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Interview with a Writer…in Paris

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I first met Janet Skeslien Charles when I joined her fiction writing workshop at Shakespeare and Company bookstore a few years ago (I think it was 2005). I never did finish that novel I was working on, but Janet did, launching her excellent Moonlight in Odessa with worldwide success last fall. All writers follow their own path, but those of us living in Paris — especially the Anglophones– tend to form a pretty closeknit community. Here is Janet’s own insider view of the writing life in Paris, the ups and downs, the myths versus reality, and advice for those who dream of following her footsteps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Secrets of Paris: What about Paris makes it a great city for writers?

Janet: It is an international city filled with beauty and brutality. There are so many stories and so much inspiration here. One of my favorite books about life in Paris is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. He captures the lives of people most of us never think about.

On any night of the week, you can go to a reading in English in Paris. Anglophone writers are very lucky to have such a vibrant writing community here.  

SOP: What’s your own favorite thing about being a writer in Paris?

Janet: I like the distance from my own culture, which can be a positive and a negative thing. I feel that I can see things a bit more clearly here.

SOP: What are the biggest myths or stereotypes about being a writer in Paris?

Janet: I think that a lot of people think that moving to Paris is enough to inspire them and that the novel will pretty much write itself. Writing takes dedication and discipline, and Paris is a wonderful place to get distracted!

SOP: Do you think it’s easier to be a writer in France or the US?

Janet: This is a tough question. I’m from Montana and find it so easy to write there. The countryside is peaceful and life there is simple. In Montana is so easy to get from place to place and space is unlimited. In Paris, space is limited and most people live in apartments. I admit that my neighbors distract me.

In France, we have a good health care system and five weeks paid vacation. In the States, I think that writers have more fellowships and opportunities to teach at the university or community college level. Both places have pros and cons.

SOP: What do you dislike the most about being a writer in Paris?

Janet: At home, research is much easier – the library loan system is great. Plus, it is easy to go to a library and find newspapers, literary journals, and magazines of all kinds. Here in Paris we are lucky to have the American Library in Paris, but I still miss the large university libraries and their huge selection of non-mainstream journals. I am trying to research life in Ukraine in the 1930’s, and it hasn’t been easy to find material here.

SOP: What is a typical working day like for you?

Janet: I write in the morning because I am the most alert and it is when my neighbors are the quietest. In the afternoon, I do research or read. In the evening, I respond to e-mail and work on publicity for my novel. It is 10pm as I write this, and it has been a ten-hour day, but I love writing and all that goes with it (editing, publicity, research, answering mail from readers).

SOP: What kinds of resources in the Paris writing community helped you with your career, if any?

Janet: The people here have been very encouraging and I am especially grateful to three owners of Parisian independent book stores. Penelope Le Masson of the Red Wheel Barrow, Odile Hellier of the Village Voice, and Sylvia Whitman of Shakespeare & Company have always been kind and supportive.

Laurel Zuckerman, the editor of Paris Writers News, suggested that I go to the Geneva Writers Conference, which is where I met my agent. Talking to other writers is a great way to learn about opportunities.

SOP:  Would you say the general atmosphere of the Paris writing community is helpful and supportive or competitive?

Janet: It took me a long time to find a supportive writing group. In the most memorable group I met with, two old men told me to put sex in every scene. That was the extent of their constructive criticism. 

To meet likeminded people, I started my own workshop at Shakespeare & Company. I taught creative writing classes there from 2005-2009 and loved every minute of it. The writers who took my classes were the best. Many of us are still friends and continue to meet. It was worth the time and effort to find a supportive group of writers.

SOP: Would you recommend non-French writers come to Paris to live and work? Is it easy?

Janet: When I first arrived, living in France was challenging because I was working full-time while trying to write. As an English teacher, I worked at three schools and gave several private lessons per week. I spent more time underground in the metro than I did above ground. When I started working part-time, and had more time to make friends and meet with other writers, life got much better.

I have met people who arrived and adapted easily to the French language and culture, and others who left after only a few months because life in Paris wasn’t what they thought it would be. The most frustrating part of my time here was the French administration. (I got my first work permit three days after it expired!) But the benefits (lovely meals, people watching in cafes, culture) definitely outweigh the inconveniences.

SOP: If you had one bit of advice for unpublished authors looking for inspiration, what would it be?

I would say don’t wait. Start now. Inspiration comes to me once a year, when the building is perfectly quiet, when the sky is blue. The rest of the time, writing is work. You have to figure out the narrative arc, who the characters will be, and what themes you will take on. Words don’t just come, sometimes you have to go out and find them. Start small, for example, committing to writing twenty minutes or writing a scene per day, but start!

Merci Janet!

Janet and Heather at the Moonlight in Odessa launch party, October 2009.

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  • Thanks for the exchange with SOP and Janet's insights about the expat writers' world in Paris. I just spent a month (August) there and my eyes were opened to the reality of living there vs. the "Moveable Feast" Paris I've been harboring as an ideal for 30+ years. Still, the city is magical and I am eager to return and do some work. I'd enjoy hearing from the non-fiction community as well. August isn't a month to launch business projects but I did find a hospitable expat community… do the writers' groups include non-fiction/essay writers?

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