An interview with Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys. Photo credit: Magda Starowieyska

Ruta Sepetys. Photo credit: Magda Starowieyska

Ruta Sepetys is the Gala Dinner speaker at our conference this coming weekend. She was born in America to a Lithuanian refugee (her father’s escape from Russian occupied Lithuania is what inspired her debut novel, Between Shades of Gray) and as a child she was convinced she was going to marry Roald Dahl.

At college Ruta studied opera and then international finance and after graduating she set up her own entertainment management firm representing Grammy award winning musicians. Ruta may be the only FCBG speaker to ever have featured in Rolling Stone magazine.

In the run up to hearing her speak at conference I had the opportunity to put a few questions to her. Here’s what we talked about:

FCBG: A theme in your most recent book, Out of the Easy, is the power of books – the solace and hope they can give. Which books do you turn to when you need some solace?

Ruta Sepetys: When I need a reprieve, I turn to short stories. I love the short stories of Ellen Gilchrist, Truman Capote, and Daphne du Maurier.

FCBG: And which books have you found especially inspiring in making your way as an author?

Ruta Sepetys: I often tell people that Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was my “gateway read.”

I was twelve.

It was a Friday.

My school librarian slid the book over the counter to me with a slow nod. I stayed up well into the night reading.

I loved the dark, mournful atmosphere. It introduced me to the bleak and unhappy ending, the type of story I’m always desperate to write.

I’ve yet to find someone who loves Ethan Frome the way I do. In fact, most people don’t care for it at all.

FCBG: In Between Shades of Gray illustration and drawing provide comfort and hope rather than words (as in Out of the Easy). Do you draw?

Ruta Sepetys: My father and two aunts are artists. Unfortunately I did not inherit that genetic strand. I can barely draw a stick figure. In Between Shades of Gray, it was important to me to include art. In 1941, the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia lost everything. The Soviets took their language, they took their flag, they took the name of the countries off the map. But Baltic people found a way to speak, even though their voices had been extinguished. They used art, music, and dance. Drawing became their voice. I wanted to include that element in the novel.

FCBG: And what art (including illustration) do you particularly enjoy?

Ruta Sepetys: I love the work of Shaun Tan. His illustrations unfold silently. Each individual sketch feels like it contains an entire novel.

FCBG: Can you recommend any Lithuanian literature (in translation), particularly for children/young adults?

Ruta Sepetys: Yes, there are two books I’d like to recommend.

There is a new book that has been translated, Children Of Siberia, Memories of Lithuanian Exiles. The book contains the personal stories of 16 individuals who were deported to Siberia as young children. This is an excellent book for readers looking for primary source material on the subject of the deportations.


Another book I’ve long admired is Frog in a Bunker by Vytautas V. Landsbergis. The story follows a twelve year old boy who finds the diary of a resistance fighter. The book not only contains story and illustrations, but actual archival documents from the time period that were obtained from The Museum of Genocide in Lithuania and the Genocide and Resistance Research Center.


FCBG: What was the last book you read and loved? What is the next book you are really looking forward to reading simply for pleasure?

Ruta Sepetys: Last book I read and loved: Sugared Orange: Recipes and Stories From a Winter in Poland by Beata Zatorska & Simon Target

I began reading Zatorska’s stories while researching my current novel and fell in love with her books. Target’s photography is stunning.


Next book I am looking forward to simply for pleasure: Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball by Deborah Davis.


FCBG: Thank you Ruta. It will be a real treat to hear you speak at conference!

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