Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Eleven Up: Interview with Ruta Sepetys

Hello everyone! Today's interview is with Ruta Sepetys, author of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY (Philomel, March 2011).

Here's the summary of BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously—and at great risk—documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

Now, onto the interview!

1. What a beautiful book BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is! Beautiful, and painful, and powerful. Can you tell us a little bit about your story’s journey from idea to finished book?

RS: Thank you so much for the kind words! The nutshell story behind the book is:
• Was inspired to write the book after a visit with my relatives in Lithuania.
• Wrote ten pages and included it in a query to an agent. (I was actually querying the agent about a different book but included the pages of BSG to show what else I was working on.)
• Agent called me and suggested I shelf the finished novel and work on BSG. I took the advice.
• I did many rounds of revisions for my agent. Many.
• Agent shopped the manuscript and after five months and many rejections a few publishers were interested so an auction was held and Philomel was chosen as the publisher.
• Did a few rounds of revision with my editor.

2. You mention in your author notes that you were able to travel to Lithuanian to conduct your research. What was this experience like for you, and for the survivors? Do memorials commemorating those lost in the gulags exist? And what do you think is the legacy of this terrible period of history on Lithuania itself?

RS - Yes, there are memorials and museums in Lithuania dedicated to the people who were deported to Siberia. I visited those sites and also interviewed survivors, members of government, psychologists, and many people who helped describe their experience. In terms of a legacy, I think the Baltics have taught us beautiful lessons of hope, courage, and patriotism.

3. Since you have a personal connection to the plight of the Lithuanians under Stalin, I imagine your research must have been emotionally challenging. How did that affect your writing?

RS - It affected not only my writing, but also my view of survival. Every day while working on the book I was left pondering questions like, "Who survives?" and "What does it take to bear the unbearable?" I was often sidetracked because I was just so saddened and shocked by what these poor people went through.

4. Did you have any “champions” who kept you going on the days that writing got tough?

RS - Absolutely! I could not have completed this book without my writing group. We've been together over five years now. They read each draft and gave me fantastic feedback and suggestions. When I read through the book I can literally point to examples of how I incorporated the group's suggestions.

5. What was your editorial process like? Lina has such a strong voice and point of view - was that there right from the start, or was that something that came out more gradually?

RS - Lina's voice was definitely there from the start. What wasn't there, was a clear feeling of hope. My editor, Tamra Tuller, worked with me to amplify the moments of hope in the novel.

6. Many writers have “aids” to help them along in the writing process, like playlists or visuals or even just a favorite spot to write. Any chance you might share an aid or two?

RS - We have a small cabin in the country on a lake. It's my favorite place to write. I wrote large sections of "Between Shades of Gray" there. Being surrounded by nature and peaceful scenery definitely inspires me!

7. And what’s next for you? Can you share what you’re working on, or what and when your next work will be published?

RS - I'm working on another book for Philomel. It's also historical fiction, but it's set in the US in the 1950's.

Thanks so much, Ruta!

To learn more about Ruta Sepetys and BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, please visit her website!


  1. Nice interview! Between Shades of Gray is such a beautiful and heartbreaking book, but moreover it's so informative. I confess I knew basically zilch about Russia's takeover of the Baltic States beyond that "people were sent to Siberia." It's so crazy to think that the U.S. was allied with Stalin, who was ultimately responsible for even more deaths than Hitler, during World War II. Highly recommended reading for both teens and adults!

  2. This book is now a MUST READ for me! I was interested already, thanks to the great title and amazing cover art, and now having read the blurb, wow... sounds like such a difficult yet inspiring story.

    Thanks so much for the interview, Ruta and Catherine!

  3. It's a lovely book. Reminds me of one of the books that shook me to the core when I was a kid, THE ENDLESS STEPPE (by Esther Hautzig). I got my hands on BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY a couple of days ago and could not go to sleep until I had finished it. Beautifully written and very moving.

    Thank you, Ruta and Catherine!


  4. Ruta, my local indie owner loves your book. I am so excited to dig into my own copy.

  5. My take: if you only read 2 books this year, read Between Shades of Gray twice.

  6. This book just blew me away. LOVED every part of it. Great interview.