Ruta Sepetys: Seeker of lost stories

Award-winning Nashville author sheds light on some of history’s darkest chapters

Friday, May 3, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 18
By Zack Barnes

Ruta Sepetys, a former manager of singers and songwriters and now a New York Times bestselling author, will tell you that she is a seeker of lost stories.

It was her family’s lost stories that kick-started her career as a one of the top historical fiction authors for young readers. Known as a crossover author because her books are read by both young readers and adults, Sepetys has displayed an ability to share these lost stories to readers across the world, something she says gives her immense joy.

Her books have been published in 50 countries and 36 languages, which allows her to travel the world talking about her historical novels. When she speaks, she urges everyone in the room to talk to family members to find their own stories. It could change their life like it changed hers.

Sepetys was in the busy world of artist management before becoming a successful author, managing such artists as Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Desmond Child, Grammy Award winner Steve Vai and country music artist Eric Church. In 1996, she created her own management company, Sepetys Entertainment Group, with a little push from Child. “Desmond was the one who told me to do it,’’ she recalls.

Child had moved to Miami in 1995 to work with Ricky Martin. Sepetys moved to Nashville in 2002 from LA, where she had started her own firm in 1995.

“I’m proud to brag that I gave Ruta Sepetys her start in the music business,” Child says. “She’s a dynamo who quickly proved herself and became an invaluable member of my management team and my family. Ruta is a creative visionary with a darkly humorous wit and the gift of storytelling that foreshadowed her incredible success as an author to come.”

Soon her interests turn to writing.

“As of 1996, I had my own company. I was very interested in writing my own books. To be a full-time author was not even in my consciousness because I didn’t believe it was possible.”

Her first book, “Between Shades of Gray,’’ was released in 2011 to rave reviews. The book was shortlisted for the William C. Morris award and the Carnegie Medal. It went on to win the Golden Kite Award in 2012, which is awarded by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators to recognize excellence in children’s literature.

The thought of writing full time changed when her second book, “Out of the Easy,’’ came out in 2013. The success of her two books became so time-consuming that she made the hard decision to become a full-time writer and give up everything that she knew.

“It’s a very scary proposition. This is what I knew. Not to mention, I worked with the same artists for 20 years.” She worked to move artists to other management firms in Nashville and began telling lost stories to readers around the globe.

Lost Stories

The lost stories from her own heritage led her to become a writer.

Sepetys’ father escaped Lithuania as a young child when it was occupied by the Soviets, living in multiple refugee camps before settling in America. Many Lithuanians, Sepetys later found, were not as lucky. Some who did not escape Lithuania were deported to camps in Siberia under the direction of Josef Stalin.

“I was feeling so shocked that this was part of my family’s history and I didn’t even know about the deportation to Siberia,” Sepetys explains. “I didn’t study Stalin or the victims of communism. I felt so terrible that this was unfamiliar to me. If I am Lithuanian and I don’t know this story, then others don’t know this story.”

Sepetys wasn’t alone in not knowing the history.

“Most students learn about the Holocaust, but few learn about the victims of communism,” says Dr. Murray Bessette, director of academic programs for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. “Especially when it comes to Stalin, the focus tends to be on the Soviets as allied with the Allied powers. Elided is the role the Soviets played in starting World War II via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.” Bessette has partnered with Sepetys to create professional development for teachers so they can use Sepetys’ books to teach about the victims of communism.

When Sepetys began submitting her work, she showed a completed humor book and a few pages of what would be known as “Between Shades of Gray’’ to an agent. Luckily, the agent saw the promise of the historical fiction.

Sepetys’ next book, set for October release, explores the 300,000 Spanish children who were traded or sold by the Francisco Franco regime.

-- Photograph By Kacie Lynn Wheeler Submitted

“Ruta heard me speak at a conference and submitted a couple of different projects to me,” says Steven Malk, her literary agent. “Her passion and drive were immediately apparent. I thought the few pages of the historical novel she sent were the most compelling and best captured her voice, so I encouraged her in that direction.”

She went to Lithuania to do research for “Between Shades of Gray,’’ which tells the story of the deportations to Siberia. There, she enlisted the help of a local guide, Linas Zabaliunas, who was instrumental in her research for the book.

“She puts so much research into her books, and they always feel completely authentic, no matter what she’s writing about,” Malk adds. “Ruta’s line-by-line writing is breathtaking, and her storylines are ambitious and layered, but I think her real trademark is in her characters. Each of them feel so fully formed, complex and completely unforgettable in a way that makes you continue thinking of them long after you’ve stopped reading.”

Zabaliunas writes on his website that he “arranged different itineraries – one of which included being locked in Karosta Prison in Latvia – and introduced [Sepetys] to people who recounted their experiences of the atrocities; stories that formed a very important part of her research.”

At a recent talk to the Literacy Association of Tennessee, Sepetys recalled the harrowing experience of being locked in a Soviet prison as part of a prison simulation. That experience “quickly made me realize what a weak person I am,” she told Ad Week in 2011. “Let’s just say I learned that I would not have survived in Siberia.”

Her second book, “Out of the Easy,’’ is set in New Orleans during the postwar America of the 1950s. Her third book, “Salt to the Sea,’’ is set during War World II and focused on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

The sinking of the Gustloff was the worst maritime disaster, with an estimated 9,000 deaths. The Titanic, by comparison, had about 1,500 deaths. Because it happened during wartime, it was not wall-known until Sepetys brought it to life in a thrilling and lyrical fashion. “Salt to the Sea’’ went on to win the Carnegie Award in 2017.

On the film adaptation

Not every author gets to see their work on the big screen. Sepetys’ debut novel, “Between Shades of Gray,’’ was produced and filmed under the title “Ashes in the Snow.” It was filmed on location in Lithuania by director Marius A. Markevicius.

Unlike many film adaptations of books, Sepetys had input on such details as casting and script writing. “I felt very much a part of the process along the way.”

But the moment of being on set will stay with Sepetys for some time.

“For me, the most surreal aspect was standing there on the ground in Lithuania when they yelled action. Humans representing characters that I created. They were so spot on.”

Sepetys, who says she cried the first time she saw the film, has now seen it more than 100 times as she travels for screenings with her readers.

“The director sent me a private link,” recalling the first time she saw the firm. “He said, ‘you need to watch it on a big screen.’ I went to a screening room. I balled. The first cut of the film was over three hours. Three hours. It went down to 90 minutes. The movie was so far beyond what I thought was possible.”

A passion to help

An encounter with Sepetys changed the life of Nashville author Andrew Maraniss, who happened to walk into a coffee shop when Sepetys was being interviewed by a local reporter.

“Ruta, being the nicest person in the world as she is, took time out from promoting her book to ask me questions about “Strong Inside’’ for the next 10 minutes,” Maraniss says. “Strong Inside’’ is the New York Times Bestselling book about the first black SEC basketball player, Perry Wallace, who grew up in Nashville and played at Vanderbilt. “She said she thought the book would be good for young readers, and offered to put in a good word for me and the book with her publisher, Philomel.”

Sepetys says she believes in the power of collaboration and wants to share that with others. “I saw firsthand from working in the music industry the success of collaboration. So many people have helped me.”

Ruta Sepetys with Lithuanian students from the film screening at MBA

-- Photograph Provided By Ruta Sepetys

With Sepetys’ strong endorsement, the publisher was interested in adapting the book for young readers.

“I wouldn’t have thought of that without Ruta’s encouragement, and I wouldn’t have been able to get the attention of the publisher without her help, either.” Philomel published the book in December 2016. Maraniss now frequently travels throughout the country to talk about “Strong Inside’’and has two more nonfiction books for young readers in the pipeline.

“It’s not easy being an author,” Maraniss says. “We should support each other. Nashville’s writing community is great that way. We can all be successful, we can support each other, we don’t need to be territorial or try to bring each other down in order to succeed. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Ruta.”

Sepetys says she is driven to help other writers.

“I truly have this crazy sense of wonder,” she says. “I always wonder about so many things. My sense of curiosity is crazy. I need to meet other people and work with other people to learn about what they are doing.

“I always think, how can I help that person?”

That passion is seen through her writing and her personality.

“When I talk about Ruta, I will always come back to heart and passion,” Malk says. “I think what makes her work stand out is her intense desire to shine a light on parts of history that people may not know about, and then to immerse herself completely in that history.”

Next Book

Her passion for lost stories continues in her fourth novel, “The Fountains of Silence,’’ which is set in 1957 Madrid under the rule of Francisco Franco. It is scheduled for release in October.

“When I went to Spain, readers in Spain had such a deep empathy of the hidden history in my novels,” Sepetys says. “They were so compassionate. I asked them about their history and was so ashamed that I knew so little about the Franco dictatorship.”

The dictator ruled for more than 30 years, during which 300,000 children were traded or sold by the Franco regime. Sepetys’ research led her to the National Archives in Washington D.C., where she researched presidential archives and oral history records from the foreign services.

“Oh my goodness. I interspersed those details into “Fountains of Silence’’ to give the readers a look at what was happening in the United States and what they were saying. As you’ll see in the book, America knew what was happening to these kids,” she says.

She knew that writing about Spain could be challenging because she has no connection to Spain.

“It’s all about respect,” she says. “I am not Spanish. I don’t have any Spanish heritage, and I don’t speak the language. How am I going to approach this? My other books, I could write from the inside out. I’m Eastern European. This I had to write from the outside in.

“So I have an American character. Franco, the dictator, he only did business with a few Americans. The movie studios from Hollywood. They would let them shoot films there. The Texas oil barons. He also allowed some military bases there.”

She made the main character an American boy from Texas who went to work with his parents in Spain for the summer. He meets a housekeeper, and together they stumble upon what’s happening under the regime with the 300,000 children who were sold or traded. Discovering the secret puts the lives of the characters in danger.

Sepetys admits she’s not a trained historian but says the amount of research she conducts could produce a thesis. She simply wants to tell the story that hasn’t been told to a wide audience. She wants to do the story justice and is a passionate salesperson for the study of history.

“I think that her passion and care for her subject matter is dripping off the pages of her books, and it’s why her novels resonate with her readers on the deepest level,” Malk says.

With each book published, Sepetys gives more readers insight into the forgotten stories of our world.