librarians; a time line of the war and a parallel timeline of what was happening at the library; Dorothy Reeder’s report about life during the Occupation; and book club guide with recipes and music at jskeslien.com.
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you write? What can readers expect from The Paris Library?
In short, it’s World War II. Paris is occupied. There’s a war on words. It’s Nazis vs. American librarians, and the librarians win.
At length, I am interested in journeys and the ways that we must reinvent ourselves through changes in circumstances, whether it is a difficult situation, marriage, divorce, retirement, having children, or travel. As a foreigner, I am always an outsider. Though this makes daily life difficult, being an outsider is good when you are novelist because you observe people and have distance from situations.
While working at the American Library in Paris, I learned about the history of the librarians during World War II. I knew it was a novel and sat down to write it. I wanted the world to know about the directress Dorothy Reeder and her belief in books as bridges. I hope that readers will fall in love with the world of the library and ask themselves what they might do in the place of the real-life characters.
What kind of research went into writing The Paris Library? What is your favorite research story? What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the book, but you loved discovering?
My greatest discovery was the life of Dorothy Reeder. I knew that she was incredibly brave. She stayed at the helm of the Library when the Ambassador advised Americans to leave France. In researching the book, I learned that after she left Paris, she raised funds and awareness for the Red Cross in Florida and that she trained librarians at the national library in Bogotá, Colombia. She then returned to Europe with the Red Cross. In the 1940’s, she worked on three continents!
I became an obsessive Googler, which paid off because each day archivists and librarians add to online archives. I was able to find photos, letters, and documents from all over the world, from Boise, Idaho, to Bogotá, Colombia. I tracked down people via White Pages, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I read dozens of memoirs of women who lived through the war, from journalists to an American wife of a French soldier to a Parisian madam who entertained German troops. Each had their own point of view. I read several books on World War II and several years’ worth of Library Journal to learn the concerns of librarians during the 1940s. To be honest, it’s hard to stop researching! Over a year after the book came out, I’m still tracking down characters.
What was the inspiration for The Paris Library? What were the steps you took to bring it from initial inspiration to the finished book?
My interests inspired this book, from my war-bride neighbor, to my time at the library, to my love of French, to my appreciation for intergenerational friendships, to the solace taken from reading. I spent years researching and conducting interviews with family members of the real-life characters. Years more writing.
What was the biggest challenge in writing and putting out The Paris Library? How did you overcome that challenge?
The biggest challenge was getting published at all! My first agent and editor rejected the book. I queried 75 agents to find representation over a period of five years. Luckily, I was teaching at that time, and focusing on my students kept my mind off the rejections in my inbox.
What piece of advice would you want to share with other writers? What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned, thus far, in your writing career?
To believe in yourself and your work. It took a decade to write and get The Paris Library published. The book has sold in 36 languages and became a New York Times bestseller. It is important to persist.
Janet, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!