A few years ago a woman named Lindsay Davis opened my manuscript and became my agent. For me it was a total Sally Field moment. Someone who wasn’t in my critique group, someone I wasn’t married to or the mother of or the daughter of — someone who didn’t HAVE to believe — believed, too.
Then Lindsay announced that she was getting married and moving overseas. Her clients, who were cheerfully adopted by other believers at Writers House, were thrilled for her. We thought it sounded very Jane Austen and hoped her life would be full of accents and dancing. We were also nervous. A few of us found each other and formed a transition support group that we called The Lindsay Situation. We’ve watched each other’s budding careers from afar ever since.
Fast forward to March of 2011, when it’s time to watch Ruta Sepetys’ career from close up. Her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, comes out on the 22nd.So today I’m bringing her here, to my virtual couch, and hoping that a book tour will bring her to my real couch sometime soon.
Ruta’s book, which has already received a starred review in Kirkus, is about 15-year-old Lina, who is yanked from her home in Lithuania and deported, with her mother and brother, to Siberia. It’s a book about living, when people all around are dying. And it brings to print the story of millions of people that for so many years has been buried under ice and dirt.
ME: While I would love to talk about the journey that your characters go through, I’m afraid I’d give too much away. So I wanted to begin by talking about the journey you went through as a writer.
RS: Well, let’s just say that my journey could have been very different. I originally wrote a middle-grade mystery and was fortunate to have some publishers request it after critiques at conferences. I wanted to work with an agent, rather than submit the manuscript myself, so I queried Writers House. They responded with a request for the full and at the last minute I decided to also include ten pages of Between Shades of Gray, just to show a range of material. The agent called and said the middle-grade novel was fun but that the voice of BSG was more authentic and that was the book I should submit. Well, the ten pages I sent? That’s all I had written! So I shelved the middle-grade book and began to write BSG. I often think how very different my journey would have been if I would have stuck with that first book. I am so grateful to Writers House for their guidance!
Me: When you were first beginning your writing career you received a really tough (and we’re not talking Bounty-tough, people, we’re talking Chuck Norris-tough) critique. How the heck did you survive?
RS: Oh yeah, I’ve had some rough critiques! But you know what? I am so lucky to have had that experience. I mean, it has to be difficult to tell an aspiring writer, “Actually, this really sucks.” But it helped me so much more in the long run to hear the truth. Sure, it hurt, but it eventually scarred over. I’ve also been part of an amazing writing group for over five years. We know each other really well now and our critique sessions can be pretty brutal. But we respect and trust each other completely.
Me: Ruta’s spirited essay about tough critiques and her eventual book sale can be found here. It’s a great read for anyone who is finding the road to publication a little bumpy.
Me: I saw an interview about your day job (music management in Nashville) with Jackie O Media. You said: Never be too good for constructive criticism. Where did that tip come from: Writing? Those tough critiques? Your day job? Life?
RS: It came from life in general. Over the years, I’ve found that if advice or constructive criticism comes from someone you respect it can be truly valuable. It helps you step outside of your own little world and say, “Oh, okay, that’s what it looks like from out here.”
Me: Tell me a little about when you got your agent, since that’s where you found that someone else believed so strongly in Between Shades of Gray.
RS: I’ve had a unique experience when it comes to agents. I’m currently represented by the incredible Ken Wright at Writers House. To say he’s a dream agent would be a massive understatement. When I was originally looking for an agent I researched hard and long. I sent one exclusive query to Steven Malk in the San Diego office of Writers House. Steve is the one I referred to earlier who really set me on course to write Between Shades of Gray. Without that initial guidance from Steve Malk, this book would not exist. As I was writing the novel, I sent WIP pages to Steve and his assistant, Lindsay Davis. Lindsay was so genuinely enthusiastic about the book and the story. She took me on as a client and put 200% into the book. She was tireless and helped me revise many times. She shopped the book and I know that it was her enthusiasm that permeated the process that resulted in an auction. Shortly after the book sold Lindsay moved on from publishing. But she and Steve Malk introduced me to Ken Wright in the New York office. I adored Ken the minute I spoke to him and begged him to represent me. As you mentioned, it’s quite a turning point when someone from the publishing world believes in your work. For me, that was Writers House.
Me: Your journey to publishing this story was both figurative and literal, as you made two very real journeys to Lithuania for research. How much of your research came before you wrote your first line in this book, how much during, etc.?
RS: I took two trips to Lithuania while writing the book. During the first trip I outlined the general idea of the story. I took the second trip when I had started writing, but needed more clarity on the experience in Siberia. On that second trip, I met with historians, survivors, psychologists and conducted days of interviews. I also met members from a group of Lithuanians who had been deported to the Arctic. Their story of survival was just incredible. I was so moved by these people and just had to incorporate their experience into the book.
Me: What WAS the first line you wrote for this book. Can you remember?
RS: Absolutely. The first line was, “They took me in my nightgown.”
And that never changed.
Me: I know that for your research you actually arranged to be locked up in a former Soviet prison. Can you tell us more about that?
RS: There was an opportunity to take part in a simulation experience in a former Soviet prison in Eastern Europe. I jumped at the chance, as the father in my story is sent to prison and I wanted to learn more about the prison environment. I don’t like talking about the prison for a few reasons. First, a simulation experience could never, ever come close to what the actual prisoners went through. It would be incredibly disrespectful for me to compare my experience with theirs. Second, I was in the prison less than 48 hours and in that short time I learned that I am a coward and probably never would have survived in Siberia. I think we all want to believe that we will be noble and courageous in the face of adversity. I wasn’t. And that’s a hard thing to learn about yourself.
Me: [Wanting to ask more questions and to point out that writing is its own kind of bravery but respectfully moving on.] So much of this story depicts horrible living conditions and near starvation, which you write about with such precise detail. Where did those details come from?
RS: The detail definitely comes from the interviews with survivors. They bravely recounted their experiences in vivid detail. It was so overwhelming and shocking. I couldn’t believe that the person in front of me had survived what they were describing.Me: How many beets did you eat in writing this book?
RS: Ha! It’s funny that you ask that. I did eat beets, sardines, and tomatoes because although I had often eaten them, I had to imagine what the heightened taste experience would be like for someone who was starving in order to describe it.
Me: I think that shows, in the tomato scene especially. I also wanted to ask about where you got inspiration for a few of characters. Jonas you named after your grandfather, but the story was inspired by your father, I think?
RS: Actually, my father’s experience is represented by the cousin, Joana, in the book. The story was inspired by the hundreds of thousands of people who were deported from the Baltics. My grandfather was a very kind and gentle person. I tried to imagine him as a little boy and came up with the character of Jonas. I met with several men who had survived the experience in Arctic Siberia. They were small boys when they were first deported and I wrapped the character and spirit of Jonas around some of those experiences.
Me: As a Jewish reader, I was curious about — and dismayed by –- the bald man, the one character who shared my faith. I expect you’ll get a lot of Jewish readers for this book, so I wonder if you could talk a little more about this particular character.
RS: I’m so glad you asked about the bald man! Without giving away too much, he is one of the true heroes and I love him. Lithuania was tossed between Stalin and Hitler. In 1941, the Soviets occupied and deported many people. Shortly thereafter in 1941 the Germans occupied and the Nazis–along with Nazi collaborators–killed over 200,000 Jews in Lithuania. Then in 1944, the Soviets occupied Lithuania again and deported three times as many people to Siberia as they had in 1941. So between these three occupations, much of the population was decimated. The tragedy created complex dynamics. Imagine, you might be fearful of the Soviets invading, but your neighbor who is Jewish, might be fearful of the Nazis invading. The bald man is a representation of the rare courageous people who chose to do the right and honorable thing and tragically ended up being punished for it. In the face of fear, it seems people often misjudged each other. I gave the bald man a difficult demeanor in hopes that the reader might be thrown for a loop but in the end realize that they had misjudged him and recognize his truly heroic act and sacrifice.
Me: And finally, I’d love for you to talk a bit about Lina. I think a lot of young girls will identify with her – with her talent and with her spunk.
RS: Lina represents the incredible human spirit who, in the face of death, somehow moves closer to life and all that she loves. Lina is love personified and therefore she is fearless.
Me: This is one of those impossible questions to answer, but I suppose I’ll ask it anyway. What does it mean to you, as someone with proud Lithuanian heritage, to get this story out there in the world, now?
RS: 2011 marks the 70 year anniversary of the first deportations. That’s a very long time for a piece of history to sit in the dark. I’ve often said that although I wrote the book, it’s not my story. This story belongs to the people of the Baltics and I am so honored to be able to share it with readers. I can’t explain how grateful I am to Philomel, Penguin and all of the publishers around the world who are supporting the book. It makes my head spin.
Me: You have a day job that keeps you entrenched in music. How do you think music affects your writing?
RS: Wow, that’s an interesting question. I couldn’t live without music. Hans Christian Andersen said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” It’s so true. I’ve been fortunate to work in the music business for twenty years and when I love a song I am fulfilled in an indescribable way. I am very conscious of the rhythm and structure of a song and perhaps that has leaked into my writing a bit?
Me: Do you listen to music while you write?
RS: Never. I know a lot of writers do, but it would distract me. Music isn’t background ambiance to me. I sit and listen intently to every note and aspect.
Me: So as long as we’re taking music, I asked Ruta to pick out a few songs for us. We talked about different themes and she chose this one: Artists Under the Radar.
Ruta: Yes! Here are a few artists and songs that I’m crazy about. Please support artists and songwriters. Buy music!
Artist: The Civil Wars
Song: Poison & Wine
Details: Fabulous duo from here in Nashville.
Look & Listen: Here!
Artist: Gary Go
Song: “So So” (live version)
Details: Artist from the UK. Brilliant writer and vocalist.
Look & Listen: Here!
Artist: Tim Christensen
Song: Barb Wired Baby’s Dream (live from Abby Road)
Details: One of my all time favorite artists! He’s from Denmark.
I would give anything to see him perform live.
Look & Listen: Here!
Me: Thanks for those! I especially liked The Civil Wars. And my usual ending questions is: What’s your secret talent? For example author Kathy Erskine can take a bunch of random ingredients and turn them into dinner. Fellow Lindsay Situation Member Wendy Shang is good at finding things other people have lost.
RS: My secret talent – the ability to laugh on the outside when my heart is breaking on the inside.
Me: A good talent, though it’s one I wish you didn’t need. Thanks so much to Ruta for taking so much time to talk to me about her book in these last weeks before its release. Here’s hoping her book tour brings her close to DC so we can finally meet live and in person.
And a big thanks, as always, to everyone who joined us.
If you want to learn more about Ruta and this book, you can visit:
Or you can check out this article in Publishers Weekly
I also wanted to link to this video, where Ruta talks about her book and about (and to) some of the survivors who shared their stories.