My guest this week, Janet Skeslien Charles, is a novelist whose debut, Moonlight in Odessa, is just out from Bloomsbury. It was chosen as one of ten promising Fall debut novels by Publishers Weekly, and as September’s Book of the Month by National Geographic Traveler. – Meg
I spent ten years writing stories of Odessa before my novel, Moonlight in Odessa, was published. The novel came from my own experience and observations: While in college, I interpreted for a Russian woman who’d married a Montanan widower, who had been brought to America to be his and children’s maid; she had no rights and received no pay, thanks, or respect, but she had a young son from a previous marriage and was willing to sacrifice her own fulfillment for a stable life for him. After college, I went to teach in Odessa, Ukraine, where teachers earned $25 a month. As a joke, someone put the name of my friend Anna on the roster at an international marriage broker where she moonlighted. She began to receive letters, and married a man after a short courtship. Several years later, I stayed with them for a long weekend, and he never left her side. Anna and I could not have a private conversation. He was territorial and possessive, jealous even of a female friend. Without realizing it, he hurt her pride by insulting her culture, the way she cooked, and the way she dressed. Anna was living in Western Europe, which is what she wanted above all. But her new life came at a terrible price. This is what I explored in Moonlight in Odessa, the terrible trade-offs we make in the pursuit of love and stability.
Why ten years? It took that long for my skills to catch up to my vision of what I wanted the stories to be. I learned to tighten dialogue, create a story arc rather than just stringing together anecdotes, and think about themes and metaphors as well as the different layers of a story. There was also a significant amount of research to do. When I couldn’t take this novel any further, I put it down and worked on another novel. A few months later, I went back to the first story with a fresh eye and new ideas.
As a Montana native, I didn’t have any contacts in publishing. I believe in the power of a query letter and synopsis. It is worth the time and effort it takes to write a strong letter to make a good first impression. A few agents showed interest in the novel, but it was hard to know which agent would be the right one.
Writing is a solitary act, so it is especially important to meet with other writers. Laurel Zuckerman, author of Sorbonne Confidential, raved about the Geneva Writers’ Conference, which was only three hours from my home in Paris, France. Attending this conference was a turning point for me. It is also where I met my agent. Writers Jake Lamar and Susan Tiberghien answered my questions about what to look for in an agent. I took a class with Vivian Gornick at the Paris Writers’ Workshop, and two year later she kindly read my novel and endorsed it.
My advice to writers would be to be open to life experiences (fifteen years ago, I had no idea that a novel would emerge from my experience of translating letters from lonely Montanan men to Russian women), to keep working on your stories (even if you have to set them aside from time to time), and to meet as many writers as you can to share inspiration and opportunities. – Janet Skeslien Charles