Monday, March 11, 2013

Ruta Sepetys Book Signing and Discussion

Despite a developing snow storm that dropped 18 inches before it was through, last Thursday evening four friends and I drove down to Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA to hear Ruta Sepetys speak about her most recent release Out of the Easy. It was easily one of the best book events I've ever attended. Ms. Sepetys is an engaging and moving speaker who had the audience both laughing and crying (we were all in tears at one point - including the author!). So much of what she said about writing historical fiction resonated deeply with me.  I was a history major in college and love learning about the past, especially when it is in an accessible, readable form. That is exactly why Sepetys loves to write historical fiction. Her stories vividly bring history to life in a way that connects to real people from the past. 

During the talk Sepetys told the audience “my books are a search for story,” and in fact Between Shades of Gray was written because of her Lithuanian family's experience during World War II. Out of the Easy, likewise was inspired by the fact that her father came to the US in 1949. In thinking about her father, Sepetys began to question what life was like in the country at that time. 

 More notes* from Ruta Sepetys' discussion:

On Ruta Sepetys' family connection to Between Shades of Gray:
The author's own family was affected by the relocation of Lithuanians to Russian work camps in Siberia during World War II. Her grandfather was a Lithuanian military officer who escaped to the USA with his immediate family, because the Russians were deporting people of rank (remember Russia wanted a classless system). When the Russian officials couldn’t find Sepetys' grandfather, they took other extended family members to Siberia instead. Only one survived.

On interpreting her stories:
"You think you know what your book is about. Then you go on tour and readers tell you what your book is really about. What’s important is readers’ interpretation, not the author’s explanation. My books and characters belong to the reader."

On interpreting Between Shades of Gray:
It wasn’t until after Sepetys wrote Between Shades of Gray and started to meet readers that she began to realize that every person who interacts with her stories views them differently. Between Shades of Gray is published all over the world, and each publisher and person she's met has had a different idea of what the book is about.
  • When Sepetys told the French publisher she thought her book was about “courage and survival,” he said “No, Ruta. It’s about identity. How much can be taken away before you loose yourself.”
  • Her Spanish publisher said the book is about patriotism.
  • In Japan they told her it is about compassionate courage.
  • In Italy, where Between Shades of Gray is published exclusively as an adult book, they said it’s about love.
  • A student she met in Chicago told her, “In really difficult life or death circumstances, the I and ME disappear and become WE.” 
On writing for a YA audience:
She feels “lucky to write for this age group because they’re honest, and they read and filter with emotional truth.” 

On her inspiration for Out of the Easy:
Sepetys’ father came to the US in 1949 and because of that she became interested in the idea of identity in post war America. She interviewed immigrants and asked them what they saw in America at that time. Their answer was “I saw pain.” They told her that the time period was "the perfect lie." That it wasn’t the American dream but a quiet nightmare, where everything bad was hidden from sight. For instance, if someone was ill in the family, it wasn’t discussed. If you were pregnant, you didn't talk about it. After a discussion with her father, who made the comment “if you were born into the right family, it’s all a little easier," the author started to wonder “what if you were born into a bad family.”

On her inspiration for Willie:
Sepetys got antique opera glasses one year from her husband for her birthday, and they were engraved with the word “Willie." Assuming they belonged to a man, she hired someone to research the origin of the glasses. The researcher came back and told her that they were a woman’s opera glasses, and the Willie who owned them may have been a brothel madam. Sepetys gave the name Willie to the Madam in Out of the Easy and based her character on a real New Orleans Madam named Norma Wallace.

On researching Out of the Easy:
After reading The Last Madam, Sepetys met with the author who told her all about the colorful underbelly of New Orleans. Christine Wiltz also introduced Sepetys to people who lived and worked in the Quarter during that time period, including a real mobster who called Sepetys “Motor City," because she is from Detroit. Characters in Out of the Easy are also based on people from Sepetys life, including Jesse (I'd like to meet that inspiration). 

On the message of Out of the Easy:
"In Out of the Easy, Josie learns to love and how to be loved. Out of the Easy is a story of family. The families we build can be just as strong as the ones we’re born to.”

On why she writes Historical Fiction:
When asked if she’d consider writing commercial fiction, Sepetys said she’s passionate about historical fiction, because through characters and stories "statistics become human," and that makes them relatable and accessible. When you find a character in a book that you identify with, your life will be a little less lonely.

On mother – daughter relationships in her books:
In Between Shades of Gray the mom is an example of the higher self.
In Out if the Easy, Josie’s mom is an example of a toxic parent. When writing Josie's mom Louise, Sepetys thought about how it would affect Josie if she didn’t have her mothers’ love. In the first draft Josie was flippant about her mom, and she didn’t care that her mother was so terrible to her. But Sepetys decided that version of Josie’s behavior wasn’t real, and that Josie would care about how her mother treated her. Josie's mom was also a lot worse in the first draft and the publisher suggested Sepetys tone her down (Yikes! She's bad enough already).

On how she got the language right in Out of the Easy:
Sepetys read old newspapers and listened to radio archives. She talked to an 80-year-old former prostitute called Yum Yum. She also listened to tapes made by Norma Wallace (the madam Willie was based on), who once sat down with a bottle of gin and a recorder to tell her life story.

During her research, Sepetys learned that cross-eyed people were called "tangle-eyed" which is where the phrase in the book came from. 

On the mystery in Out of the Easy:
The police investigation in Out of the Easy is based on a true story about a man from Tennessee who went to New Orleans and didn’t make it out alive. Like in the book, the case led to a police crack down in the Quarter. This man's stats and the circumstances of his death were very similar to those in the book, as well as the fact that it was later viewed as suspicious. Sepetys discovered the case from reading old newspaper archives. But when she began to ask around about this man’s disappearance she was told to stop asking (even though it happened so long ago). Of course that didn’t stop her from pursuing it. Sepetys became just as obsessed with the case as Josie does in the book. She even went so far as to visit the man's grave. 

On that other “Shades of Gray” book:
Sepetys says there are usually a few people who come to her talks expecting the author who wrote that other book (they are also usually men, which is kind of gross). When they discover it’s not the same book, they tend to leave pretty quickly. She says she’s also heard people referring to her book as “Between 50 Shades of Gray," which she seemed amused by.

Find my review of Out of the Easy, HERE

Inscription: Love makes a family

*To my knowledge all the information in this post is accurate. However, I apologize if I've mis-represented anything said by Ms. Sepetys. 


  1. Ruta is lovely isn't she? Looks like you guys had a great time! Thanks for a wonderful post with lots of great info.

    1. You meet everyone, Carrie. You're like at the hub of authors! But YES, she is fantastic. One of my favorite author meetings, she was just so personable and everything she said was meaningful. I can't believe she used to bail rockstars out of jail for a living. From that to writing Between Shades of Gray and now this book. Maybe I'll do something important with my life too ;).

  2. Such a cool event...I didn't want her to stop talking! Def my fave author meeting so far! She was lovely. Good times Friendie!

    1. I am sooooooooooo happy we could all go. That made it ten times better. You're right, Ruta was amazing. Let's do this again sometime!

  3. Yay! So happy you could attend this event and recap what I missed when she was in NOLA:) She reminds me a bit of Melina Marchetta when she speaks about her books being interpreted differently among readers.

    And this line about writing historical fiction sounds very Marchetta-like as well:

    "because through characters and stories "statistics become human," and that makes them relatable and accessible. "

    (maybe it's just me.)

    Love your pic's! You and your friends are cute and always look like you're having the best time:)

    1. I hope you get to meet Ruta sometime - and lots of other authors! I think I would expire from excitement if I could meet MM. I'm starting to shake just thinking about it. But YES to what you said about their connection and to loving how she talked about making history relatable and human. That's exactly why I studied it and love it so much.

  4. I LOVE THIS! Seriously, everything she said about people interpreting books differently? It's perfect!(: I want to meet her someday, so hopefully I can! Thanks for sharing, Lauren! I love hearing how she came up with the idea for this book.

  5. Oh I love her and I'm so jealous you met her! I had featured her when Between Shades of Gray came out, and I had so much fun 'chatting' with her. I was impressed that she took so much time for me while in the middle of her international tour.
    After reading Between Shades of Gray I knew I had to get everyone I knew to read it, it just impacted me so strongly. I cry everytime I tell someone new about it because that IS history and its so sad and makes me so angry.
    Anyway, you are lucky to have gotten to meet her. I find it very interesting that the mystery is based on a real mystery and I think I would go nuts not finding stuff out!
    I love that she bases so much on real stuff and real people too.

    1. She took time for everyone she saw at the signing, like we were all her personal friends. I was so very impressed with her! I'm still working my way up to Between Shades of Gray. Doing it for a book club this summer so I WILL read it. I'm AFRAID though.

      It sounds like Ruta did just that - she started interviewing old cops and looking at police and death records! But I'm with you, I'd want to know too. Her book FELT authentic that it wasn't surprising that she did so much research and based it on real people.

  6. Wow, I had no idea Between Shades of Gray was inspired, even in part, by her personal family history. Also I love hearing what all the different publishers think its selling point is. So fascinating how book marketing can be all over the place. Their responses to her writing are as varied as those of her readers. A book really does speak to everyone individually, it seems.

    It's great that she has a sense of humor about 50 Shades of Grey. :-) So happy you got to go this amazing event and meet Ruta. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. I love the all the details that you learn when you meet an author. And Yes, Ruta has a big family connection to this story, and she wrote it as a way to tell the world about a piece of history that affected her family, and that not a lot of people realize happened - because everyone focuses on the Nazi holocaust, but the Russian camps were terrible too.

      I was also really fascinated by the responses to her book by other countries. I love that she validates the fact that everyone reads differently. I mean everyone reviews the same book a bit differently too.

      I'm so glad we were able to ask about the 50 shades thing. Every time I say something about Between Shades of Gray, they think I'm talking about the other one. I can't imagine what the author has to go through!

  7. Ah!! I'm so happy that you got to go to this event, and that you shared this post with us, Lauren. I love love love historical fiction, and one of my favorite parts is always the historical note at the end. Because I read an ARC of this, I didn't get the note--but I feel like this post did it for me!

    I love authors who recognize that once a book is out of their hands, it's up to the readers to decide what it's about. She sounds absolutely marvelous, and I loved Out of the Easy--I'm going to make sure and go to an event with her sometime in the future if I have the chance!

    1. You MUST meet this author, Heidi! She is just amazing, and despite the fact that we were all in awe of her writing abilities, she was so approachable.

      The historical note - where you learn how true a story is and how it connects to real life, is also something that I always love to read, or research on my own later. I love that Ruta writes books that are meaningful to her life. Shades of Gray more directly and Out of the Easy indirectly.

      And yes. Ruta definitely gets readers, and she seems to love the idea of a book belonging to the reader. Everything about her made me love her!

  8. Oh wow, this is so awesome. She came close to here and I wasn't able to go but I wish I could have!

    I love the quote about Ruta's stories belonging to the readers - I find that fascinating because I tend to read stories like they belong to the authors and I'm borrowing them for a time.

    LOVE the inspiration for Willie even though I'm not really familiar with Willie yet!
    LOVE your comments on Josie's mother being the toxic parent - I'll definitely remember this part when I'm reading.
    The part about the "other" Shades of Grey book made me laugh pretty hard.

    I started to read Between Shades of Grey once from the library but didn't get very far into it before it was due back and someone had requested it. Since that time, I've seen it on the shelves several times but I haven't picked it up for one reason or another. I remember that there were several things that I liked about it though, and I REALLY want to read it.

    Also, SO COOL that you have real-life reading friends that go with you to events like this. :)


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