Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Snapshots from... Paris

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today, Janet Skeslien Charles shows us around her adopted city
Images by Janet Skeslien Charles.

What do you enjoy about Paris?

The thing I enjoy most about the city is the green space. For the last two years, I’ve taught a class on Paris, seen through the lens of literature, music, current events, art, and statistics. So I can tell you that there are 9,884 park benches in over 400 parks and gardens in the city. The Parc de Bercy, close to home, is one of my favorites. The Bois de Vincennes (2459 acres, in case you are curious) is great to tramp around in when you need peace and quiet to think about larger questions.

Paris is a great city to walk and bike. In recent years, the landscape of the city has changed, with an addition of 200 kilometers of bike paths, and 20,000 bicycles. Mayor Anne Hidalgo and her predecessor have worked hard to improve and innovate.

Is Paris an inspiration or a distraction?

Paris is a beautiful city. A lot of work goes into maintaining the streets, pipes, and building facades. On my building, scaffolding stayed up for over a year as workers cleaned and painted as well as worked to make sure the building is watertight. (Despite their work, my apartment has been flooded three times.) As I write this, the buildings on either side of mine are being maintained, which involves a lot of hammering, and the pipes of my street are being replaced.

I seek sanctuary at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, just across the river. Their collection is extraordinary and their librarians are extremely helpful. In November and December of 2016, I was a writer in residence at Shakespeare & Company. I was able to ride my bicycle from home to the bookshop in 20 minutes. I wrote in George Whitman’s room, which was very meaningful to me. When I first arrived in Paris, I visited the library on the second floor of the shop. George came in, opened his arms wide, and asked, “How long can you stay?” It was wonderful to write at a desk in his room and to spend time in the bookshop.


Tell us a bit about the cultural life.

There are free readings and concerts every night of the week. From Shakespeare & Co to the Berkeley bookstore, to the Maison de la Poésie to the BNF, many libraries and bookstores host events.

In France, the most a retailer can discount a book is 5%, so the book business – especially independent bookstores – thrives. The first MFA in creative writing began here in 2012. (In the UK, the first program began in 1970.) The BNF just hosted its first series of creative writing master classes in February.

Can you recommend a few books set in Paris?

Noel Riley Fitch has written Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties an engaging biography of the bookseller who started the original Shakespeare & Company and can be considered the patron saint of writers here.

There are so many great books! For starters: The Sun Also Rises; Down and Out in Paris and London; Good Morning, Midnight; Love in a Cold Climate; Me Talk Pretty One Day; and Art.

Best known local authors?

This is a hard question – there are so many! Edith Warton, Gertrude Stein, Jean Rhys, Nancy Mitford, Madame de Staël, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Yasmina Reza, just to name a few. Of course, I have books by Tatiana de Rosnay, Cara Black, Laurel Zuckerman, Christopher Vanier, and Marie Houzelle on my shelf as well.

What are you writing?

I’m thrilled that one of my short stories – written in Paris, but set in my home state – will be published in Montana Noir this fall.

Sum up life in Paris in three words.

Books. Community. Love.

Janet Skeslien Charles is the award-winning author of Moonlight in Odessa, which has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She has led writing workshops for over a decade and currently works at Ecole Polytechnique.

Janet grew up in Montana where she studied Russian, French and English. She spent two years in Odessa, Ukraine, as a Soros Fellow.

By JJ Marsh


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