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  • Eye Prefer Paris is an ex-New Yorker's insider's guide to Paris. Richard Nahem writes his blog from his fabulous 18th century apartment in the fashionable Marais district of Paris

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Interview With Janet Skeslien Charles, Author of The Paris Library

JSC by Richard Beban 300 dpi


am happy to publish my interview with Janet Skeslien Charles, author of the bestselling book, The Paris Library, which was the selection for my Eye Prefer Paris Book of the Month for February 2021. If you haven’t read the book yet, I highly recommend it, it’s an inspiring story that will rewake you to the importance of books. 

CLICK HERE to order your copy of The Paris Library.

How did you come up with the idea to write The Paris Library? 

I’m interested in journeys. Growing up in rural Montana, I was fascinated by my neighbor, a war bride from Normandy. Even as a child, I knew she was incredibly brave to leave behind her friends and family for a new life with a G.I. My first novel, Moonlight in Odessa is about an email-bride. I’m an American in France, and before that I worked in Ukraine. I wanted to write about starting over, and about the way place shape us. I wrote about my own struggles to learn new languages and customs. I want readers to know that they are not alone.

When I got a job at the American Library in Paris, I became intrigued when my colleagues talked about the incredible staff members who kept the Library open during World War II. I researched 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’ll find it as fascinating as I did.

How long did it take you to finish the book? 

The book took ten years to write. For several drafts, the book was called The War Bride, and the focus was more on the main character’s life after World War II. I was on a do-it-yourself writing retreat with Anne Marsella when I realized that I needed to cut thirty pages and focus more on the Library.

What were the surprises, insights, and disappointments, if any, you found doing your research? 

Even after I finished the book, I had a hard time letting go of the real-life characters. I kept researching and learned that the Directress Dorothy Reeder, who defied the Nazis in order to hand-deliver books to Jewish readers, later worked at the national library in Bogotá, Colombia, where she trained librarians. She also raised money for the Red Cross in Florida. Dorothy Reeder worked on three continents in the 1940s. How amazing!

Was there anything shocking or upsetting you found out during your research? 

I spent a decade researching World War II, reading about and watching footage of one of man’s most brutal eras. Reading the “crow letters” in the Holocaust Museum in Paris was very painful. It was hard to see such hatred. In the book, a character was attacked in a very specific way, and I watched a documentary of French women who were also punished in this way. The women are still so ashamed about it that they refused to face the camera as they answered the questions. How heartbreaking to see that their shame has not dissipated decades and decades later.

Were all the characters based on real life people who worked in the library? 

There are several real-life characters in the book, from the Directress of the Library to the Head Librarian to the Nazi “Library Protector.” I felt very lucky to be able to spend time with descendants of the librarians. 

I know you are originally from Montana. What was impetus to write a parallel story based in Montana? Is the character Lily partly self-autobiographical and is the town in Montana based on where you grew up? 

I started thinking about this novel when I was ten years old. Because of my French neighbor, I longed to visit France. I came here as a teaching assistant (assistante de langue vivante) and later got a job at the Library. The two story lines came together.

The part of Lily that is auto-biographical is her longing to leave her small town. She thinks that bigger is better and wants to live in a city. When we are young like Lily, we don’t always know how lucky we are.

To me, the whole point of The Paris Library is the transmission of stories, through books but also through listening to other people. In this way, we keep loved ones alive. Lily, a teen in Montana, has taken in all of the stories of the people at the American Library. Without Lily's story, my book has absolutely no point. The joy of life is sharing our stories and listening to others.

The book has been a remarkable success so far, with five printings so far in the U.S., and it’s been translated in over 30 languages. The reviews from critics and readers have been excellent. Which reviews/comments resonated most for you and if there was any negative reviews/comments, was there any you thought that were unjustified? 

Everyone has the right to their opinion. The novel resonates with some people and doesn’t resonate with others. I would disagree with only one review. It stated that the Parisian librarians who were dealing with the Nazis and Gestapo could have done more. This criticism is easy to make from an armchair in 2021. These librarians walked a fine line to keep the American Library in Paris open. Because of their courage against all odds during the war, the Library remains open today. 

You worked at the American Library in Paris. Can you tell us what your job was and what the experience was like? Did working there plant the seeds for you to write the book? 

I was the programs manager and had the privilege of inviting speakers – novelists, journalists, art historians – to speak every Wednesday. At each event, it was inspiring to hear writers speak, but nerve-wracking, too, because we never knew if 20 or 200 people would attend.

The members make the Library special. What is fascinating about the place is the cross-section of readers – students, writers, folks on a budget, millionaires, conservatives, liberals. People whose paths would normally never cross find communion at Evenings with Author events. Sixty nationalities are represented in the membership. 

I arrived in Paris in 1998. Though I was a member as well as a volunteer, I did not hear about the story of the courageous librarians who carried books to Jewish readers until I worked at the Library in 2012. 

What actors would you envision if they adapted The Paris Library into a film or TV series? 

The director Audrey Chapuis, is glamorous, dedicated, and insightful. She would make a wonderful Dorothy Reeder. (I include a photo of her and Miss Reeder side by side.)

Dorothy Reeder & Audrey Chapuis

CLICK HERE to order your copy of The Paris Library.

ANGELA-1 copy

Marvelous Marais Tour

Please join me for my live Marvelous Marais Tour 

April 7- 4PM-Paris Time, 10AM-East Coast, 9AM Mid-West. and 7AM California/West Coast time 

CLICK HERE to reserve your place – You don’t need a Facebook account to watch it 

I look forward to seeing you there. 

April 22, 2021

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September 11, 2018

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