Tuesday, March 5, 2013

From American Idol to Siberia: Ruta Sepetys at Politics & Prose

Did you guys know that Ruta Sepetys was at Politics and Prose in February? Katie headed over there and was able to learn some really cool facts about this fabulous writer of historical fiction. Lucky for us, she took some notes to share. (To find more about P&P's teen events, check out their website)

image from @kidsandprose by Janet Minichiello
 Ruta Sepetys may just be the reigning queen of young adult historical fiction. Her Between Shades of Gray (see more posts on this title here)guts the reader with its truths of suffering, courage, and hope in the bleakest of circumstances set against the backdrop of Siberia during the Stalin years. Her most recent novel, Out of the Easy (see our full review here), is set in 1950s New Orleans, a world of prostitutes, mobsters, and the families we make for ourselves, and draws us into the post-war years that may not have been as glamourous and happy as we’ve come to expect.

As a lover of historical fiction in general and Ruta’s work in particular, I arrived at her author event at Politics & Prose expecting someone who had devoted her life to studying historical time periods and events. What I found was something all together more fun and delightful. Ruta went to college on an opera scholarship before eventually majoring in International Finance. She then went on to get a graduate degree in International Management to work in the music industry, which all eventually led to her job on a little show called American Idol.

Now if you’ve read Between Shades of Gray, this may come as no small surprise. But it just so happened that it was her work on this very show that drove her to discover her own story and led her to writing.

If it’s the writing part that you’re interested in, Ruta offered her audience a few tips on being a historical fiction author:

1. Research! Research is what brings the book to life. Interview people when possible (yes, she did ride around New Orleans in a car with a mobster for 8 hours). And read newspapers. Newspapers not only tell you what was going on in the world at that time, but was was being sold, how it was being sold, what people were talking about.

2. Imagine your audience, especially when writing in the first person. For Lena in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta imagined she was addressing a reader 50 years in the future who might find her notebooks. In Out of the Easy, she wrote it as if Josie was confessing all that had happened to Charlotte, someone who she admires and respects, hence the first line, “My mother’s a prostitute,” which sets the tone for the entire book.

3. Find a way to make the story your own. Historical fiction is a way of humanizing statistics through characters and stories, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to use ideas and situations that you wish to explore from current times in these works. Making a story of the past feel relevant to your present gives the work a sense of immediacy and passion.

Ruta also shared some of her favorite books with the caveat that she loves strange, sad books: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton as well as anything by Roald Dahl, Meg Rosoff, Melina Marchetta, and Truman Capote.

image from @kidsandprose by Janet Minichiello
Hearing Ruta speak about her experiences as a writer was an evening well spent. The same can be said for any day or night spent with one of her books. So check them out, and if you have the opportunity to see her in person--take it!

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