On Tuesday, September 26, bestselling author and recent Carnegie Medal recipient Ruta Sepetys spoke to an intimate gathering of BU English majors. Over the course of ninety minutes, she regaled aspiring writers with inspiring stories of her transition from the music business into life as a hugely successful young adult novelist
Sepetys, the author of Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy, and Salt to the Sea, began by explaining how her 22 years in the music industry telling others’ stories through writing press releases and artist biographies led eventually to the realization that she had her own story to tell. As a child of a Lithuanian refugee who had fled from his home in 1940, she knew part of that story through her father, whose harrowing tales of last-minute escapes and of long years in refugee camps–and of their relatives who did not make it out alive–gave her a starting point for what eventually became her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, which has been translated into 37 languages and published in 53 countries.
The successful publication of her Between Shades of Gray, however, had its own long history, including the emotionally difficult research involving interviews with survivors of Stalin’s takeover; the 16 painstaking revisions she undertook before submission; the excruciating wait before hearing from publishers after submission; and the 4 year additional wait between selling the novel and its publication in 2011.
Sepetys also discussed the value of archives in historical research, but emphasized the importance in making human connections, like the garrulous retired New Orleans mobster she interviewed for her second novel, Out of the Easy. “Hunting for hidden histories,” as she termed it, also led her to the subject of her most recent novel, Salt to the Sea, which chronicles Germany’s Operation Hannibal during World War II and the single largest maritime disaster in human history.
For Ruta Sepetys, “telling stories for the true witnesses” has become her life’s calling. Throughout her talk and the question and answer session that followed, she emphasized finding her literary voice and rhythm; being open about what she is working on (it has helped her find people and resources she needed); revising continually, even while she is doing readings of her own work; and, most importantly of all for aspiring writers, “getting my butt in the chair” to produce good work.