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Author Q&A with Janet Skeslien Charles

Can you tell us a bit about your book, The Paris Library? 

The 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.

Where did you find inspiration for your book?

I first learned about the story when I worked at the American Library in Paris. I began obsessively googling Dorothy Reeder, the directress of the Library, and found her 15-page report marked ‘Confidential.’ Her words gave me chills. I wanted to write her story. In the 1940, she worked as a librarian on three continents – in France, the U.S., and Colombia. She is amazing!

What does an average writing day look like for you?

I like to get an early start and write in the morning. When I first started writing novels, I journaled a bit before moving into my chapters. This allowed me to feel that I was already in my chair with a cup of coffee, so I might as well keep going and write the next scene in my book. The stakes were low and I didn’t feel that I had to be brilliant. I just had to get the words down. I could rearrange them later. I’ve kept to this way of writing. 

In the afternoon, I take care of email, interviews, blurbs I’ve been asked to write, and research. In the evening, I often meet for interviews or with book clubs on Zoom.

When writing, do you use people you know for inspiration?

Yes, but not in the way you might expect. For example, here is a line from the book: We woke to darkness. Mom had always been the one to thrust open the curtains, so I’d wake to a kiss on the forehead and sunlight streaming in. Since the funeral, Dad downed his coffee and I ate cereal in a gloomy fog. It simply did not occur to us to let in the light. “We woke to darkness” came to me because my husband doesn’t open the drapes. We live in Paris, where apartment buildings can be quite close together. Our windows face our neighbors’. I am the one who opens the drapes.

So lines like this come to me from real life, but in completely different contexts.

Do you have a favourite book of all time?

Yes, Bel Canto. I love how Ann Patchett brings together disparate people in a stressful situation and shows us how much we all have in common. I also love her sly sense of humor.  

What do you love most about reading?  

I love how we can slip inside someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Dorothy Reeder said that books are bridges, and I believe that with my whole heart. 

Which writers have inspired you? 

I admire many authors, including Tillie Olsen, Clarice Lispector, Barbara Pym, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Rhys. I am also inspired by the women in my writing group. Their prose is gorgeous and I can’t wait for their novels to be published so you can read their work, too. 

How did you become a published author

For The Paris Library, I queried 75 agents, sending out 5-10 emails at a time. My first editor and agent passed on the book, so I had to start over with a new agent. Finding Heather Jackson took several years, but it was worth the wait. 

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Writing is a pleasure – enjoy creating a world that did not exist before. Work hard to hone your craft.

Working toward publication is a business. Do you best to educate yourself on how to write a strong query. It is brave to send your work out into the world. Give yourself credit for this courage, and don’t let yourself get too down about rejections.

Be a good literary citizen. Attend other writers’ readings, buy books from your indie bookseller, and if you love a book, tell your friends and family about it. Then when it is your turn to publish a book, you will have created a network to support your book.

What’s next?

I have been thinking about this story for over ten years. I’m excited that it is finally out in the world and that I can talk about the amazing librarians with book lovers at events at bookshops and libraries and through book clubs on Zoom.