This Tuesday, Porter Square Books hosted author Ruta Sepetys at the most informative, moving, and memorable book talk I’ve been to yet. She shared with us her research and writing process–as well her personal journey–in bringing to light her award-winning debut novel, Between Shades of Gray.
Before she began writing Gray, Sepetys worked in the music industry helping artists tell their stories of where they came from and who they are. A self-proclaimed “Lithuanian imposter,” she went to her grandparents’ homeland hoping to shed light on her family history so she could answer that very same question. She ended up discovering a common chapter of the country’s history that had been buried for nearly half a century by Soviet control and fear. The survivors she met begged her to tell their story, a charge she took very seriously. Her research brought her across Lithuania to the northernmost shores of the Arctic sea, as well as to a former Soviet prison.
I was impressed with the extent to which Sepetys researched and championed this book, as well as her honesty and ability to self-reflect. As part of her fact-finding, she bribed her way into a highly authentic twenty-four hour simulation at Karosta, a former Soviet prison. One moment, she had me chuckling at her earnest unpreparedness (without thinking, she wore jewelry to prison); the next moment, she described the “guards” lining everyone up, ripping off her necklace, slapping her in the face, and kicking her when she fell. Going in, she didn’t expect to be so easily broken, but she developed a “shameful mode of self-preservation within seconds.” For her, more awful than the beatings and the fear was the painful realization of who she was as a person when her life was on the line. But it was also in this state that she experienced the solidarity that comes from “kindness in the midst of suffering” in the form of a fellow prisoner who whispered to her, “Psstt….American lady, it’s going to be okay. I’ll help you.”
Because the storyline was so bleak, it was difficult to find a publisher that would take a chance on Gray. The one publishing company who bit asked her to make it more hopeful. (This surprised me, because the courage and compassion shown by so many deportees wouldn’t be nearly as remarkable if their circumstances were made any less depressing and horrific than they actually were.) It took seventeen revisions to write a version that satisfied them and stayed true to Lithuania’s story.
At the end of Sepetys’ presentation, many people in the audience wanted to tell her their own stories. Lithuanian imposter or not, they embraced her like they would family. And more often than not, each conversation would end with Sepetys excitedly asking, “Are you a writer? You’ve got to tell that story!”
Sepetys took the time to talk with everyone lined up, whether they were Lithuanians, aspiring writers, or just fans of the book. I can’t tell you exactly what we talked about (death spoilers!) but I bet you would like to know how she signs her books.
As I was leaving the event, I couldn’t stop thinking how people were able to live so beautifully and courageously in spite of such suffering. Based on how I grumble when the local bus is too crowded, there’s no way I measure up. When asked why so many people she interviewed “harbored no grudge, resentment, or ill will” against their perpetrators, especially as they have yet to receive any kind of restitution, Sepetys answered right away: because they chose to forgive. I think the answer’s also in Psalm 102, which the characters allude to as well.
Let this be written for a future generation,
that a people not yet created may praise the LORD:
“The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high,
from heaven he viewed the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners
and release those condemned to death.”