Paris-Based Author Janet Skeslien Charles on Her New Novel, Brave Women and...

Paris-Based Author Janet Skeslien Charles on Her New Novel, Brave Women and Reinvention

Janet Skeslien Charles at the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in Paris. Photo courtesy of Janet Skeslien Charles

Author Janet Skeslien Charles might be the first to admit that growing up in a small town of 200 people in Montana is an unlikely place to foster an early love of France. Yet, she fell in love with French in high school, and had the opportunity to stay with a family in Lorraine during her junior year. However, it was her neighbor in that small town, a French war bride from Rouen, that really sparked Janet’s desire to see the world, most especially France, and showed her the courage it took to reinvent oneself in a new country. “I thought she was incredibly brave to leave her family, friends, and country in order to marry a man she didn’t know well,” Janet recalls.  

cover of The Librarians of Rue de Picardie book

Women being courageous, going against societal expectations, and reinventing themselves in a new country are all themes that Janet explores in her three best-selling books: Moonlight in Odessa, The Paris Library, and the newly published The Librarians of Rue de Picardie. Many of the characters in her books are based on real women, often using their real names, whose lives and contributions to their fields remain little known. Janet brings to life their stories with meticulous historical research combined with creative literary prose. 

It’s always a pleasure to catch up with Janet, this time to talk about her new book, The Librarians of Rue de Picardie, and the incredible story of women volunteers in the final months of WWI. She shares her insights on “the high” she gets from research, her love of libraries and librarians, and how her life in Paris, more than two decades after moving here, continues to inspire her as a writer. 

Meet Janet in Paris! Come and celebrate the launch of Janet’s new book at the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, an INSPIRELLE Business Partner, on Thursday, June 6, at 7pm. Details below.

Anne Murray Dike (1916). Source: Wikipedia

Janet, congratulations on your new book, The Librarians of Rue de Picardie! In it, you tell this little known story of a group of international female volunteers who help rebuild devastated French villages during and after WWI. Can you tell us who some of these incredibly brave women are, and about CARD, the organization that they worked for?

Thank you! I’m thrilled to share the story of Le Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées (CARD), (the American Committee for Devastated France). There are 350 incredible women to celebrate. I’ve been thinking of Anne Murray Dike, the Scottish president of CARD, because June 8th is her birthday. In the town of Blérancourt, just 80 miles north of Paris, locals stroll along rue Anne Murray Dike on their way to the boulangerie. (Those of us who live in Paris, where “only 2% of the streets are named after women,” know just how rare this honor is.) Pupils enter the Ecole Anne Murray Dike. Nearby, a large monument shows Dike in uniform, comforting children and a wounded soldier. Beneath her name, engraved in stone, is written: “She knew how to love, console, and create.”

CARD volunteers worked less than 40 miles from the front, where “to the east the heavens lit up with the flash of guns on the battlefront while the wind brought the dull and rhythmic booming of the cannon.” Several, including Dike, received the Croix de Guerre (war cross medal) for their courage under fire. She was made an officer of the Legion of Honor and also had the distinction of becoming the first woman elected to the French Academy of Agriculture.

Jessie Carson – Harry C Ellis, courtesy of the American Library Association Archives

How did you come upon this history, and what inspired you to bring to light the story of Jessie “Kit” Carson, the elusive librarian from the New York Public Library?

In the American Library Association archives, while researching Dorothy Reeder, the librarian who stood up to the Nazis in The Paris Library, I discovered that during the Great War, a librarian named Jessie “Kit” Carson traveled to France, where she created something that did not yet exist there – children’s libraries. After the war, she transformed ambulances into bookmobiles. I was immediately smitten.

Your book is a work of fiction based on true events and real people. More than a retelling of historical events, what do you feel is at the heart of the story?

I wanted to show that you can love a job, but work politics can sap the joy from the experience. We tend to idealize the past, and we tend to think that during war, people work together for the greater good. But no matter the era or the job, there are frustrations and disappointments. Then as now, it’s how we deal with those setbacks that is important.

When I began the book, I didn’t expect to write about these issues. A visit to The Morgan Library, where I read the CARD correspondence, quickly showed the points of tension and inner workings of the group. Despite the difficulties and dangers, these women came together to help innocent victims of war.

The book takes place in two time periods, 1918 and 1987. The main character in 1987 is Wendy Peterson, an aspiring writer who stumbles upon Jessie in the archives of the New York Public Library. In some ways Wendy and Jessie were colleagues, just not at the same time. Why did you choose to include a contemporary perspective, and why specifically the 1980s?

I wanted to share with readers the highs and lows of research, where one day you find a treasure and feel on top of the world; the next day, you lose all traces of a character, and it is devastating.

Context about World War I was needed, and I wanted to share what happened to the volunteers after the war. Thus, I based a modern-day character on a real-life Frenchwoman who volunteered for CARD.

I grew up in the 1980s, and enjoy revisiting the time period before we let smartphones take over our lives. The slang, fashion, and music were so fun.

Anne Morgan and Anne Murray Dike, circa 1915

The research that you put into each book is so comprehensive and can span years of reading, interviewing, and searching. What do you enjoy most about the research? How do you know when you’ve come across a “gem” of a person or event that might become the subject of a new book?

I love research and can easily get lost in it. I still remember the chills I felt when I read Dorothy Reeder’s confidential WWII report about life in Paris during the Occupation. Her words were the first inkling of The Paris Library.

Chills are your answer. When I get chills and want to share the information with the entire world, I know I need to write the book.

Researching people is solving a mystery. For example, I’d heard that Anne Murray Dike’s life-long love was Anne Morgan, daughter of the famed financier JP Morgan. But I did not know when they met, or have concrete proof. Finding the primary sources was a great satisfaction.

The themes of libraries, librarians and the power of books to heal and nourish, are prominent in both your previous New York Times and #1 international best-selling book, The Paris Library, and your new one. What have libraries, librarians, and books meant to you in your own life?

I love libraries. Growing up in rural Montana, they were a refuge and a revelation. I still remember the kindness and encouragement of the librarians, and I still remember finding short biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marie Curie, books that showed what women could do. Libraries show what we are capable of. They showcase our thoughts and protect our past (though archiving books, magazines, and newspapers). They are a community and our memory.

Janet Skeslien Charles signing books at the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in Paris.
Janet Skeslien Charles signing books at the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in Paris. Photo courtesy of Janet Skeslien Charles

You’ve been a Parisian for over two decades! Your last two books have been based in France. How has living in Paris inspired your writing and the themes that you’ve chosen for your books?

Time has flown by! To think I only came “for a year.” Living abroad has definitely informed my writing. I was only able to write my last three novels because I felt homesick and ill at ease. As a foreigner, I’m always an outsider. Though this makes daily life difficult, being an outsider is good when you’re a novelist because you observe people and have distance from situations.

Though the stories of my novels are different, the themes are the same – women inventing or reinventing themselves. I’m very interested in women’s journeys and am inspired by the women in my life as well as by my own struggles to learn new languages and customs.

Is it true that The Librarians of Rue de Picardie is part of a library trilogy? How exciting! What can you tell us about book three?

The novella – set in Paris during the 1990s – connects my books The Paris Library and The Librarians of Rue de Picardie. My characters Lily and Wendy meet, and unlike my last two novels set in France, no one dies. (I don’t enjoy killing off characters.) I can’t wait for you to read it!

BOOK LAUNCH: The Librarians of Rue de Picardie with Janet Skeslien Charles

Thursday, June 6, 2024 at 7PM

Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, 11 Rue de Médicis, 75006 Paris
Thursday, June 6, at 7pm  

Join author Janet Skeslien Charles for the launch of her new book, The Librarians of Rue de Picardie, a story of WWI France, just miles from the front, and an international group of women who band together to rebuild villages and save civilians while bombs drop.



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