Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Ruta Sepetys
When you talk about our current, multiple award-winning author Ruta Sepetys—and oh you will!—you’ll want to pronounce her name correctly: Roota Suh-pettys. With an older brother and sister to lead the way, Ruta and her siblings were happily born and raised in Detroit, MI, by their Lithuanian father and American mother; both of whom were artistic in nature and nurtured the love of the arts in their children. In fact, when Ruta changed her college studies from Opera to International Finance, it could have been one of the bigger surprises she was able to spring on her family, but using her multiple finance and management degrees to work with musicians in Europe, Los Angeles, and Nashville makes perfect sense! The only better blending of her talents might be seen through Ruta’s love of travel and her interest in the stories she finds—wherever she lands. Add the extra benefit of a professional photographer as her traveling companion—her husband—and everyone wins!
SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as:
RS: The girl with a name no one can pronounce.
SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
RS: Best thing: Hiding in the library during lunch. Not only did I avoid dreaded social interaction, I discovered incredible books. Worst thing: My Camaro hair. Oh, yes, there are photos.
SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?
RS: Book: Rumble Fish by S.E. Hinton. At fourteen, Rusty James is a street-fightin’, drinkin’, gamblin’, hot mess who worships the legend of his older brother, The Motorcycle Boy. An incredible study of hero worship, alienation, and poverty by one of the most talented writers of our time.
Food: When I was a child, I loved Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Bad day at school? Nothing a little chemical powder in a blue box can’t fix. I probably still have orange dust in my intestines.
Album: “Night and Day” by Joe Jackson
TV Show: I’m from Detroit and growing up we had a channel that received programming from Canada. One of the shows piped in from Windsor was an Australian soap opera called Prisoner in Cell Block H. The drama was set in a women’s prison called Wentworth Detention Center and followed a wild cast of female inmates and prison staff. There were corrupt prison officers, lesbian cellmates, murder, mayhem, and even profanity. Other children were sneaking peeks of Dallas or Dynasty. I tried to convince them that the real deal was Cell Block H but I never had any takers.
SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
RS: Oh yes, the legendary story is one of me dancing . . . in a bar . . . in the deep heat of the Cayman Islands. I was ten. I’ll leave the remaining details for a future interview.
SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
RS: As an author of historical fiction, it’s truly sad that I didn’t pay more attention in history class.
If I could add a class it would be “Hidden History: What They Don’t Want You to Know.”
SH: Any epic family vacation stories? From the past, or even a current vacation?
RS: My parents rarely took vacations alone. They felt that travel was transformative for young hearts and minds. So our entire family (including the grandparents) boarded a jet bound for one of Lord Ronald Graham’s villas in the Caribbean. It was November and we had departed from chilly Detroit. My parents had all of the kids dressed in matching wool travel outfits. This was the ‘70s and all of the passengers were making merry, smoking and drinking on board the plane (think Mad Men in the air.) The flight attendants presented a tropical fashion show down the center aisle of the plane. What we didn’t know was that upon take off from Miami, something had blown within the front landing gear of the jet. So while the steel drum fashion fiesta was going on, the pilot was dropping all of the fuel over the ocean and preparing for an emergency landing at the closest airstrip available. Suddenly, everyone was instructed to remove eyeglasses, dentures and to immediately put their heads between their legs and brace for a crash landing. We skidded onto a bed of foam surrounded by emergency vehicles. A crowd near the runway cheered. We disembarked and everyone received a small bottle of rum for their trouble. The next day the story made the Caribbean newspaper. I was four and it was my first journey on a plane. On the way to Lord Graham’s villa, I vomited all over my travel outfit. To this day I still get incredibly airsick. Hmm . . . trauma or trouble with equilibrium? I’m not sure, but I avoid wool travel outfits.
SH: Is there a book, besides your own, of course, that you think everyone should be reading?
RS: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and The Arrival by Shaun Tan.
SH: You can spend the day with two characters from any book. Who would you pick and why?
RS: I’d choose Joel Knox and Idabel Thompkins from Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms because they’d invite me to the creepy decaying mansion, Scully’s Landing. We’d get to meet all sorts of beautiful and filthy characters hidden behind locked doors.
SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
RS: I would love to have a “process,” but unfortunately, I have to write wherever and whenever I have a moment. So my process is “Hurry! Go! Go!” Our family has a little log cabin in the country and when my schedule permits, I prefer to write out there. It’s very peaceful and solitary, especially very early in the morning. I think I do my best writing there.
SH: When you’re done writing for the day, or taking a little “me” time, do you have a hobby or special treat you indulge in?
RS: Yes, I love sitting outside or taking a long walk after I’m done writing.
SH: Who was the first person that told you that you should be a writer?
RS: A medium. I was living in Los Angeles and a medium approached me at a hippy bookstore and told me that “the departed” said I had stories inside of me and that I was a writer. Can you imagine my reaction?
SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
RS: My husband.
SH: Is there one moment in your life you’d love to live again? To either change it or to enjoy?
RS: Our wedding. We ran away and got married in Tuscany. It was fairytale perfect.
SH: If someone offered you the chance to do one impossible thing of your choosing (with no consequences), what would that one impossible thing turn out to be?
RS: I’d choose to spend an entire year sequestered away in an undisclosed location, just writing. No social obligations, no email or phone communication, no business demands, just writing.
SH: A series of choices: Cats or dogs? Spend or save? Peanut butter cups or strawberry shortcake? Movies, television, or music? Handwritten letters or email? Morning or night? Coffee, tea, or soda? Comedy or drama?
RS: A series of answers: TEA in the MORNING while writing HANDWRITTEN LETTERS and SPENDing time listening to MUSIC while the DOG creates DRAMA by throwing up my PEANUT BUTTER CUPS.
SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
RS: Fabulous five at the table: Truman Capote, Kay Thompson, Jack Gantos, Zelda Fitzgerald, Roald Dahl
Eating: Oysters & Egos
At the end of the long night Truman would drunk-dial Ransom Riggs because “We need a lift home, darling.” Ransom would dispatch an early a.m. bread truck to fetch us because he’s such a great guy. Zelda would beg Ransom to photograph the drunken dinner dates for a future Miss Peregrine’s novel.
SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose? Why?
RS: My superpower would be No Jet Lag. I’d leap between international book tours without a trace of fatigue. (Seriously, if there’s a waiting list for this superpower, could you put me on it?)
SH: What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud? What was the last thing that made you cry?
RS: Laugh: An email from my amazing agent.
Cry: A question asked by a student during a Skype visit this morning.
SH: What is one of your favorite features about yourself? It can be anything from an impeccable sense of style to your sense of humor to crazy long toes that can pick up a variety of objects.
RS: Perhaps that mediums find me approachable?
SH: Do you have a favorite word—for either the sound or the spelling? (For example “scofflaw” is both fun to say *and* to spell!)
RS: Strumpet. Say it again . . . strumpet.
SH: And for a random challenge: Pick up the book you’re reading right now, turn to page 46 and share the first two sentences of the second paragraph!
RS: “My room was upstairs for four dollars a week, shared by another dishwasher. His name was Hernandez and he was crazy.”
Between Shades of Gray
SH: Lina Vilkas most wanted to take her sketchbook in the one suitcase allotted to her when Stalin’s NKVD came to arrest her family. What one item would you most want to pack in your suitcase?
RS: Photos of my family members. Some survivors told me that after several years, they couldn’t recall what their family or spouse looked like.
SH: Jonas Vilkas is ten but seems much younger, more innocent, in his approach to life as a political prisoner. How is he able to retain such an honestly bright and cheerful outlook in the face of such despair?
RS: Survivors told me that they were very influenced by how their parents handled the time in exile. I tried to weave that into the character of Jonas. During most of the story, Jonas is with his mother, Elena. Elena is incredibly strong and has a very positive attitude so Jonas adopts his mother’s attitude.
SH: Elena Vilkas (Lina’s mother) has a large supply of well-hidden goods for use in bartering and bribing as the need would arise. All of which must have been planned and placed far in advance of the family’s arrest. When you were doing research, were there many people who thought this out as carefully as the Vilkas parents had? Was there a particularly surprising place or item smuggled for future use?
RS: Most people didn’t have much time to plan. If you had ten minutes to prepare for an unknown journey, what would you take? In Between Shades of Gray I used the example of silver pieces for bartering because my own grandmother took her silver when she fled and sold pieces of it along the way. There is one spoon that survived.
SH: Andrius and his mother represent a different experience than the Vilkas family and the guard Kretzsky represents yet a third experience. All struggle with the new world they’ve been forced to inhabit. What do you think was the biggest ghost, lingering regret for each after the prison camps were dismantled?
RS: Surprisingly, people expressed gratitude more than regret. Many said that the traumatic events helped them appreciate the smallest goodness or kindness in life. So I imagine they would tell us, “Above all, be kind to one another.”
SH: Why do you think Stalin’s systematic destruction of what he determined to be undesirable citizens still seems to be so hush-hush? With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, why haven’t we heard more personal—or even more fictional—stories of life under Stalin?
RS: People who experienced Stalin’s terror were programmed not to speak of it. If you survived Siberia and spoke about it, you would be deported or imprisoned again. So people kept the stories hidden and the associated history went dormant.
SH: How many buried survivor capsules do you think remain? Is there any kind of organized search for the capsules?
RS: There are probably countless survivor capsules that remain. The Museum of Genocide in Vilnius, Lithuania and The Museum of Occupation in Riga, Latvia have incredible items on display that have been unearthed since the two countries regained their independence.
Out of the Easy
SH: Such a different story from Between Shades of Gray, but the same attention to the details make this book another amazing learning experience. Where did you find all that information—from the detective’s questions to the secret ingredients in Willie’s coffee?!
RS: The details came from many different places—countless hours in historical archives, interviews with elderly Orleanians, college yearbooks, social registers, diaries, and more. I combed newspaper archives. Reading newspapers from 1948 – 1953 really gave me a sense of the language used at the time, the products being sold, the priorities of residents, as well as societal pressures.
SH: Josie is devoted to David Copperfield, both the character and the novel, created by Charles Dickens. Is there one book that stands out in your life the way this book is special for Josie?
RS: Yes, the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome was the first book I read as a child that had realistically flawed characters and no happy ending. All of the stories I had read up to that point tied things in a pretty bow. Wharton presented hardship and heartache in a very real way and it left me thinking and feeling for days. I found that feeling of contemplation much more satisfying than a happy ending. Unfortunately, I had no one to discuss the book with because all of my classmates hated it.
SH: As her semi-surrogate parents, Willie and Charlie were able to provide Josie with the basic safety and regular income, but where did Josie get the all that moxie?! (From the cool handling of shotguns to appreciating poetry!)
RS: Josie is a survivor. Surrounded by danger and pain she is motivated more by what she doesn’t want than what she wants.
SH: Cokie has such great wisdom and spirit, and he believes in Josie 100 percent. Are you lucky enough to have a Cokie in your life? Would it be one person or a collection of people?
RS: Cokie represents those beautiful people in life who see the simple truth in all things and let love lead the way. Yes, I’m fortunate to know some people like that. They live simply and have a heart the size of a house. They are always happy and life is always grand.
SH: The upstanding citizens of this story are much less likable than the lawbreakers. How hard was it to create such strong impressions of each group when most of the secondary characters have a limited time on the page?
RS: Yes, the “upstanding citizens” are much less likable than the lawbreakers. Thank you! It wasn’t difficult to create the secondary characters. They all felt so real to me. I saw them walking in the French Quarter. I read about them in the newspapers and saw their clothing in vintage stores. I would look at a dress from 1950 and the whole story would be there—the woman who wore it, where she wore it, where she took it off.
SH: What do you think Josie and Jessie might be doing five years after the last page of this book has been turned?
RS: Please tell my publisher that you’d like to know and maybe they’ll let me write a sequel. I’m dying to continue the journey of all of the characters!
SH: These characters have such life, it feels like a reader should be able to sit down and have a good chat with any of them! How are you able to give everyone such presence?
RS: Thank you! The characters are all flawed and perhaps that’s why they feel real?
SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as An Author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
RS: I splurged and bought . . . a teacup. I know, I’m so crazy.
SH: Any hints for the topic of your next book? Or are you going to join the trend with a graphic novel?
RS: I wish I were cool enough to create a graphic novel, but alas, I’m not. I’m currently working on another historical fiction novel set during WWII. You can expect some big secret-spilling with the new book.
SH: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing with your days?
RS: Prior to writing, I worked in the music industry for over twenty years. So, if I wasn’t spilling history’s secrets, I’d be guarding them with lawyers in the music business.
SH: Is there a question you wish someone would finally—finally!—think to ask?
RS: “Why did Jimmy Hoffa give your parents such a nice wedding gift?”
Books by Ruta Sepetys
Between Shades of Gray. Penguin, 2011. 344p. $17.99. 978-0-3992-5412-3.VOYA April 2011. 4Q 3P S
Out of the Easy. Penguin, 2013. 346p. $17.99. 978-0-3992-5692-9.
Official Website: http://rutasepetys.com/about/
Shades of Gray: http://betweenshadesofgray.com/
Out of the Easy: http://www.outoftheeasy.com/
Hope and Spirit (Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago, Illinois): http://www.hopeandspirit.net/