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5 Questions With... Ruta Sepetys (BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY)

by Ruta Sepetys
April 19, 2013
Ruta Sepetys was born and raised in Michigan in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. Her award-winning debut novel, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, was inspired by her family's history in Lithuania and is published in 40 countries. Her new novel, OUT OF THE EASY, is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950. A historical tale of secrets and lies, OUT OF THE EASY is a story of identity, family, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny. Ruta lives with her family in Tennessee. For more information on Ruta, visit her at www.rutasepetys.com.

Your debut novel, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, shed light on the history of atrocities against the Baltic people carried out by Stalin. What drew you to tell this story—and why do you think it’s a story not told more often?

My father fled from Stalin as a young boy. In 2005, I discovered that after my father left Lithuania, some of his extended family members were deported to Siberia. I was unaware of the deportations and was shocked when I learned that they had affected so many people.


Yet, somehow, the story remained untold. The U.S. and England were allied with Stalin during WWII and after the end of war, Lithuania remained under Soviet control. The story went dormant. I wanted to give voice to this piece of history.

International reaction to BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY has varied between countries and cultures. What has surprised you the most about this?

The book is now published in 42 countries and 26 languages. I still can't believe it. What has surprised me most is that each country interprets and relates to the story according to their own national history and culture. One country might use the book to study identity and another might use it to study patriotism. I've been fascinated to learn how different the teaching methods and curriculums are outside of the U.S.

Your new book, OUT OF THE EASY, transports the reader to New Orleans in 1950. That’s a difference of almost 10 years and 5,500 miles from the setting of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. How did you land in the French Quarter for your follow-up project?

Many years ago, someone gave me a vintage pair of opera glasses for my birthday. They were still in the original case from jeweler in New Orleans. I traced their history and learned that they belonged to a woman who lived in a French Quarter brothel.

I began to think about what it might be like for a teenage girl to grow up on the fringes of a brothel. What kinds of obstacles she would face? Would she be branded with the identity she was born into, or could she build one of her own?

I had a vision of 1950 that was pure perfection and happiness, but when I began researching I discovered that there was a lot of pain and secrets in post-war America. It made me want to dig deeper.

Many authors do extensive research for their novels, but you’re something of a “method” novelist. What are some of the lengths you’ve gone to while in “research rapture,” to make sure you’ve got the story right?

I love research. It's my favorite part of the process! While writing OUT OF THE EASY, I took many trips down to New Orleans trying to experience the city as deeply as possible. I’m originally from Michigan so Louisiana felt very exotic to me.


I spent a lot of time in the Williams Research Center in the French Quarter sorting through photos and newspapers. I interviewed many locals. I tracked down the 1950 yearbooks from colleges in New Orleans and also Smith College in Northampton. I spent hours poring over the 1950 New Orleans social directory and listened to old radio programs from the time period.

The most amazing part of my research was being able to visit the former brothel of New Orleans madam, Norma Wallace. When I first visited the brothel building, it was abandoned. As I was writing the book, someone bought the brothel and restored it. On my last research trip to New Orleans I decided to drive by one last time. The building was completely restored. One of the residents invited me in and gave me a tour. Walking through the brothel, the whole thing came to life.

In a former life, you worked in the music industry, as a manager of artists. Before that, you pursued a career in opera. What inspired you to become Ruta 3.0, the young adult author?

I was always interested in both music and writing but decided to pursue music first. After twenty years in the music business, the nagging desire to write finally got the best of me and I joined [the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. I attended my first SCBWI conference and never looked back.

Come see Ruta Sepetys at IRA 2013! She will be participating in “Putting Books to Work: Pairing Literature Authors with Classroom Teachers” on Sunday, Apr 21, 2013.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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