Interview with Moonlight In Odessa’s Janet Skeslien Charles, Paris Writer

Interview with Moonlight In Odessa’s Janet Skeslien Charles, Paris Writer
Paris-based author Janet Skeslien Charles’s debut novel, Moonlight in Odessa, is the warmhearted, darkly comic tale of Daria, a young Ukrainian woman living in post-perestroika Odessa. Smart, ambitious, and principled, Daria juggles a day job as an overqualified secretary while moonlighting for Soviet Unions, a dating service that matches young Ukrainian women with lonely Western men. Dividing her time between fending off unwelcome suitors and caring for her aging grandmother, Daria secretly dreams of a new life in America. However, when she begins a relationship with a Soviet Unions client, Daria soon discovers that the American dream holds deceptions of its own. Witty and bittersweet, Moonlight in Odessa skewers stereotypes on both sides of the Iron Curtain and provides a fascinating perspective on the experience of mail-order brides. We recently met with Ms. Skeslien Charles to chat about how an American now living in Paris came to write Moonlight in Odessa, her favorite museum in Paris (Musée d’Orsay), her favorite restaurant (her own kitchen, thanks to her husband’s cooking) and the future of libraries (bright). BP: What motivated you to write Moonlight in Odessa? JSC: I was thinking about what it means to be so far from home, what you gain and what you give up. How do you deal with other people’s expectations? Does a job define who you are? What do you do when you are stuck? BP: Tell us about your writing process. What has your experience been as a writer in Paris? JSC: I quit my job with the intention of taking a year off to write a novel. In the end, it took me four years to write and sell Moonlight in Odessa. Part of that time was just learning to sit and to not look at my watch every two minutes. I had worked full-time teaching English and was constantly running between schools and the homes of my students. It took a long time for me to learn the art of doing nothing. It is hard to live so far from my family, but I think that living in Paris gives a writer a certain distance, which is helpful in terms of seeing situations clearly. When Daria, the main character in my novel, moved from Ukraine to California, she had all sorts of expectations and was disappointed when she finally arrived. Many people move to Paris with these same kinds of expectations, and it was interesting to explore the reality of moving so far from home. BP: Would you consider writing a second novel set in Paris? If so, any ideas about what it would be about? JSC: I am working on another novel set in Ukraine. Writing fiction or nonfiction set in Paris is challenging because so much has already been said and written. BP: Describe the kind of research that you did. I was intrigued by your portrayal of the mail-order bride industry and by the character of Daria. To what extent did the novel grow from your personal experiences in Odessa? JSC: I did a lot of research and spent hours on sites such as Loveme and Amorsi. If my husband ever looked at the computer history, he probably thought that I was dangerously close to finding myself a wife. I felt it was important to accurately portray the international marriage broker industry. Two of my dear Ukrainian friends married men they barely knew, and the main character’s relationship with her husband reflects the time I spent with my two friends and their husbands. I love Odessa, and Moonlight in Odessa is my ode to the city. BP: In addition to being a writer, you also work at the American Library in Paris. How do your two jobs intersect? In your opinion, what is the future of print? Of novels? Of libraries? JSC: The intersection is the love of books and the written word. We have great evening programs at the Library where authors give readings. Many authors research and write their books at the Library, which is great to see. I am optimistic about the future of books, whether they be ebooks or printed on paper. Likewise, the Library is a very vibrant place and I feel positive about the future of libraries. I am concerned about independent book stores. I think that we need to support our local businesses because they are the ones who support us and create a sense of community. Here in Paris, Odile at the Village Voice, Penelope at the Red Wheelbarrow, and Sylvia at Shakespeare and Company nurture local writers, whether they are published or not. I spent the weekend with Sue and Judy, the proprietors of Reel Books in Fontainebleau. They organized two conferences at the Anglo-Saxon Salon in Avon on Saturday. It was such a treat to spend time with them. They love books and were so passionate about the novels they adored. We need to support our independent book stores and the incredible people who run them. BP: Moonlight in Odessa is your first novel. What were some challenges you faced? What advice would you give to first-time novelists? JSC: One of the biggest challenge was striking the right tone. The topic of mail-order brides could be grim, so I set the scene in Odessa, the humor capital of the former Soviet Union. It was my hope that the humor would lighten the dark tone of the novel. My advice to first-time novelists would be to never give up. It takes a lot of stamina to finish a novel and even more to sent out query letters to try to find an agent. Persistence and patience are…

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