For TWE’s Summer Bookshelf, we recommend the fascinating historical novel The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles about heroic librarians at the American Library who defied the Nazis with courageous actions during World War II.
This book follows her award-winning debut novel, Moonlight in Odessa. An ardent Francophile, Janet moved to Paris from Montana as a young woman ultimately finding an opportunity to work at the American Library where she found her latest writing inspiration.
“I love putting pen to paper and am interested in women’s journey and the way that women who move to a foreign country must reinvent themselves.” Janet Skeslien Charles
Janet is also an advocate of independent bookstores, investing in The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris. Personally, having had the wonderful opportunity to work in a bookstore at one point in my life, I was really intrigued with Janet’s own journey and thrilled that she would give TWE readers some behind-the-scenes insights into her craft and book recommendations.
EYE: How did you come upon the history of the courageous librarians you write about in The Paris Library?
JANET SKESLIEN CHARLES: : While working at the American Library in Paris as the programs manager, I heard colleagues talking about the history of the ALP during the war. I started researching and discovered Ms. Dorothy Reeder’s report marked ‘Confidential’ in the American Library Association archives and immediately wanted to sit down and write the story.
It explores the personal challenges and rewards of friendships, duty and family underscoring the women librarians’ courageous true story during the Second World War.
EYE: Did you feel such a sense of importance about this story that you had to tell it?
JANET: I got chills when I read Dorothy’s report and hoped that book lovers would feel the same when they read my novel. The Library’s Directress 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. French Ambassador William Bullitt advised Americans to leave France, but she remained at her post because of her belief in books as bridges.
EYE: Why put the story in a historical novel, rather than nonfiction?
JANET: I read about my character Dorothy Reeder and the librarians who defied the Nazis with hand-delivered books to Jewish readers. However, I was afraid to put my words in Dorothy’s mouth.
I was so in awe of her that I did not want to make a mistake. So I created Odile, a young French narrator, who helped me tell Dorothy’s story. This also allowed me to explore the themes of the book more fully.
One theme is Dorothy’s courage to remain in the face of war as well as her ability to inspire such loyalty in her staff and library patrons. Another is her work ethic and ability to overcome obstacles in order to build bridges.
EYE: I’ve read that you feel it is extremely important to keep storytelling alive. Would you please elaborate?
JANET: For me, the whole point of the novel is transmission of stories. Odile, a former librarian in Paris, tells her then troubled teenage neighbor Lily in Montana her story of resisting the Nazis in World War II. We are all very good at talking, but very few of us are good at listening.
At the end of the novel, at the graduation ceremony, we see that Lily has really listened to Odile. Lily repeats words not only from her parents, but from all of the people at the Library. Though these people have never met Lily, they live on through her.
EYE: You had an award-winning bestseller in your debut novel Moonlight in Odesssa and now with The Paris Library. Do you have themes that occur in both stories?
JANET: At heart, 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.
I am very interested in language. I come from Montana, a place where many people have trouble expressing themselves. There are a lot of silences.
EYE: What do your characters share?
JANET: They are amazing women who are loyal, intelligent and who try to do their best. They both end up in the States and struggle to fit in.
EYE: How much of your characters’ traits do you share with them?
JANET: I suppose that we are all outsiders. As a foreigner, first in Ukraine and then in France, I am different, just like my characters are.
Though this makes daily life difficult, being an outsider is good when you are novelist because you observe people and have distance from situations.
EYE: Has writing been a part of your passion since you were young?
JANET: I started writing in a journal when I was twelve. I have always been a writer. I’m unhappy when I am not writing. I need that release of emotions and thoughts.
I loved all of Judy Blume’s books. I also appreciated a series written for children about amazing women from Marie Curie to Eleanor Roosevelt.
EYE: What is it about the process of writing that you connect with?
JANET: I am inspired by the women in my life (my mother is in every word that I write) as well as my own struggles to learn new languages and customs. I want readers to know that they are not alone.
EYE: What is the biggest challenge for you as you write?
JANET: Recently, the biggest challenge has been concentration. I have lost my stamina to sit and write. I tried not to get too angry at myself. I turn to research when the writing doesn’t come.
EYE: How did you go from your home state, Montana, to Paris as Program Manager at the American Library in Paris?
JANET: I grew up in a small town on the plains, 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 always wanted to write about a war bride.
Thanks to my time with her, I longed to visit the outside world, especially France. I first worked as a teaching assistant and later got a job at the Library, where I heard the story of the international team of brave librarians during World War II. These two story lines of a war bride and librarian came together to form The Paris Library.
EYE: You have invested in The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris. What is it about that bookstore that intrigued you enough to invest in it?
JANET: I love The Red Wheelbarrow and believe in the owner Penelope Fletcher. Her bookshop is my favorite place in Paris and I would be lost without it.
Reading is solitary yet social. We might be alone with the characters when we read, but through books clubs and bookshops, we can connect with others and share our love of the written word. My greatest pleasure in Paris is talking to book lovers at The Red Wheelbarrow.
I love hearing where they are from, where they are going, what they are reading. At heart, I am a hermit, and being with Penelope among the books at The Red Wheelbarrow puts me at ease.
EYE: What kind of future do you see for bookstores?
JANET: I hope that people will see how vital bookshops are to communities. We need to support our bookstores! The future of bookstores depends on us.
I love giving reading recommendations and especially enjoy helping people who think they aren’t readers to find books that they’ll connect with. I also enjoy receiving book recommendations from staff and people just passing through.
EYE: What experience does a library offer that is so special?
JANET: I love that libraries serve patrons in so 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. In my library in Shelby, Montana, there is a collection of art from men in the nearby prison. It is a way for them to share their work and to be a part of community.
EYE: I saw your endorsement on the cover of Natalie Jenner’s wonderful book, Bloomsbury Girls. Are there other authors you might want to recommend to our readers…in addition to yours, of course?
JANET: This is such a great question! I loved Shelf Life, a book written by Nadia Wassef, a bookseller in Cairo. A book that really stayed with me was The Forgotten Home Child by Genevieve Graham. Read the author’s note first to really feel the impact of the novel.
I love the way that Patchett shows how disparate people can come together, and that we have much more in common than we think. Her writing is brilliant.
EYE: Finally, any thoughts percolating for another book?
JANET: Yes, the research for The Paris Library introduced me to another American librarian in France. She worked just miles from the front during World War I. I can’t wait for you to read about her!
EYE: Thank you, Janet for your time and insights! Congratulations on your well deserved awards and success! We look forward to more!
Lead Photo: Janet Skeslien Charles at The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore/Photo: Krystal Kenney
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