A little bit of Paris heads to North Salem

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"The Paris Library" author Janet Skeslien Charles. Photo by Richard Beban.

Just a five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower sits the American Library in Paris, the largest English-language lending library on the European continent and one of the primary settings of “The Paris Library,” a novel by Janet Skeslien Charles. On Sunday afternoon, Charles will bring local bibliophiles a little taste of that library, and of Paris, when she joins the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library for an author talk via Zoom.

“The Paris Library” published in February and was an instant New York Times, USA Today and Washington Post bestseller. Library Journal and GoodReads named it a “Most Anticipated Book of the Year.” While readers may see the book as a sudden hit, in reality the book was a decade-long labor of love.

Charles’ original agent and editor did not want to pursue publication for The Paris Library, which left Charles with a choice: abandon the book or find new representation. Much like Odile Souchet, one of the main characters in “The Paris Library,” Charles was determined and resilient. She sent over 75 query letters to different agents before finding one who saw in it was Charles had always seen.

“It’s a relief that the book found a home and that readers are responding to it,” Charles said.

“The Paris Library” is based on a true World War II story of Dorothy Reeder, who was directress of the American Library in Paris during the German occupation of France. Reeder urged her staff to flee the city when the Nazis arrived, but she stayed on to oversee the Library.

“I felt like her story deserved to be known,” Charles said. “I wanted people to know her name, her courage and her belief in books as bridges.”

Charles herself has spent much of her life building bridges between cultures. An American who grew up in the tiny town of Shelby, Montana (pop. 2,000), Charles moved to Odessa, Ukraine as an adult to teach at a local high school. After two years, she moved to France, where she continued to teach and still resides today.

Like Charles’ own life, The Paris Library splits its time between two very different geographic locations: Paris, France and Montana. In war-time Paris, we see Odile Souchet arm herself with books. In 1980’s Montana, Odile is an elderly woman who befriends a teenage girl, Lily, who is trying to make sense of her own world as well as the larger world around her.

“I am really interested in journeys and how people reinvent themselves,” Charles said.

To keep readers engaged even as the novel shifted back and forth between place and time, Charles likened the process to sewing.

“My mom is a quilter. You can see her work in my work,” she said. “I wanted to start with the same mindsets in both sections; the same feelings of uncertainty and not knowing what would happen.”

Charles, who herself once worked at the American Library in Paris and considers herself “a library person,” hopes that her book will show the importance of libraries in communities.

Here in our own community, Charles will participate in a 1:1 interview with a member of the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library for her April 11 event, scheduled for 4 p.m.

“I love meeting readers and am very glad to be spending time at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library,” Charles said. “I love hearing the questions from participants. Each event I do is different because each audience is unique and brings a lot to the event.”

To register for the event, click here.

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