Ruta Sepetys on Historical Fiction Research

By Maryann Yin Comment

While researching her debut novel about Russia’s 1939 invasion of Lithuania, author Ruta Sepetys interviewed survivors, isolated herself in a deportation train car, and endured a prisoner’s immersion experience.

We caught up with her to find out more about the research for Between Shades of Gray.

Q: How important is it for writers to ‘get their hands dirty’ during the research process?
A: I imagine it’s different for every writer. I personally love the immersion experience. If at all possible, I want to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, and experience the emotions associated. That makes it easier for me to write about it. But I do have to say, I doubt I will ever go the lengths I did to research Between Shades of Gray. I damaged my back during research and spent two years in physical therapy. Next time I don’t need to get my hands that dirty.

Q: Besides conducting interviews with survivors, describe the two active research experiences you took on to write this book.
A: I spent time in an old Soviet cattle car that was used for the deportations. Sitting inside and knowing that the car had made repeated trips to and from the Baltics, ferrying people to their death, was overwhelming. It was so dark and small. I imagined the fear, the discomfort, and the children crying. I also took part in a simulation experience in a former Soviet prison. To say it was an unpleasant experience would be an understatement. It was filthy and terrifying. Those two research experiences quickly made me realize what a weak person I am. Let’s just say I learned that I would not have survived in Siberia.

Q: When you interviewed survivors, did you derive inspiration for support characters from meeting these people?
A: The characters are fictional, but I incorporated many details of the deportees’ experience into events and scenes in the book. Dombey & Son, Elena’s wedding ring, the boys smoking books, the owl, and many other bits were all stories that survivors shared with me during interviews.

Q: Have you considered taking all of the research experience you have done for this fiction title and also producing a non-fiction work on it?
A: I hadn’t, but actually that’s a very interesting idea! I’ve received emails from so many Baltic people who have heard about the book. They’ve shared their own personal stories and how their families suffered under Stalin. There is certainly more than enough material for a non-fiction book.

Q: How did you find your agent?
A: I spent quite a bit of time researching and preparing before I contacted an agent. I read interviews online, followed sales on Publishers Marketplace, and attended agent workshops at writing conferences. I’m very fortunate because our local Midsouth chapter of SCBWI hosts incredible events each year with amazing agents and editors. I had completed a middle-grade mystery and sent one exclusive query to an agent at Writers House which resulted in a request for the full manuscript. At the last minute I decided to include five pages of Between Shades of Gray as well. The agent called and advised me to shelf the middle-grade novel and write Between Shades of Gray instead. I took the advice and am so grateful I did!

Q: What steps did you and your agent take to secure a deal for this book?
A: I went through many rounds of revision with my agent before shopping the book. We then created a list of editors we admired and thought might appreciate historical fiction. Michael Green at Philomel was at the top of the list. We received a dozen rejections over several months and then suddenly three publishers were interested ā€“ including Michael Green. Michael described his plans for the book and gave a detailed overview of how Penguin would support the release. I am one lucky author!

Q: As you are going through this experience, what’s the best piece of advice you can offer for debut authors?
A: We all love whatever project we’re currently working on. But don’t be afraid to suddenly change gears and go in a different direction. Also, just because something doesn’t sell right away doesn’t mean that it won’t sell. I received a lot of rejections and now the book has sold in over 22 countries. Hang in there!

Q: The book has been picked up for several foreign language deals. Why do you think some countries classify it as an ‘adult’ book and some say it’s ‘young-adult’? Should authors allow this to affect how they write their books?
A: No, I think it’s most productive to focus entirely on the story. Don’t worry about the market or who will buy it. The book will find its audience. As you said, Between Shades of Gray has sold as both an adult and young-adult book. Some countries feel the history will resonate more with adults and other countries feel they’d like to incorporate it into curriculum for students.

Q: As you are writing, how do you self-edit?
A: I’ve told people that my writing is similar to projectile vomiting. When I’m writing, I just write, almost stream of consciousness blathering. I don’t worry about editing. I just throw it all on the page and keep going. It’s a mess. Then at the end of my writing time, I’ll go back and re-read what I’ve written and make tweaks. The following day, I’ll read what I wrote the day prior and make small adjustments before moving forward. That allows me to get back into the flow of the story. Then I submit pages to my writing group and they give me feedback prior to sending anything on to my editor, Tamra Tuller. Tamra is extremely insightful and comes up with incredible ideas. I’m always anxious to get my pages to her!

Q: What power does literature possess in telling stories about real-life horrific events?
A: Reading stories of historical tragedy may give us an overview of events we weren’t previously familiar with. By learning from mistakes of the past, we create hope for a more just future. We meet heroes who previously were nameless and faceless. Through these stories we’re able to celebrate their courage and console their regret.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: Iā€™m currently working on another historical fiction novel for Philomel. The story is set in New Orleans in the ’50’s. I’ve already taken two trips to the Big Easy for research and it’s been fantastic!

Full Disclosure: This GalleyCat Contributor has interned at Penguin Group (USA) in the past.