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With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.
Born and raised in Michigan, Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. She holds a B.S. in International Finance from Hillsdale College. While in school Sepetys also studied at the Centre d'études Européennes in Toulon, France and at the ICN in Nancy, France
Her debut novel Between Shades of Gray, describes the genocide of Baltic people after the Soviet occupation in 1941, when nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps, not to reappear until 1990. As this is a story seldom told, Ruta wanted to give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin's cleansing of the Baltic region. The book was met with broad critical acclaim, and was translated into over 22 different languages.
Ruta currently lives with her family in Tennesse.
Interview with Ruta Sepetys
Q: How did you create Josie Moraine?
A: Years ago I was part of a mentoring program for young women. I met girls who were swept into the dysfunctional current that surrounded their home life. But I also met young women who made difficult decisions and divorced themselves from a negative environment. That's incredibly hard. Those girls inspired me. They taught me that we can learn to fly, even if we're born with broken wings. The idea of that broken, yet beautiful bird became Josie Moraine.
Q: Why New Orleans?
A: My introduction to New Orleans came through a vintage pair of opera glasses I received for my birthday. The glasses, still in their original case from the jeweler in New Orleans, were engraved and dated as a gift from someone named Willie. I'm nuts about history, so I hired a researcher to trace the origin of the glasses. I learned that Willie was a woman in the French Quarter. And the jeweler who sold Willie the glasses? Poisoned. He ate a dozen oysters in the Quarter and kicked the bucket. My fascination with New Orleans was born.
Q: And what about brothels?
A: One rainy day in Los Angeles I jumped into a book store to avoid getting wet. I saw The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz on display. I snapped it up. The book chronicled the life of New Orleans madam, Norma Wallace. I read it in one sitting, fascinated with every detail. Fast forward twelve years and I was standing under the Spanish moss in front of Christine Wiltz's home in New Orleans. We spent a long day discussing madams, gangsters, and how Norma ran her business. Meeting Christine was such a highlight and inspired me on so many levels!
Q: How did you research the book?
A: I took several trips to New Orleans and spent many days at the Williams Research Center. I also combed library archives. I walked Josie's paths that I describe in the book. Christine Wiltz connected me with people who had intimate knowledge of the underbelly of the city. My meetings were both fascinating and terrifying. I couldn't sleep at night. Scandals, murders, crooks and crime–all beyond your wildest imagination. And as a writer, I loved it!
The most incredible part of my research was being allowed into Norma Wallace's former brothel. I based Willie's house on Norma's. Standing in Norma's old bedroom, I imagined how Josie would bring Willie her coffee, where she'd count the money. I saw the girls' rooms upstairs, the hiding places, and the escape route through the courtyard when the cops would show up. I could hear the voices of the characters in my head so clearly. I hope their personalities come across in the book.
Q: Why 1950?
A: I chose the historical setting of post-war America because it's complex and often misunderstood. Following WWII, the U.S. experienced unparalleled prosperity. But "The American Dream" for some became the quiet nightmare for others. Societal pressures to conform were severe and deep tensions developed across social, racial, and gender lines. People escaped these pressures in various ways and the alluring "come hither" of New Orleans was one of them. But for some, "The Big Easy" was more than they could handle. People kept a lot of secrets back then. Illness and family troubles were often hidden from the public. Sometimes, what looked perfect on the outside was quietly rotting on the inside.
Q: Did the time period inspire the creation of the characters?
A: Well, the more I researched the time period, the surface sparkle faded to reveal a fair amount of pain. Learning of that pain helped me create characters like Willie, Patrick, Jesse, and Josie, who are all full of secrets, yet also quietly full of love. I then tried to contrast that pain with people like Cokie, Forrest Hearne, Charlotte, and Miss Paulsen – beautiful souls whose kindness and encouragement plant seeds of hope that eventually sprout courage.
Q: And why Smith?
A: When I was fourteen I visited my older sister who was doing her undergrad at Smith. I was impressed not only by the incredibly intelligent women, but by the varied backgrounds they came from. My preconceptions had been all wrong. The diversity made an inspiring impression on me, so much so that decades later I wove it into this novel.
Q: So how would you sum up the book?
A: I'd say it's a story about decisions and how they shape our destiny. Teenagers are constantly facing difficult decisions and are often worried about being perfect. But some of the most interesting people are those we can't categorize. Those are the characters I love to create, those who remind us that beauty can be perfect in imperfection. So I put a character who is perceived as broken in a situation of decision making. Sometimes, small acts of kindness and respect can impact young people more than we'll ever know. It could be a teacher, like Miss Paulsen, who believes in a student. Or it could be a David Copperfield, like Forrest Hearne, who inspires someone to dream big. Right now there's a teenager somewhere who is about to put on shoes that will take them in the wrong direction. We all know how easy it is to make bad decisions. But who knows, maybe they'll decide to put on the brown loafers…and step out of the easy.