With a 20-year career in the music business, Ruta Sepetys was on an unusual course to become a best-selling author. But when her first teen novel, Between Shades of Gray, was published in 2011, her gripping story about two teens deported to Siberia during Stalin’s reign spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists and won considerable critical acclaim.
That success raises the stakes—and the attention—for Sepetys’ second historical novel, Out of the Easy, a very different, but compelling story about a girl growing up in a New Orleans house of prostitution in the seedy French Quarter of the 1950s.
Just before she began a tour to promote the book, BookPage caught up with the Nashville-based writer to find out more about her latest work.
How was the writing process different for your second novel? Was this novel easier/harder/more fun to write?
Writing Out of the Easy was very different than my experience with Between Shades of Gray. I spent two years crying while writing Between Shades of Gray. Out of the Easy was full of joy. It was pure fun creating the characters, and I literally laughed out loud as I wrote some of the scenes.
Josie Moraine, the lead character in your novel, becomes the hero of her own story. Why was that important to you and what do you hope young readers will take from it?
I hope that through Josie young readers will realize that they too can be the author of their own destiny. I want them to know that sometimes the families we build can be just as strong, or stronger, than those we're born into.
Josie feels isolated from other girls her age because of her social and economic standing. How do you think girls today experience isolation?
In some ways it's the same as the period of the 1950s that I describe in the book. In many cases, our identity is attached to the family we're born into. I've met young girls at school visits who have quietly apologized for their circumstances—circumstances they have no control over. That's heartbreaking.
You’ve said that Chris Wiltz’s book, The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, influenced your work in Out of the Easy. How did you discover that book and why did you find it intriguing?
I discovered the book when I was living in Santa Monica, California. One rare rainy day I jumped into a bookstore to avoid getting wet. While browsing I found The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop. The way that Chris described Norma Wallace and the secrets of New Orleans was unforgettable. The book not only inspired me to visit New Orleans, it made me want to write, to try to investigate and capture little known stories and characters the way Chris did.
You took several trips to New Orleans during your research for the book. What was the most surprising/interesting thing you learned about the city?
I learned that as an outsider you can never really "know" New Orleans. You can visit and spend time there but to really be stitched within the seams of the city, you have to be a native or have lived there for decades. It's either in your DNA or it's not.
Ruta Sepetys on a street in the New Orleans Garden District
where part of the novel takes place.
Why are you fascinated with the era of the 1950s?
My father arrived in the U.S. in November of 1949. He had fled from Lithuania and lived in refugee camps for nine years before arriving in America. I often wondered what the country was like when he arrived. I had a vision of perfection and happiness, but when I began researching it I realized that there was a lot of pain, suffering and secrets in post-war America. It made me want to dig deeper.
Both your books have intensely realistic settings: Soviet-occupied Lithuania and the gang and prostitute culture of New Orleans. Why do you choose to write teen fiction as opposed to adult fiction or even nonfiction?
Writing for teens is an honor and a privilege. Unlike adults, teens don't yet filter material through preconceptions. They experience a character's journey with an unpolluted emotional truth and the stories touch them deeply. Books we read at the age of 12 to 15 years old can have a profound impact on our lives. We carry those books with us forever. That's the audience I want to write for.
Tell us about the college scholarship contest that’s being sponsored for readers of Out of the Easy.
My amazing agent, Steven Malk, came up with the idea of a scholarship opportunity and essay contest aligned with the themes of the novel. One high school senior will win $5,000 toward tuition at the college of their choice and the sponsoring teacher or librarian will win a shopping spree in the Penguin catalog! The essay question and full rules and an entry form can be found online.
You’ve gone from being an unknown writer to having a best-selling book that’s been published in 41 countries (and 26 languages!). How does that feel? Can you share any favorite moments from your around-the-world book tour?
It's inexplicably gratifying to know that through the novel, readers in 41 countries are learning about the country of Lithuania and totalitarianism. Through historical fiction, statistics and facts become human and suddenly we care for a nation of people we previously knew nothing about. That's incredible. One of my favorite moments was at a school visit in the Midwest. A boy stood up and said, "Between Shades of Gray is like The Hunger Games, but for real. If you lose to Stalin, you die. And that's really scary."
Indeed, that's very scary.