This is an interview that I did with Ruta back in October. I hope you enjoy it!
1) I had the privilege of getting to see you at the Nashville stop of the Ash2Nash tour where you told the story about your family’s experience during World War II. The silence that filled the room when you were done really spoke to everyone’s shock, how did you react when you were first told about what happened? Had you had any idea before about the fate of your relatives?
RS – Just like you, I was shocked. I knew that my father and grandparents had left Lithuania and I knew that the country had been Soviet occupied for fifty years. But I didn’t know that some of my grandfather’s extended family had been deported to Siberia. I was stunned and felt ashamed that I wasn’t familiar with my own family’s history. It inspired me to try to give voice to the people who experienced Stalin’s terror but would never have a chance to tell their story.
2) In the story, Lina’s mother reminded me so much of my own mother, and her brother of my own little brother. As I was reading I could not help but imagine myself as Lina, and of how I would react in her situation. Did you put yourself into Lina’s position while you were writing and was this story difficult at times to write? Was it your intention to write a character that was easily relatable to the youth of today even though our experiences are so different?
RS – The story was definitely difficult to write because I knew that the horrific things I was describing actually happened to people. Many of the survivors I interviewed spent their teen years in Siberia and their stories were so compelling. The teens’ will to live was incredibly strong. The story started percolating in my mind immediately: One girl. Her dream of freedom. A voice to bring this secret out of the dark.
I was never really able to imagine myself as Lina because I met people like her and knew that I didn’t have that kind of strength. I wish! But I absolutely thought about what it would be like to be deported. I was constantly plagued with the question: Would I survive?
3) The characters in Between Shades of Gray are all so strong and well developed. We get to see a lot of their personalities in the story. Were any of the characters in the story based or inspired by people you knew or heard about in real life?
RS – Thank you! Yes, some of the characters were inspired by real people. The mother, Elena, is a combination of my mother and my older sister. The character of Lina has many qualities of a woman, Irena, who was a teenager in Siberia and helped me with my research. And the doctor who arrives at the end was someone that I read about in the memoirs of Dalia Grinkeviciute, a woman who was deported to the Arctic.
4) I’ve been watching your European book tour on your FaceBook page and you’ve gotten to go to a lot of really cool places. You have been able to visit a lot of nations that were directly affected by the events that you have described in this book. What is their reaction to this book? Has there been any apprehensive reactions or negative feedback from people who were used to the silence?
RS – It’s been such an honor to tour so many countries for the book. My visits to Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland were very emotional. I met people who had experienced the things I wrote about.This part of history belongs to them. I tell people, I wrote the book, but it’s not my story. The story belongs to people who experienced Stalin’s terror. So meeting the real heroes in these countries was very emotional for me. I cried so much that I now have a reputation for crying! On my last visit to Lithuania people were introducing themselves,saying, “Now, don’t cry, Ruta.” But I can’t help it. Everyone has been so supportive and gracious.
5) Looking on your website I saw that Between Shades of Gray has been published in 28 countries. Did you think that this book was going to be this popular and impact as many people as it is in that many nations? Has it been overwhelming at all?
RS – The foreign sales have been the biggest surprise of all. I scarcely believed that a US publisher would publish the book. And now to have this part of history published in nearly 30 countries…it leaves me speechless. See, I’m going to cry again!
6) You are amazingly talented as a writer; did you take any creative writing classes while in school? What would you recommend to any aspiring authors who might be reading this?
RS – Aw, thank you! Actually, my degree is in finance. I know, kind of bizarre for a writer! I dream of one day getting an MFA and am currently looking at different programs. In terms of advice – if you’re looking to write for children or young adults I absolutely suggest joining SCBWI (www.scbwi.org). SCBWI is a fantastic resource for both published and pre-published authors. I would not be a published author without SCBWI. But my general writing advice?
Read and read and read. Get a sense for structure, rhythm and flow. Examine books you love and determine why you love them. And lastly, try to find a local writing group so you can share your work with others.
7) On your website it said that you did not learn to speak Lithuanian as a child, do you speak any of it now?
RS – Sadly, I don’t speak much Lithuanian at all. I can muster “taip” (yes) and “gerai” (okay) but I can’t follow a full conversation. Not speaking Lithuanian is one of my greatest regrets. So I’m trying to learn now!
8. Your website is probably the coolest author website that I have ever seen how did you come up with the design of it?
RS – I wish I could take credit for the site but I can’t. My dear friend, Niels Bye Nielsen, is a film composer from Denmark. He also happens to be an incredible designer. He designed the site. My pal Jeroen Noorduis from Holland is an insane programmer. He did all the programming and is the webmaster. Priscila Bara, an artist from Brazil, put together the paper dolls and other bits of whimsy. So it was a global effort and the credit should go to them!
Thanks so much Ruta!!