Ruta Sepetys’ journey began with a question. For 20 years, she’d been managing musicians’ careers, helping them tell their stories.
“But what’s your story?” a songwriter-client asked her one day.
Successful entrepreneur. Founder of an artist management business. Michigander-turned-Nashvillian of Lithuanian heritage. She was all those things. But in that moment, Sepetys didn’t have an answer. “I was bankrupt of story!” she recalls, loosing her unself-conscious laugh. “I’m Lithuanian. But what does that mean? I have a name that no one can pronounce, and I eat herring for breakfast?”
She knew only the barest outline of her family’s past: Her father and grandparents had fled Lithuania after Stalin annexed the Baltic states in 1940 and began deporting thousands of citizens to the Soviet Far East.
It took Sepetys (suh-PET-ees) seven years and thousands of miles to color in the finer details. She traveled to Lithuania, met her extended family, and interviewed dozens of victims — deportation survivors and their relatives. After one visit, she had a flash of inspiration: “One girl, her dream of freedom and a voice to speak for those who will never have a chance to tell this story.”
Between Shades of Gray is that fictional girl’s story — one that represents the many real victims’ accounts she gathered — and it’s Sepetys’ answer to the existential question that fueled her pilgrimage.
The novel is narrated in unflinching prose by Lina, a 15-year-old art student whose family is exiled to Siberia in 1941 — a voyage not only thousands of miles eastward, but precipitously downwards, from a happy, well-off childhood into a hell of privation, cruelty and unimaginable loss. Lina begins her tale with this: “They took me in my nightgown” — an opening line with instant resonance. And the story never lets go.
Sepetys’ second novel, Out of the Easy, also chronicles a teen’s difficult journey. Born into poverty in 1950s New Orleans, Josie dreams of escaping her circumstances and going to college. But she must untangle a murder and defy a ruthless criminal underworld if she’s to free herself from her old life.
Like Lina, Out of the Easy’s young narrator opens her tale powerfully: “My mother’s a prostitute” is the book’s first sentence.
Sepetys, it seems, has a gift for the strong start.
In the year since Sepetys’ debut novel was released (in spring of 2011), it has made The New York Times bestseller list, won too many awards to name here, and been translated into 25 languages. And it’s launched Sepetys’ newest odyssey: that of globetrotting young-adult novelist in constant motion, speaking to students and fans all over the world, following her detective-like fascination with history to Eastern Europe to research her third novel, and even meeting the Lithuanian prime minister.
Sepetys spoke with The City Paper about the joys and tribulations of becoming a best-selling novelist, what it’s like to bring dark eras in history to life for young readers, and the fearsome responsibility of becoming a keeper of victims’ and survivors’ stories.
Between Shades of Gray is a story of survival against terrible odds. What’s really interesting is how your characters find ways to maintain their humanity — by helping each other, even though they have to make horrifying sacrifices to do so.
The survivors said that during this occupation the I and the me dissolved, and they became we. If a fellow Lithuanian were starving in the camp, they would pinch off their bread rations to save that person. There were so many stories about how, literally, love kept people alive.
In fact, your extended family had to make very real sacrifices when your father and grandparents fled the country before the war.
When I went back in 2005, I asked my father’s cousin if she had any pictures of my dad. She said, “Don’t you know? When your grandparents and your father escaped, we feared the Soviets would come looking for them. We burned all the photos. We had to pretend we had no connection to your family.”
Here I am in my father’s cousin’s living room, realizing that all the freedoms that I have as an American, in a way, came at the expense of these people. And I had no idea.
The whole thing started with the desire to tell my family’s story. And maybe, in a way, to give back. To apologize. I feel ashamed that this affected my extended family and I was completely ignorant to this part of history.
There’s a lovely scene in the book in which your characters share a meager Christmas “feast” of morsels and luxuries they’d stolen or saved. It’s a splurge of sorts, in the middle of all this horror, and it’s a wonderful, very human moment.
Splurging is just as much an experience of heart and spirit as it is material. Imagine: You lose your home, you lose your family, you live in a camp, and the smallest thing — a stone with sparkles in it — is like a diamond. So I absolutely think that for people who have experienced hardship, when you’ve been hollowed out, there’s more room to be full of joy.
So, the sacrifices and privations make the tiny indulgences more meaningful, in a way?
Those sacrifices, they grow courage, I think. They hollow you out, and you think, “I’m broken.” But you can’t break the broken. I see that — my father’s ability to appreciate, to not fear. He’s a risk taker, because he’s already lost everything. That’s been such a blessing to me! When I go to him for advice, he always says, “Do it! What’s the worst that can happen?”
The survivors — they used their suffering as a spiritual teacher. They said that a part of them died. But in its place, something else grew, and gave them a reverence for life and relationships that they didn’t have before — that’s absolutely present in these people, and I wanted to capture it in the book. I don’t know if I did.
Apparently you did, because your novel is by any measure a big hit — the kind of book people love to call an “overnight success.”
Yes! People say, “This is your very first book, and it’s winning all these accolades!” But it wasn’t like I just wrote it and it was done. There were 17 full drafts, and so many publishers passed. I have a stack of rejections. “It’s too dark. It’s too sad. Historical fiction doesn’t sell.” One editor actually said, “If this really happened, why hasn’t anyone else written about it?” And then the book sold in 2007, but it did not come out until 2011. There were four years of waiting. I thought it was going to be shelved. And you begin to lose hope and faith.
And to live in a dark place while I’m writing this book — it was not an easy ride. There were so many times that I thought, “I’m going to quit. First, this is really hard. And second, there’s no way I can do justice to these beautiful, courageous people.”
The survivors kept saying, “Ruta, the world has forgotten us.” That was haunting me.
Is there a “splurge” aspect to your writing as well? Are there times when it’s so enjoyable that it almost feels indulgent?
Writing is really hard, but then the research — that’s why I love writing historical fiction. It’s a little like being a detective. My new book (Out of the Easy) is about the daughter of a brothel prostitute in the French Quarter in 1950. I met with these gangsters, old mafia guys from Slidell, and they introduced me to the underbelly of New Orleans, which was terrifying. It will make your toes curl. And I could not sleep! It was absolutely fascinating, all this crazy stuff they showed me — bullet holes in the ceiling. And you see it, and you smell it, and the writer in me is thinking, “I’ve got to get to my laptop.”
Then I would sit down and start to write, and you’re just in the zone. And the story’s coming through you, and the characters are speaking, and you feel a little bit crazy, because you hear them talking, and you’re running to jot things down. That part is so exciting to me.
And to be able to make up stuff for a living? It’s fantastic! Creative expression is the best kind of indulgence, right?
In researching Between Shades of Gray, you made some pretty scary physical and psychological sacrifices.
Right. I did this 24-hour prison immersion experiment (in a former Soviet prison in Latvia). I signed all the paperwork — you know, risk of death. I went in totally unprepared, thinking, “Might be kind of uncomfortable and cold, but I’m going to see what this is like.”
They lined us up. They were hitting the guys. And I ruptured my disc! We were doing pushups and the guards were walking on our backs. And fear of being punched and kicked — they were using these methods of intimidation, grabbing people’s hair. I started to panic — “How far is this going to go?”
As soon as that happened, I changed as a human being. I went into such a shameful mode of self-preservation going into that prison. That’s so hard to learn about yourself.
And then they put me into a cell with these two Latvian guys. By this time I’m crying, you know, ugly crying? And out of the darkness I hear, “Psssst! American lady!” And all I’m thinking is, “You’re gonna get me in trouble.” Because we’re supposed to be quiet! And in my ear I hear, “It’s gonna be OK. I help you.” I would have married that man.
I saw how powerful kindness can be. It was a silly experiment, but it had a profound impact on me. Because people I interviewed, they told me that they survived because someone helped them.
That’s a pretty harsh self-judgment. Most people wouldn’t have had the guts to sign up for a prison immersion experience in the first place. But you sacrificed a certain belief about yourself.
I sacrificed this false sense of security that there was a hero inside me. I think we all hope there’s a hero inside of us, you know? And I don’t know in a situation of adversity who I’m going to be. But the triumph is that now, the world knows about these real heroes. And we realize, by comparing our fragile nature, what it means to be courageous and to sacrifice. To sacrifice something — it’s easy to say; it’s so hard to do.
Have you done any celebratory splurging since the book was published?
Honestly, the splurge was to go to Kroger and see my book on the shelf. Or in the Houston airport, there was this huge display of my books behind the register. I started shaking! I thought, “All this work, the prison, the revisions, all of the rejections, the book being shelved, and I’m seeing it in the airport!”
For my dad, this is a really big deal. He was skeptical: “Will a young adult audience be interested in this story?” and “Will an American audience and a publisher be interested in this?” And when Italy (bought the rights), we had a big dinner at my parents’ house, and ate Italian, and had Prosecco. And we thought, “How fun! If it’s published in any other country maybe we can do the same thing and eat food from the country.” We had no idea it would sell in 30 countries, so we’ve been able to splurge like crazy.
And to be able to connect with Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian people all over the world. This is their story. I wrote the book, but it’s not my story. And to meet these people — it has been an ongoing celebration.
Has people’s response to Between Shades of Gray surprised you?
Ha! I would tell my friends, “Oh, I’m writing a story about a Lithuanian girl starving in Siberia.” They’d say, “Good luck with that.” Because people didn’t know where Lithuania was.
But (after publication) I went to George Washington Carver High School in Memphis as part of a literacy tour. And Humanities Tennessee gave a book to every student. In some cases, this is the first book that they’ve ever owned. And these kids came to me, and they were talking about Stalin! And they’re interested!
Out of all these adventures you’ve had this past year, you seem to find school trips the most rewarding.
This book has allowed me to see outside of the Brentwood bubble. So far I have visited 17 countries for the book! And teenagers in Portugal are very similar to teenagers in Brentwood.
They say things that really open your eyes. One kid in Chicago said, “Your book is The Hunger Games but for real. If you live you win, and if you lose, you die. I don’t want to go to the hunger games.” The room was just silent. This was a kid in middle school! It’s amazing.
Even in other countries — the Japanese have their own history with war crimes, and now they’re using the book to study compassionate courage. It’s absolutely fascinating. And the German kids said, “We weren’t even born in WWII. But this is who we are. Our identity is tied to this.”
There’s so much to learn from this story, like hope and peaceful endurance. And the kids had so many questions about faith, did faith play a role, and what is identity, and what is courage. How much can be taken away from you before you lose your identity? Or do you ever?
Are you having any second-act anxiety aboutOut of the Easy?
A reporter asked me, “How does it feel to know that your best work is behind you?” On the radio! It creates this pressure! My heart was breaking.
I think I’m poised to crash and burn, and I’ll call you from author rehab in Hohenwald! (laughs) “Can you come break me out of here?”
But I love the creative process, bringing a piece of history out of the dark. This is what I want to do. I want to find these little-known pieces of history, wrap fictional characters around them, and sneak in a little bit of learning.
Sometimes historical facts can be really sterile: “Joseph Stalin killed 20 million people.” But through characters and stories, suddenly these statistics — we can make them human. These kids care for people they’ve never met.They cry for them, and they cheer for them. I’m telling you, don’t underestimate the power of books.