Paris Author: Interview with Janet Skeslien Charles

Janet Skeslien Charles

I am pleased as punch to feature my first interview with a real, live Paris author!

Janet Skeslien Charles has lived in Paris since 1999. Her first novel, Moonlight in Odessa, was voted one of Publisher’s Weekly top 10 fiction debuts of Fall 2009. This year it won the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance.

Just in time for the paperwork release of her novel, Janet agreed to an email interview with me. Seeing as she is also known as a great teacher – having taught writing workshops at Shakespeare & Co for four years – I put in a few questions that I’m particularly interested in. You know, as someone who is, erm, kind of, sort of, maybe working on a novel of her own.

Thanks, Janet, for answering my (idiosyncratic) questions!

People have all sorts of romantic myths about being a writer in Paris. I actually find it incredibly difficult to write in Paris. How does living in Paris affect your writing?

Someone recently asked me if there was place writers meet, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald used to. I wish there were! Most of the writers I know are busy with their own writing and promotion of their own books. Even Tatiana de Rosnay, a Parisian author who has sold four million copies of her novel in the US, is on Twitter launching her latest book.

Paris is full of distractions – great ones like meeting with writer friends in cafes, and not so great ones like taking care of endless French paperwork. On a personal level, I live in a building where you can hear the neighbor’s every move, and it is very hard to write. Many people tell me that I am living their dream, but mine at this point is just to have walls that belong to me. Not a very glamorous dream!

Would you define yourself as an expat writer? An American writer? Or do such labels really do nothing to illuminate how you view yourself as a writer?

Even when I was 12 years old scribbling in my journal in Shelby, Montana (population 2,500), I considered myself a writer. When my novel was published, a good friend said, “Now you’re a writer.” I replied, “I’ve always been a writer.” To me being a writer isn’t about publication, it is about the need to write and to communicate.

At a recent reading at Shakespeare & Co, Adam Haslett said that one definition of psychosis is consistently maintaining a parallel universe in your head. And he noted that writing a novel is exactly that, of course! How do you keep the parallel universe in your mind while still functioning in this universe (whatever you define this universe to be!)

Another way of asking about balance, I’m sure.

It is challenging because the parallel universe is sometimes more interesting than the real universe of paying bills and waiting in line at the grocery store. Many people live in parallel words, be it Farmville on Facebook or Second Life.

I think it is important to be present in the real world and to be a good listener. Right now, I stare off into space a lot trying to solve some problems within my novel, but I try to do it when I am alone and not when I am eating dinner with my husband or out with friends. I have had trouble maintaining balance, but am trying to do a better job of keeping the two worlds separate.

Do you ever get “stuck”? Is writer’s block a myth or have you experienced it before? If so, how do you become unstuck?

I think everyone gets stuck, no matter what they do for a living. There are times of excitement and energy, and times when we do the bare minimum. When I can’t go any farther with a short story or my novel, I give it to a friend to read. Sometimes talking about the story, what’s working and what’s not, possibilities of where to go next with it, can give a writer ideas and the will to continue. Sometimes it is best to move on to another project and come back to the first one later, renewed and with a fresh eye.

Let’s talk ratios. Writing is _% divine inspiration and _% everyday workmanship? (Please feel free to elaborate past the simple math equation!)

I don’t think that most writers are geniuses. Published writers are able to sit in the chair and get the work done. This includes writing, but also reading and learning about technique and structure. These are things you have to do on your own, because for the most part, they can’t really be taught. Each writer has to develop their own style and technique as well as the discipline to sit and write. So I would say 5% inspiration and 95% discipline and a willingness to learn and explore.

How did Moonlight in Odessa come to you? Did you have an idea of the overall plot at the beginning or was it more of an exploratory process of discovery for you?

Sitting on the train to Geneva for my first ever writers’ conference, I was thinking about a Ukrainian friend who’d married a much older American man she barely knew. They were very unhappy. I heard her say, “You needn’t pity me.” I have never heard voices before or since, but that rebuke was the seed of the novel and inspiration for the voice of the narrator.

Any surprises while writing your novel? (Did the book ever take a turn you weren’t expecting or your characters started doing something you didn’t plan, for instance?)

I thought that the end of the novel would be tragic because the cases I knew of Russian women married to American men they met through international marriage brokers had ended badly. But the book took on a life of its own. The character who was the villain turned out to have a few redeeming qualities. Daria, the main character, found a way to get out of a very difficult situation.

What advice would you give a struggling writer?

Keep struggling – don’t give up. Keep writing and improving, keep making contact with other writers at workshops and conferences, keep researching markets, keep sending out your work. The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is simply persistence.

On my blog, I recently interviewed Laura Munson, who wrote fourteen novels before her fifteenth book – a memoir – was published. Sometimes that’s what it takes.

What’s next?

After working on my own for five years, I have just begun a job as Program Manager at the American Library in Paris and am really looking forward to working with the great team there. Moonlight in Odessa just came out in paperback in the States, and I am working on another novel set in Ukraine.

Thank you for taking the time to interview me!

And thanks to Janet for answering my questions!

You can learn more about Janet and her work on her website. I particularly like the author interviews on her blog – lots of inspiring material!

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21 Responses to “Paris Author: Interview with Janet Skeslien Charles”

  1. 1 shan October 13, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVED this interview. Fantastic questions S, and inspiring responses from Janet — thanks to you both!


  2. 3 Lindsey October 13, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    This is such a great interview! I’ve read so much about her book and will definitely pick it up. I can only imagine how distracting a city like Paris would be for a write and that in fact, the countryside might provide better concentration and even more clarity to develop characters and plotlines.

    After all that has been published about the lives of struggling writers (as if the two words are inextricably linked), and the countless trials it requires to get published, I have such admiration for those that perservere and try despite the obstacles.

    Sion, great questions – I feel like I have a better understanding of what it means to be a writer (and especially a writer in Paris) and far greater appreciation.


    • 4 paris (im)perfect October 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks, Lindsey. This was definitely a fun interview for me. I really find hearing the perspective of other writers so helpful, and even necessary. Sometimes I feel so silly talking about the difficulty of writing – I mean, I can picture a million lives harder than this! – but it really does require a lot of perseverance to stick with it and see your way through. Janet is a great writer and a great teacher and I’m so glad for her words of encouragement!


  3. 5 pariskarin October 13, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    This is absolutely great, Sion, and thank you so much Janet for giving a frank account of what the craft of writing involves. And godblessit if this didn’t get me a little weepy (maybe hormones are working on me, too, lol): “To me being a writer isn’t about publication, it is about the need to write and to communicate.”

    Whaddaya know. I guess by this definition I have been a writer all along! Why is it so hard to just go ahead and *claim* being a writer, even if not published (well, except that thing I wrote in an educational journal more than 10 years ago…)? It’s been hard for me to label myself as such, but I read statements like this from fellow writers who encourage the notion that writers are just as Janet says.

    I’ve been wanting to read this book — need to get my hands on a copy. 🙂 This is the third time I have run into mention of the book in as many weeks, and so now I am really feeling the need to get it.

    Again, thank you both so much for such an inspirational and encouraging interview!


    • 6 paris (im)perfect October 13, 2010 at 11:54 pm

      Thanks, Karin. Yes, I’ve always found it difficult to “own” the title of writer, but Janet is definitely right. The other important lesson for me is just sitting in the chair and getting the work done. I’m a writer if I write. Must remember that 🙂

      Glad you were inspired and encouraged!


  4. 7 Paris Paul P October 13, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Informational and inspiring–you two ladies make quite a team!


  5. 9 Buffy October 14, 2010 at 4:01 am

    I really liked what she said about not having to have been published to be a writer. I have always found writing to be an outlet for feelings, shared and unshared.


  6. 11 Janet Skeslien Charles October 14, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Many thanks for stopping by to read our interview. I appreciate your kind words!
    Thank you, Sion, for such great questions!


  7. 13 Bess October 15, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Great post! I’m (maybe) working on a novel myself, so it was particularly helpful. I’m excited to look up Moonlight in Odessa now.


  8. 15 Ann October 17, 2010 at 11:59 am

    What a wonderful interview! Great questions, Sion, and inspiring answers, Janet! Except I think you might be wrong about there not being a place in Paris where writers meet — I’ve met (and continue to meet) so many terrific, talented Paris writers via the internet, I feel like we are connected even if we don’t have our own space.


    • 16 paris (im)perfect October 17, 2010 at 5:48 pm

      Hi Ann. I completely agree. The Internet is a lifeline when it comes to meeting other amazing folks. Of course, I end up having *so* much fun, that I kind of lose the discipline to get back to the writing! The novel will only happen when I become more disciplined with my online habits 🙂


  9. 17 Vicki Archer October 17, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Great interview….I look forward to her book, xv.


  1. 1 New Job at the American Library in Paris Trackback on October 19, 2010 at 8:30 pm
  2. 2 Author Interview: Ann Mah « paris (im)perfect Trackback on November 3, 2010 at 9:52 am
  3. 3 Writer Interview (Me This Time!) « paris (im)perfect Trackback on August 3, 2011 at 9:22 pm

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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