Lovers of historical fiction will get their fill with The Paris Library, a moving story about how a young librarian and her colleagues managed to play a small part in the French Resistance during the Second World War. Odile yearns for independence and love but, more importantly, she also considers her role in an increasingly fraught world – and over 40 years later, her young neighbour Lily learns a few lessons from her French teacher about growing up.
We chatted with author Janet Skeslien Charles to learn about how her own time in the library inspired her to tell this incredible true story.
How did the idea for the story come to you?
“I heard about the [American Library’s] story and was just amazed by it. I’ve been in Paris since 1999, and I was a member of the library and volunteered there, but I had never heard this story until I worked there. For a long time, it was a hidden story. Now the website has photos and talks about it, but at the time they didn’t. For research, I went to the national library, where I read memoirs by women who’d lived through the war. I read the newspaper from the time – from 1939 through the war. Little by little and piece by piece, I tried to uncover the people who had been forgotten.”
There are a lot of literary references – did you get to do a bunch of reading as research when you were writing?
“I really just chose my favourite books. I love Jean Rhys. So many books about Paris are about the glamour of Paris, but Jean Rhys is someone who really struggled there – she spent a lot of time alone, people weren’t nice to her, she had difficult jobs. She had a completely different experience. It’s just refreshing to hear a different point of view of Paris. I hope people will read [her book] Good Morning, Midnight.”
How much of the story is true?
“I condensed the timeline, but the threats in 1939 were true and documented. The 1983 fiction line is inspired by my own experience in a small town in Alberta – not much of the outside world got through to us, and I just wanted out. Lily’s feelings and longing to get to the big city and to have something different were drawn from my own feelings. And I grew up next to a French war bride, so that’s how I learned French and really learned to love French – through my neighbour.”
What do you hope people take from reading the novel?
“I hope they think about who their neighbours are a little bit more. We see people and we forget that they have these interesting stories and pasts and that they have a lot to give. Odile was seen as an outsider and ignored, and that was really unfortunate because she really did have a lot to offer. A lot of times, foreigners are viewed with suspicion when in fact they enrich our lives. What I tried to do is have Lily listen to Odile, and Odile says things that all these characters from her past have said. Those people really live on through Lily.”
Pick up The Paris Library to dig into the past.
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