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.
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.
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!