I love sharing about recent fiction releases, and you’ll remember The Paris Library from my Spring Reading List post last week. Author Janet Skeslien Charles is the of Moonlight in Odessa and The Paris Library which released in February of this year. In this interview Janet gives us an inside look into the inspiration for The Paris Library, some of her favorite memories from her time working at the American Library in Paris, and a few of the locations throughout the City of Light where she feels the most inspired to write.
When did you first come up with the storyline for The Paris Library?
I became intrigued when my colleagues talked about the incredible librarians who kept the Library open during World War II. I started researching the Directress Dorothy Reeder and found her 15-page report marked ‘Confidential.’ Reading it gave me chills! I knew I wanted to write about the Directress. You can read her impressions about life in Paris during the Occupation. I hope you will find it as fascinating as I did!
Growing up in rural Montana, I was fascinated by my neighbor, a war bride from Normandy. Even as a child, I thought she was incredibly brave to leave behind her friends and family and everything she’d ever known for a new life with a G.I. she didn’t know very well. My first novel, Moonlight in Odessa is about an email-bride. At heart, I’m interested in journeys.
You learned about the history of the American Library in Paris while working there as the programs manager… What was one of the most memorable moments from your time there?
The most memorable times were in the back office, seeing how dedicated the staff was. I had a colleague who never left her desk, not even for lunch. She made every second count. She was supposed to get off work at 4 pm but often would not leave before 7:30 p.m.
A favorite moment was interviewing Lionel Shriver then watching her interact with her mega fans, two lovely booksellers who knew each of her books by heart.
Each Wednesday evening, I got to listen to an author talk about their work. It was inspiring!
Pre-COVID you divided your time between Montana and Paris, were any of the chapters written while you were in Paris, and if so where in the city do you feel the most inspired to write?
I wrote a lot of the book in Paris because I live here most of the time. I wrote it in the BNF, the national library, and did a lot of editing at home. It is always fun to do a little work in a café. Treize near the Luxembourg Garden is a favorite. It is next to my favorite bookshop, The Red Wheelbarrow. When I am back home in Montana, I love to have a latte at the Prairie Peddler and write.
How many of the locations in the novel have you visited in real life?
I haven’t visited Froid, Montana, near the North Dakota border, but I’d love to go there. I have visited most of the places in Paris. It broke my heart to see that the library, where the book was set, has been torn down and replaced with a modern glass building. I couldn’t visit all of the apartments I described in the books, but there is a model for the one that Paul and Odile trysted in. It is the Nissim de Camondo Museum. The rooms have not changed in 100 years.
The book mostly goes between the two storylines of Odile and Lily, who Odile meets after she moves from Paris to Montana. What did you enjoy the most about creating two characters with similar passions but vastly different ages?
To me, Odile and Lily are exactly the same person. It was a pleasure to bring them together. I loved seeing how they helped each other. I wanted the reader to go through the book thinking, “Lily is lucky to have Odile,” only to arrive at the end to think, “Odile is lucky to have Lily.” I loved returning to the 1980s and those longings of my teen years.
Would you say that Odile bears any similarities to yourself or someone you’ve met in real life?
Physically, I based Odile on a bookseller friend of mine. She is a petite, elegant booklover who ran The Village Voice bookshop on rue princesse in Paris until she retired. There is a lot of me in my character Odile.
During the course of The Paris Library we meet a real-life character, Miss Reeder, who created the Soldiers’ Service and also defied the Bibliotheksschutz (by delivering books to Jewish readers.) In researching Miss Reeder’s life for the novel, what was your most interesting find?
It was incredible to learn that Miss Reeder worked at the national library in Bogotá, Colombia in order to train librarians! She also raised money for the Red Cross in Florida. She worked on three continents in the 1940s. How amazing!
Out of all of the characters in the book, who would you like to meet in real life?
This is a hard question! I’d like to meet them all. If I can only choose one, I’ll say Dorothy Reeder.
If The Paris Library was made into a Feature Film, who do you imagine playing the main characters?
I think that the director today, Audrey Chapuis, who is glamorous, dedicated, and insightful, would make a wonderful Dorothy Reeder. Check out the photo of them side by side.