Ruta Sepetys: Up Close and Personal
Let me start by saying that Ruta Sepetys is a spectacular speaker. As in mind blowing, jaw dropping, side splitting, hands down one-of-the-best-visiting-authors-in-the-world good. If you get the chance to book her at your library, do so! We had the great fortune to have her as our visiting author last week and she enchanted teachers, students, and parents alike with her remarkable stories.
Ruta started her adult life as a failed opera singer (her words, not mine!), a fact that led her to work behind the scenes in the music industry for 22 years. She came to writing later in life, although her interest in stories manifested itself in all of her many previous endeavors. Indeed, what makes her such an engaging speaker is her own personal narrative. From working on the Halo games to helping singers craft their stories for American Idol to managing well known bands, Ruta has consistently forged her own path and collected countless stories along the way.
Fans of her two books, Between Shades of Gray (2012 Morris Award Finalist) and Out of the Easy (2014 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults), will be particularly interested in how she came to write both novels. An avid researcher, Ruta immerses herself in the historical world she is writing about in order to truly experience the atmosphere she describes so evocatively in both her books. This devotion (dare I say obsession?) with authenticity has led her to be locked up in a WWII-era train car, as well as an overnight stay in a simulated Soviet prison ending in rather disastrous results (a story best heard in person). Undaunted, Ruta has since schmoozed with the Mafia, visited once glamorous brothels in New Orleans, and even explored a sunken cruise ship replete with possible treasures.
What struck me most about my time spent with Ruta is her extraordinary graciousness. Every single minute of the day, she was focused on being open and available to her admittedly avid fans. She signed books every single day, took numerous selfies with the students, and responded to the many subsequent emails that kids wrote sharing their stories, their secrets, and their aspirations. And within it all, she also took the time to answer a few of my questions for the Hub. Thank you, Ruta, for your inspiring visit, your commitment to teen readers, and for your lovely books.
Why are you drawn to writing historical fiction?
I’m drawn to secrets and history is full of them. Through characters and narrative, statistics and reported facts suddenly become human and we absorb history in a lasting way.
You equate doing research to being a detective of sorts, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve found in your research that don’t appear in your books?
In the research process for all three of my books I interviewed many people. In nearly every interview someone said, “I’m going to tell you a secret now, something that you can’t put in the book.” There are so many secrets behind the stories. So as I’m writing, I think about the private and personal things people shared with me during my research. I ask myself what the secrets tell us about the human condition– historically and currently. Generally, when people share a confidential story they begin with something like, “I know this is shocking and crazy–” But in truth, many people have actually shared similar secrets with me. Sometimes, the information they’re holding makes them feel quite regretful and isolated. They’ll give me permission to use parts of the story as long as I don’t use their name. I then try to weave elements of the experience into my books, hoping that readers might identify with the story and realize it’s a shared experience. I hope that when a reader recognizes themselves in a book, the world might feel a little less lonely.
Judging from your talks, your writing process seems to be a combination of serendipitous finds mixed with intense firsthand research. Can you explain how the two interrelate and how you use both as inspiration for your stories?
Research leads to discovery and discoveries then require further digging. I may find a locked box, but then I need to find someone who has the key. Once I find the person, we experience unlocking the box together. They then become invested in the process and generally offer to help further. While writing my upcoming novel, I was digging for information on a section of the Baltic Sea off of Denmark so I enlisted the help of a history professor in Copenhagen. During our research he came upon an actual “message in a bottle” tossed into the Baltic Sea during the exact time period I was writing about. It was a momentous and thrilling discovery for both of us. He’s subsequently been involved in my entire research process and I’ve even tucked a nod to him in the story. When I weave my research into the fiction, I include not only the facts but parts of the emotional journey and interactions as well.
Tell me about your newest book and why you wanted to write it.
My third book is set in East Prussia at the end of WWII and tells the story of four teens whose fates intertwine as they board a doomed ship. It’s the largest maritime disaster in history, but quite an unknown story. And of course it’s full of secrets!
Any plans on writing other genres?
I know better than to say “never” but for now I have several historical books that I’m excited to write. But I’m also very interested in short stories. I’ve always got a short story collection by Ron Carlson, Ellen Gilchrist, or Ann Beattie in my bag. And one day I’d love to write a thriller.
Why do you write YA?
I think that books we read during adolescence can have a lasting and profound effect on us. Books I loved as a teen? I still love them today. Want to see me fangirl? Just whisper the words “James Henry Trotter.” I have an original portrait painting of Roald Dahl in my home. It’s five feet wide. Yep. Want to see me clutch my hand to my heart? Ask me about Ethan Frome. Not what you expected, right? Ethan Frome was my gateway read. At twelve, it introduced me to the bleak and unhappy ending, the type of story I’m now always in search of and desperate to write. It really appealed to the dramatic and innocent teenage me.
Young readers aren’t jaded. They read with an emotional truth that’s very pure. Their feedback is honest and unfiltered. They keep me grounded and they’re such a grateful audience. I feel so lucky to be writing YA right now. The community is full of incredible artists and writers. Can you imagine being a kid and having Jack Gantos visit your school or Laurie Halse Anderson speak at your commencement? This is a very exciting time and I’m grateful to be part of it.
~Alegria Barclay, currently reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
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