The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Janet Skeslien Charles, bringing Odessa to life through writing

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Images, clockwise from top: Moonlight in Odessa cover art; Janet Skeslien Charles author photo; JJ Marsh author photo

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa.

Janet, welcome! Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up on the plains of Montana, in a town of two thousand people. I have always been a writer, with a journal for observations, prose, and poetry, though for me, writing is a very private activity.

At the University of Montana, I studied English, French, and Russian. I also spent a year on a university exchange at the University of Maryland. After graduation, I went to Odessa, Ukraine, for two years as a Soros Fellow.

I found a job in France and intended to stay for a year. On my first day in France, I met the man who became my husband, and I’ve been in Paris for over ten years.

Moonlight in Odessa is truly an international effort. The novel is set in Odessa, Ukraine. My agent is English. My editor’s assistant is Japanese-Danish, my copy editor is from New Zealand. I’m American. The book was written in France and typeset in Scotland. My first fan letter came from a Swede. Rights have been sold in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil, Sweden, Iceland, Serbia, Romania, Taiwan, and Denmark.

When you’re writing, which comes first, story or location?
My novel was an ode to Odessa, a city I love. The story grew from the place.

How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
The way my characters speak, what they eat, how they dress, who they believe, how they love, and where they go are all very particular to the city of Odessa.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
For me, it is how characters react to situations. Odessa is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, which means that my characters use humor as a shield to ward off painful situations. Odessans are capable of laughing at things that would make me bawl. Their mental toughness is impressive. So for me, the sense of city is the sense of self.

Also, trying to understand what is important to characters is important. My character Daria is defined by her ambitions, which exist because of her experiences in Odessa, a comsmopolitan sea port.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I was immersed in Odessa for two years and am still in touch with friends there, so it was easy for me to write about the city, but I love that Jeanette Winterson wrote The Passion without visiting Venice. It is one of my favorite books and so evocative of time and place. I don’t think you need to know a place, though it helps. I think imagination and observation are the most important tools when creative a setting.

Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
Daria, my main character, is at a job interview and must decide whether she is able to do the job and stay ahead of the lecherous boss:

Chess. There’s a reason the former Soviet Union has more world champion players than any other country. Chess is strategy, persistence, cunning, and the ability to look farther into the future than an opponent. The bloodlust of killing off others, one at a time. Chess is every man for himself. Building traps and avoiding them. It is mental toughness. And sacrifice. In Odessa, life is chess. Moves. Countermoves. Feigns. Knowing your adversary and staying one step ahead of him.

I took the job.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I absolutely love Venice in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Michael Perry’s Population: 485 and Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents are also great examples of how place shapes the narrative. I have also read two unpublished novels by friends — one evokes North London, the other life in small-town France — and six months later, I am still savoring these two places I have never been.

The authors are Marie Houzelle, a French woman who writes in English, and Katya Jezzard-Puyraud, who wrote about North London so convincingly, I finished her novel feeling as if I had grown up there.

Next month’s Location, Locution guest  will be Jeet Thayil, the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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