Between Shades of Gray author, Ruta Sepetys has very generously given us some of her time to answer our questions…
Many Holocaust survivors do not like to talk about their experiences – did you find it difficult to coax people into telling you their stories?
Once they understood that the project was a fictionalized version and I would not be using their names, the survivors I interviewed graciously answered all of my questions and gave me an incredible amount of detail regarding their experience. I incorporated a lot of what they told me into the novel.
There is so much history surrounding this era, how did you choose what to include and what to leave out?
You’re absolutely right. There are so many dimensions to this part of history. But once I decided that I would focus on the group of people who were deported to the Arctic, I zeroed in on that story of survival and tried to limit the details to the Siberian experience.
Was writing this as a young adult novel a conscious decision, or just how the book turned out?
It was definitely a conscious decision. I’m desperately hoping that the novel might be picked up by teachers and librarians who are inspired to share it with their students and investigate this part of history. Also, many of the survivors I interviewed spent their teenage years in Siberia. The teen experiences were some of the most heartbreaking and compelling.
Would you consider writing another novel to fill in the events between the end of the story and the afterword?
It’s funny that you ask that. I just received an email today from a reader who asked the same thing! She said she wants to read the story of Lina leaving Siberia and coming back to Lithuania. I hadn’t really thought about it, but now you’ve got my mind churning!
What has been the reaction to the story from survivors?
The book will be published in Lithuania by Alma Littera. The translation isn’t yet finished and it’s not out in Lithuania, but when it is I sincerely hope they like it and are able to see how their stories inspired events in the book.
What sort of effect has the research you did for Between Shades of Gray had on the way you view your family’s history and background? Has your research made you feel closer to your Lithuanian heritage?
It’s had a tremendous impact on me. Growing up in the States with a name like ‘Ruta Sepetys’ people were forever asking about my ethnicity. So I’ve always felt a connection to my Lithuanian heritage. But in researching this novel, I had the opportunity to meet many of my extended family members in Lithuania. It was amazing how connected I felt to them even though we were meeting for the first time. I visited many of the places where my father spent time as a young boy. I’m so glad I had the opportunity.
Why do you think the history of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States and the terrible genocide that occurred is not as well known as that of Hitler and the Jewish holocaust?
After the end of the war, many countries remained Soviet occupied. If people spoke of the brutality they experienced it would have been considered anti-Soviet behavior and they would have been punished. So the story of Stalin’s terror went dormant. But it’s important to note that Lithuania was also occupied by the Germans for a few years. Many people don’t know that during that time of German occupation, over 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were killed. That was an enormous percentage of the Lithuanian population. Lithuania suffered terribly under both Hitler and Stalin.
You mention in your Author’s Note that many paintings, drawings and sketches were made by deportees during this time, like Lina’s drawings. Now that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have regained their independence, are there any museums where these precious works of art are kept?
Yes, there’s an incredible museum in Vilinius called The Museum of Genocide Victims. It’s located in the building that used to be the KGB headquarters, where the lists were drafted of Lithuanian people who were going to be arrested and deported. They have many exhibits of items that belonged to victims. There is also a Genocide and Resistance Research Center in Lithuania and they have a lot of detailed documentation on the victims of the deportations.
In your video about Between Shades of Gray, you challenge readers to ask themselves “would you have survived?” Do you think you would have survived such a horrific experience as Lina’s?
I wish I could say that yes, I would survive. But after meeting with the survivors and hearing the shocking things they experienced, it is truly miraculous that anyone survived. I certainly don’t have the strength of Lina. Lina’s a superhero.
What do you hope will be the impact of your novel on young people today?
I hope that by examining these devastating pieces of history we can learn from the past. Perhaps by learning from these historical tragedies, we can create hope for a more just future.
Thank you Ruta for answering our questions and for writing such an important and moving novel.