Interview with Ruta Sepetys

I think we all dream about meeting writers we admire:


In the dream, the author-hero turns out to be exactly as wise and wonderful as her published works are. She immediately understands us, just as we knew she would when we read her book, which was written just for us! And in the dream’s final scene, we part from each other’s company like longtime friends.

Mostly, our favorite authors obtain restraining orders long before this fantasy comes to pass. But, maybe once or twice in a lifetime, the dream comes true.

It happened exactly that way a few weeks ago—in the sunny kitchen of young-adult author Ruta Sepetys, whom I’d been assigned to interview (and whose excellent debut novel BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY I had recently finished, and loved).

Make no mistake: Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray is NOT a bondage-fantasy trilogy for lonely middle-aged women (although Sepetys behaves with the utmost grace and humor when people make this error). It is a gorgeously-written, heart-shattering novel about a teen girl (LINA) whose family is deported to Siberia by the Soviet secret police in 1941, after the USSR occupies the Baltic countries.

Like so many gifted authors, Sepetys manages to gaze unblinklingly at the worst horrors the world doles out without leaving readers in despair. A bright thread of hope runs through the undifferentiated gray nightmare—a hope not only for Lina’s and her family’s survival, but for the survival of human kindness itself.

It quickly became clear to me that morning in her kitchen that Sepetys is always looking for that bright thread, in her fiction and in her life. I’ve rarely been welcomed so effusively into someone’s home, especially in my role as journalist—which can often awaken insecurity, nervousness, and even suspicion in interviewees.

But Sepetys is not a nervous or a suspicious sort of person. She’s an exuberant, cheerful, and extraordinarily optimistic sort of person with an amazing gift for empathy—one of those impossibly gracious people who’s always steering the conversation back to you. Her fascination with people is utterly sincere, which is what makes it so completely disarming. And she behaved throughout my visit as if I were somehow honoring her with a favor—the very definition of a class act. I entered the scene already smitten with her words, and I quickly became smitten with her actual self as well.

That may be why it took nearly three hours for us to finish the so-called “interview” I’d been assigned to accomplish that day, busy as we became with talking about our many shared interests—airplanes and Soviet history, and the long, painful path to becoming a “real” writer…whatever that means. And I have the distinct sense that Sepetys has the ability to quickly discover shared fascinations with a great many people—a marvelous skill indeed, and one that will fuel her novelist-researcher curiosity for a long time to come, I predict. And it’s also likely to win her a great many loyal fans.

And with that, I invite you to read the result of our morning’s endeavors. This week’s issue of The City Paper features the sunny-kitchen interview I’ve described—in which Sepetys speaks so eloquently about her storyteller’s journey and the difficult lives she builds for her characters. In a writer’s life, and in the tragic worlds her characters inhabit, she explains, there’s a constant counterpoint, a push-pull between sacrifice and creative indulgence, suffering and human kindness.

Click here for the full story in the Nashville City Paper.


Related post: One Beautiful Thing: Reflections on Literature and Life

3 thoughts on “Interview with Ruta Sepetys

  1. I read her book! I found the book at a wonderful book store in Salt Lake City, by accident. I asked the clerk, which books were good, and she told me of this one, which I read, and could not put down. My own grandfather, and his parents, and siblings lived in what is today Lithuania, but then was East Prussia. They were of German descent, it is rumored, that my great grand father and his other son, either fell, or were shipped of to Siberia, and my grandmother took her two daughters, and a hand cart and what they could pack and hauled it to Germany where my grandfather was. I have contacted a man, who was born in the same small town, and he and others like him are feverishly working to do two things, find family, find their descendants, and their history, and then to hold Russia accountable for her behaviour, by publishing these stories. Their lament, is that there are few to give this history to.
    I appreciated her story, and the stories that were interwoven, and I too could relate having lived in Zaire, Africa, during the Angolan uprising of 1978. I contacted her, and she responded to my message. She is a lovely person, and a record barer!

    • Thank you for this note, Annette, and for sharing your own family’s story! I’m so glad that you enjoyed the book as much as I did, and that you had a similarly wonderful experience upon contacting her.

  2. Pingback: Ruta Makes Front Page! | Ruta Sepetys Official Fan Website

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