The Paris Library: A Novel
by Janet Skeslien Charles
(Atria Books, 9 February 2021)
Award-winning author of Moonlight in Odessa (Bloomsbury USA, 1 September 2009), Janet Skeslien Charles’s latest novel is set in World World II and tells the true tale of the courageous librarians who defied the Nazis in order to hand-deliver books to Jewish readers.
The Paris Library: A Novel was an instant New York Times, Washington Post, and USA TODAY bestseller. It has been published in 35 languages.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Skeslien Charles, we are pleased to welcome you to Authorlink and to chat with you about your recent book, the instant New York Times best-seller, The Paris Library.
To summarize your history, we understand you grew up in Montana, not far from Glacier National Park, and studied at the University of Montana, where you minored in French and Russian and majored in English. For most of your career, you have taught English and Creative Writing. From 1999 you moved to Paris where you first volunteered and then became a member of the American Library in Paris offering writing workshops to teens, which later led you to become the programs manager. You had the privilege of inviting speakers – novelists, journalists, art historians – to speak every Wednesday.
What and who inspired you to reach out from rural Montana to become a full-blown Parisian and to work eventually in a library?
SKESLIEN CHARLES: I grew up in a small town on the plains of Montana, just thirty minutes from the Canadian border. One of my neighbors was a war bride from Rouen, France. I thought that she was incredibly brave to leave her family, friends, and country in order to marry a man she didn’t know very well. Because of my time with her, I wanted to learn French.
“From these weekly treks, I understood that books were just as nourishing as food.”
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. It is thanks to them that I understood the power and pleasure of libraries.
I went to France “for a year” and did not intend to stay. I kept renewing my work contract and eventually married my husband, who I met on my first day in Paris.
AUTHORLINK: We thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Library, which is a novel of historical fiction that incorporates your created characters — a young Parisian woman, Odile in the 1940s who loves books and becomes a war bride, and an American girl, Lily in the 1980s who becomes captivated by her elderly French neighbor — with the earlier patrons and actual leaders of the American Library in Paris. These are the heroic yet unassuming American-born director Dorothy Reeder, Senior Librarian Boris Netchaeff, and Clara de Chambrun, to name a few.
You first became interested in the true story of these and other people who stood up to the “Book Protector,” who defied the Nazis to smuggle hundreds of books to Jewish readers and send thousands more to Allied soldiers and prisoners of war. We understand you discovered Ms. Reeder’s 15-page report marked ‘Confidential’ (held at the American Library Association archives outside Chicago) and drew inspiration for this. https://www.jskesliencharles.com/behind-the-book. Is that correct?
Tell us about the trajectory of your passion for this subject. What inspired you to create a story around her and her loyal supporters?
SKESLIEN CHARLES: Yes, it is. Thank you for your kind words! I got chills when I read Dorothy Reeder’s report and hoped that book lovers would feel the same when they read my novel. I’m not sure that I would call Miss Reeder ‘unassuming.’ She was intelligent, dynamic, diplomatic, beautiful, and well-read. She inspired enthusiasm and loyalty in everyone she met.
In writing this book, I wanted everyone to know the name, Dorothy Reeder. She was incredibly brave and devoted to books and people. The ambassador advised Americans to leave France, but she remained at her post because of her belief in books as bridges.
AUTHORLINK: We understand you have met the descendants of the real-life characters featured in The Paris Library and learned more details about their family members. Tell us about this. How did those first meetings go? What do they think of The Paris Library?
SKESLIEN CHARLES: I was very lucky to meet Boris Netchaeff’s children, Helene and Oleg. While listening to them speak about their father, I was struck by the fact that they seemed to discussing two completely different men because each had their own view of their father. Oleg kindly read an early 400-page draft and said that I had captured the spirit of his father and the atmosphere of the Library. It is the most important book review that I have received.
AUTHORLINK: You are also the award-winning author of your first novel, Moonlight in Odessa (Bloomsbury USA, 1 September 2009), voted one of Publisher’s Weekly top 10 fiction debuts of Fall 2009 and published in 10 languages.
Are there dominant themes in your writing to which you feel you keep returning? If so, what are they? Why do you think that is?
“At heart, I am interested in journeys and the ways that we must reinvent ourselves…”
SKESLIEN CHARLES: Both books were born of traveling and living abroad. At heart, I am interested in journeys and the ways that we must reinvent ourselves through changes in circumstances, whether it is a new job, getting fired, marriage, divorce, retirement, having children, or travel. As a foreigner, first in Ukraine and now in France, I have been an outsider. Though this makes daily life difficult, being an outsider is good when you are a novelist because you observe people and have distance from situations.
I am very interested in language. I come from Montana, a place where many people have trouble expressing their feelings. There are a lot of silences.
AUTHORLINK: We understand it took you ten years to write The Paris Library. How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it?
Are there any characters or scenes lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
“I cut about forty pages of this story, including a favorite chapter…”
SKESLIEN CHARLES: At first, the manuscript was called The War Bride, and it featured Odile’s early years in Montana. I cut about forty pages of this story, including a favorite chapter – one from her husband Buck’s point of view. This section of the book was deleted before I even found my agent. I realized that the focus needed to be more on the Library. Usually, cuts are painful to make, but cutting the entire section was not too painful because I knew that the change served the story.
AUTHORLINK: We read that your first editor and agent passed on The Paris Library, so you had to start over with a new agent. Was that an expected disappointment? What was the reason? Was it too different from Moonlight in Odessa?
“I think editors and agents really have to love a story.”
SKESLIEN CHARLES: It was painful because I really believed in the story. What was the reason? I think editors and agents really have to love a story. It takes so much energy to bring a book out. They have to focus on the work that they love and believe in.
AUTHORLINK: And to continue with the above question, in fact, we note you queried 75 agents, sending out 5-10 emails at a time, taking several years to find a new one.
How did you convince your new agent to represent you? What made you and your current agent decide you were the right fit for one another?
“I worked with my writing group to craft a strong query and I personalized every letter…”
SKESLIEN CHARLES: My agent Heather Jackson is wonderful. What I liked about her from the start is her kindness and the way she corresponded in emails. She made a strong first impression and continues to impress me every day with her insight and enthusiasm.
I worked with my writing group to craft a strong query and I personalized every letter that I sent out. I think that the query spoke to Heather.
AUTHORLINK: In the meantime, tell us about your writing ritual in those ten years of writing The Paris Library. How did it fit into your work and leisure time?
What were your routines? Do you have a favorite place to write?
SKESLIEN CHARLES: I live in a noisy apartment building, so I like to get up early in the morning before my neighbors and write while my mind is fresh. I wrote and researched while teaching at an engineering school. I enjoyed working with the bright, creative students. I worked six or seven days a week, but I enjoy teaching, writing, and research. During this time, I became an obsessive googler. Every day, more archives are available online, so it is worth looking every few days for new photos and documents. In my free time, I love to read, and I enjoyed reading biographies of women who had lived during the Occupation. I am amazed by their courage.
Mainly, when I’m in Paris, I write at home. (I used to love to write in cafes, but now most have built-in speakers throughout, and it’s impossible to find a quiet spot to reflect and write.)
In Shelby, Montana, I love going to the Prairie Peddler, a café/bookshop that serves the best coffee.
AUTHORLINK: During those ten years of writing The Paris Library, what kind of roadblocks would you say you had in your writing or motivation? Did you ever feel like it would never happen? Did you ever want to give up? How many drafts had you written before you were ready to pitch it to a new agent?
“I tried to have five queries out at a time so that no one rejection felt fatal.”
SKESLIEN CHARLES: I felt very lucky to have a great group of writer friends who could understand the ups and downs of writing. I tried to have five queries out at a time so that no one rejection felt fatal. Teaching during the submission process was a lifesaver because I was too busy helping my students to become obsessed by checking my phone for possible responses to queries.
On my desk, I kept a photo of Dorothy Reeder, the director of the American Library in Paris during World War II. She kept me motivated. I also kept cards from family members and was inspired by their encouragement.
I wrote several drafts before showing the book to agents. Rejection was the main roadblock that I faced, but everyone faces rejection, whether they are looking for a job or going on a date. I never wanted to give up.
AUTHORLINK: Describe to us the way you found out your book was going to be published. What made you land a publishing deal? Did you have to go through many edits even after the sale to a publisher?
“The book went to auction right away, and I spoke with eleven editors.”
“The book needed a lot of work. The middle was a complete swamp.”
SKESLIEN CHARLES: The book went to auction right away, and I spoke with eleven editors. I learned at the end of a busy day of teaching.
I did go through a lot of edits. The book needed a lot of work. The middle was a complete swamp. I couldn’t tell you when the pace slowed to the point you felt like you were sinking in quicksand or when the pace picked up. I couldn’t fix it on my own. Luckily, my editor Trish Todd made suggestions that improved the pacing and heightened the tension. When she acquired the book, the word count was 120,000, the same as my first book. After the edits, the middle section was tightened and the word count was about 100,000.
AUTHORLINK: You once said, “I remember when people were talking about the (declining) relevance of libraries during the internet age. But I can’t think of any institution or people who have adapted more than libraries and librarians.” (The Columbus Dispatch, 20 February 2021). Would you kindly elaborate on this comment?
SKESLIEN CHARLES: I love that libraries serve patrons in many different ways. I read about a young man who had a job interview and needed a tie, so he checked one out from the library. The Toy Library in Minneapolis reduces waste, encourages sharing, and fosters community. According to their website, “in 2015, the average US family spent $485 on toys? Most of which will end up in landfills.” Libraries today are about books, conversations, community, sources of news you can trust, and librarians who help fill out job applications as well as teach Adulting 101 classes on everything from balancing a budget to sewing on a button. Each library is unique and serves the needs of its community.
AUTHORLINK: Most people mentioned in history books are men. We are so pleased you helped the world know a bit more about Dorothy Reeder’s courage, passion for the library, and belief in books as bridges.
Is there any other woman in history about whom you would like to write?
What are you currently working on now?
SKESLIEN CHARLES: Yes, it is important to write about women’s contributions. I am currently reading a book about World War I. It states that more than 15,000 women were with the American Expeditionary Forces and organizations such as the Red Cross and that 129 American nurses were killed during the war. Yet the author dedicates only four pages of 778 to women. I would love to write about these amazing women.
AUTHORLINK: And just for some lighthearted Proust-type questions to finish off…
- Do you have any books that you return to and reread out of comfort? Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
- In a work of literature, what moves you the most? Like a lot of writers, I deconstruct as I read, to try to understand the mechanics of piece. I love it when I’m so moved by a story or character that I simply read for pleasure.
- What is one of your favorite books you have ever received as a gift? My Uncle Robert gave me Proust for my high school graduation. He also gave me a subscription to Interview magazine as a teen. It was a monthly reminder that there were all kinds of people and worlds out there.
- Say you are organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, would you invite? I haven’t seen friends from my writing group in a long time. We are spread around the globe from Australia to Austin to New Jersey to Paris. I’d love to catch up with them in real life.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Skeslien Charles, it was an absolute pleasure chatting to you today about The Paris Library. We look forward to reading your subsequent work and wish you continued success with your remarkable and beautifully written book.
SKESLIEN CHARLES: Thank you for taking the time to interview me today and for your warm wishes!
About the Author:
Janet Skeslien Charles is originally from Montana and loved languages from an early age. As a child, she lived on the same street as a war bride and enjoying learning French phrases. Janet grew up during the Cold War in the 1980s and was interested in peeking behind the Iron Curtain. After teaching English in Ukraine for two years, she wrote Moonlight in Odessa, a book about the booming business of email-order brides. It was published in 10 languages. Her shorter work has appeared in revues such as the Sydney Morning Herald, LitHub, and Montana Noir.
After Odessa, Janet moved to Paris. She first became interested in the incredible true story of the librarians who stood up to the Nazi ‘Library Protector’ when she worked as the programs manager at the American Library in Paris. Her novel The Paris Library is a New York Times bestseller and has been published in 35 languages.Get your manuscript in front of interested agents and publishers. List your query on Authorlink® Rights for Sale/Publishers Market