Interview with Janet
A Conversation with Janet Skeslien Charles
What prompted you to write about Odessa? Are you Ukrainian?
I studied Russian at the University of Montana. Students learned the language using the grammar-translation method, which means we rarely spoke. Instead, we spent our time memorizing rules and translating sentences like “Pavel works at the factory.” I received a Soros teaching fellowship in Odessa, Ukraine, which allowed me to meet two goals: to practice my Russian and to do two years of community service. Working in Odessa was an eye-opening experience. I’m not Ukrainian, but would love to be considered an honorary Odessan.
Where did the idea for Moonlight in Odessa come from?
The subject of e-mail order brides is important to me. While I was in college, I had a job translating letters from lonely Montanan men and desperate Russian women. I later met the women and saw the marriages that had come from this correspondence. While in Odessa, I came across men who’d flown half way around the world looking for love. Two of my close Odessan friends married Westerners. I spent time with them and their husbands. Although my friends were smart, savvy women, they had no power in their marriages. In some ways, they were worse off than they had been in Ukraine.
You mentioned that you knew some e-mail order brides. Did you have anyone in particular in mind when you wrote the novel?
Yes. I was thinking about my sister. She was married and could see her life and marriage from the inside, and I could only see it from the outside. It looked much better from the outside. Or maybe I didn’t want to see how she struggled. This book is for her.
Several thousand Russian women advertise themselves on matchmaking websites. Why are there so many e-mail order brides from the former Soviet Union?
Perestroika, which means ‘restructuring’ in Russian, brought about positive changes such as freedom of assembly, speech, and religion beginning in the late 1980s; however, lines for scarce goods got longer, civic unrest mounted, and violent crackdowns claimed lives. It was an economic catastrophe for many citizens. There was a struggle for power and property as limited private ownership was transformed into rampant capitalism. The powerful got richer and the middle-class and poor lost everything. Unemployment was high, salaries and pensions were low. When I lived in Odessa from 1994-1996, pensioners like Boba received the equivalent of twenty dollars per month, which did not cover the cost of their food and lodging. As a teacher, I earned $25 per month, but my monthly rent was $100. There were months that the Ukrainian government could not cover the salaries of its employees and we did not receive our pay. Though the situation has improved, there are still small salaries, limited housing, and problems with unemployment and alcoholism.
There is an American character in the novel named Jane. Are you Jane?
Jane is an enthusiastic young woman who is proud of her country. She thinks of America in the same way that Christians envision heaven. She is the blurry lens through which Daria sees America. Daria has unrealistic expectations about life in America because her friend Jane can only see, or accept, the positive side of her country. Of course, Daria is much the same. She only wants to talk about the positive aspects of Odessa.
Moonlight in Odessa is about an e-mail order bride. Do you think that there is a larger story?
I hope so. I wrote this novel as a story about relationships, families, and marriage. Boba pushes Daria to study engineering rather than English. She pushes Daria to leave Odessa. And because Daria loves and trusts her grandmother, she complies. Many have us have family members who push us to do what they think is right for us, when only we know what will make us happy or be good for us.
Many of us have stayed in relationships that were unfulfilling because we don’t know how to leave or because it is convenient. Although Daria sometimes felt like a coward and a quitter, it takes a lot of courage to take stock of the situation and to leave a bad relationship.
Most families have secrets. Daria’s life and her beliefs were shaped by what she was told. She thought that men would leave because all the men in her family had left. We keep things secret to try to protect our loved ones, yet sometimes ignorance is the most harmful of all.
Of course, I wanted to show the painful transition from communism to rampant capitalism that Odessans faced. Retired people like Boba had a very difficult time. Their pensions did not cover the cost of living. If retirees did not have family to help, they found themselves in a very precarious situation.
What surprised you most when writing this story?
Harmon. In the first draft of the novel, he had no redeeming qualities. Yet from draft to draft, he worked hard to make peace, a peace I never expected to happen. In each new version, he became a different person. Also, when I mapped out the story, I decided that Boba would start to have serious health problems and that Daria would have to choose between America and her grandmother, but instead, Boba did just fine.
How has living in a France shaped your writing?
Living in a foreign country helped as I wrote Moonlight in Odessa. Much of the frustration that Daria feels was inspired by my own struggles. Daria thought that America would be perfect. I, too, had preconceived notions about France and the French, and it took me a long time to adapt to life – not just a vacation or a year sabbatical – in Paris.
What advice would you give to other writers?
The writing has to come first. Everyone has stories to tell. To write a novel or a collection of short stories or poems, you have to write. This seems like obvious advice, but living in Paris, I know so many people who came here to write and who never do. It helped me tremendously to meet with other writers, but it took years to find supportive, insightful people. This is why I started a writing workshop at Shakespeare and Company. I wanted to meet people who loved to read and write. It was a writer friend who raved about the Geneva Writers Conference, where I met my agent. Don’t wait for other people do set up a group where you can learn about markets and opportunities. Don’t wait to start that novel or send out your work.
Are you working on another book?
Absolutely. I’m not ready to leave Odessa yet.