Ruta is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. Born in Michigan, she was raised in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. She has a fierce love for all things related to the city of Detroit. Ruta attended college to study opera but instead graduated with a degree in International Finance. Prior to publishing her first novel, she spent twenty years in the music industry helping artists and songwriters distill story through song.
Sepetys is the first American novelist of young adult crossover literature to address European Parliament. She was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Residency for her new novel, Salt to the Sea.
Ruta was recently bestowed the Cross of the Knight of the Order by the President of Lithuania for her contributions to education and memory preservation. She is intensely proud to be Lithuanian, even if that means she has a name no one can pronounce.
Ruta lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee.
Q: How do you pronounce your name?
A: Ready? Here ya go – Roota Suh-pettys
Q: Your name is Lithuanian. Why don’t you speak Lithuanian?
A: My father was born in Lithuania and immigrated to the United States with his family after fleeing from Stalin. He met a beautiful American woman in Detroit. They fell in love and got married. Being American, my mom did not speak Lithuanian. So they spoke English in the house and hence their children are not fluent in Lithuanian.
Q: What inspired you to write “Between Shades of Gray?”
A: During a trip to Lithuania I visited my father’s cousin and learned that after my father fled from Lithuania, some of our extended family members were deported to Siberia. I was shocked, but learned that my family’s history was not unique. There are millions of people whose lives were taken or affected during the Soviet occupation. Yet very few people know the story. I wanted to write a novel to honor the people of the Baltics and also to illustrate the power of love and patriotism.
Q: What sort of research did you do in writing “Between Shades of Gray?”
A: I took two research trips to Lithuania while writing the novel. I interviewed family members, survivors of the deportations, survivors of the gulags, psychologists, historians and government officials. The experience was transformative.
Q: How much of “Between Shades of Gray” is real?
A: The characters are fictional, but their circumstances and many experiences described in the novel were based on actual stories told to me by survivors.
Q: Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting for “Out of the Easy?”
A: New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture — even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.
Q: Are the characters in “Out of the Easy” real people?
A: All of the main characters are fictional, but the character of Willie was inspired by New Orleans madam, Norma Wallace.
Q: How did you research “Out of the Easy?”
A: I took several trips to New Orleans and spent many days at the Williams Research Center in the French Quarter. I combed library archives and newspaper archives, reading stories about the time period. I walked Josie’s paths that I describe in the book and interviewed residents of the French Quarter who had an intimate knowledge of the underbelly of the city in the 1950’s.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: I wouldn’t call it a “process.” It’s more stream of consciousness. Unfortunately, I don’t have large blocks of time to sit and write. I snatch bits and pieces when I can, which often means in traffic, on planes, or very early in the morning. I always carry paper and pen with me. I often write dialogue longhand. I’ll see a scene (as if I’m watching a movie) and the characters will just start talking. I recently wrote several chapters of my latest book while sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Sometimes, while on long drives, I’ll write by recording myself speaking the narrative and dialogue into a recorder or my cell phone. So essentially, I just let it flow, whatever comes to mind. I’m a big reviser. In fact, maybe I’m more of a reviser than a writer.
Q: What sort of advice do you have for young writers?
A: 1. Join SCBWI and attend to some of their conferences. www.scbwi.org
2. Join a critique group. It will help your writing immensely. Having several people read your work and give you feedback can be very enlightening. It’s also fun to share your writing journey with other writers.
3. Get your heart broken, thrown on the ground and stomped on a few times. Take a whirl at being an outcast, a total loser, or being publicly humiliated. Although painful at the time, it will provide great material for future books.
4. Read. Good writers are great readers. Read hundreds of books. Seriously.