The bestselling author of the highly acclaimed debut Between Shades of Gray, about the deportation of a 15-year-old girl from Lithuania to Stalin’s Siberian camps, has a new historical novel, Out of the Easy (Philomel, Feb.), set in New Orleans in 1950. She spoke with PW about her new book, the success of her first book, her writing process, and what she’s working on now.
What are the most surprising and gratifying elements of the breakout success of Between Shades of Gray?
The most surprising element has been the international reaction. It’s been published in 41 countries and translated into 23 languages. I never could have imagined that it would gain this kind of warm reception. And I’ve toured more than 15 countries, and one thing that is utterly fascinating is how the curriculum develops around the novel. In France, the novel is employed to focus on identity. In Japan it’s used to look at compassionate courage, and one of the professors puts the national anthem of Lithuania next to the Soviet national anthem to show the differences in culture.
In Germany I have really enjoyed meeting the readers who have such a complex war history and are anxious to talk about the book. They are so tied to the war and have a personal connection to the events. That’s just not something I ever expected. In Italy the book was published only for adults and the material deemed too difficult for young adult audiences. That’s true in several other countries, as well.
Do you hear from survivors of Stalin’s camps?
I hear from a lot of families and the stories they share are absolutely amazing. It shows how many people share this history of suffering.
Your new book is a real departure from Between Shades of Gray. What inspired you to write Out of the Easy?
I wanted to take a break from such serious and emotional material. Because my grandfather escaped Lithuania and the camps, I have an intensely personal connection to the story of Between Shades of Gray. So I wanted something different. And several years ago someone gave me a vintage pair of opera glasses. They were still in the case from the New Orleans jeweler and I traced their history to learn they belonged to a woman who lived in the French Quarter. Then I read a book called The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz. It chronicled the life of a famous New Orleans madam, Norma Wallace, and captured the city in all its eccentric beauty. And I started to think about what it would be like for a teenage girl to grow up on the fringes of a brothel, and what kinds of obstacles she would face.
In Out of the Easy, your protagonist, Josie Moraine, is the daughter of a prostitute, and she longs to escape New Orleans and her circumstances. How did you create Josie?
Josie developed out of the time period of the 1950s. I chose the postwar period because it was a time when nostalgia was at an alltime high but there was also a lot of pain and pressure to conform. It was a time of unparalleled prosperity but it was also a quiet nightmare. I found the secrets fascinating. For example, if a parent were ill no one would ever mention it because it would diminish the perception of perfection. It is such a fascinating time period with so much pressure and [so many] expectations on young women, particularly in the South. So I just kept thinking about this young girl growing up on the sidelines of a brothel and how her circumstances would make everything that much harder. And I thought how these pressures would weigh on this girl who is born into brokenness, and what her issues of family and identity would be and how she would create a sense of self worth. Josie Moraine is learning to fly when she’s been born with broken wings.
These characters are all imperfect and full of secrets. I include Dickens in the novel, whom I also mention in Between Shades of Gray, because he was the master of capturing human peculiarity. The setting also allowed me to create characters that were peculiar: some awful, like Josie’s mother and her boyfriend, the dangerous criminal Cincinnati. And in contrast there is the kindly teacher Mrs. Paulsen who helps Josie.
I adore themes of hope and courage and the ways we find meaning through suffering. Josie through her suffering and desperation is learning things. That was true in Between Shades of Gray, too. These Siberia survivors I interviewed all said they learned so much from their suffering, about life and what really matters. So I endeavored to show hope through the brothel story and to chronicle the ways in which we are all the authors of our own destiny.
You did a tremendous amount of research for Between Shades of Gray. How did you research this new novel?
I took many trips down to New Orleans trying to experience the city as deeply as possible. I’m from Detroit so New Orleans seemed very exotic to me. I spent a lot of time in the Williams Research Center in the French Quarter looking through photos and newspapers. I was looking for small details, such as what the pavement looked like after it rained. And as I was entrenched in this research, I came upon a few stories about tourists who met an untimely end in New Orleans, and I followed that thread to work it into the novel.
The most amazing part was that I found the house of Norma Wallace, the famous madam. When I first found it, it was abandoned. And then over time the building changed, and someone restored it. One time I was standing outside and someone invited me in, and the whole thing came to life. I was standing in the stairwell and I could see where the girls would come down to greet the gentlemen. In Norma’s bedroom I could see where they would count the money and where she lived, and how the various characters would interact. It became the inspiration for Willie’s house in the book.
Your heroine, Josie, becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. How did you decide to incorporate a murder mystery into your book?
The mystery element came about as a suggestion by my former agent Lindsay Davis, who thought I should incorporate a murder into the setting. And then when I found the newspaper archives about these tourists who met awful fates that came to life for me.
What about brothels? What led you to make Josie’s mother a prostitute?
It was really the inspiration of Norma Wallace. And I love putting beauty and ugliness next to each other on the page. I like the contrast of Josie, who has such hope and courage, with her conniving, manipulative mother.
What were the biggest challenges in writing this book?
The city of New Orleans itself presented the biggest challenge. It is difficult to write about that city as an outsider. There were some things I couldn’t even attempt, such as the dialects. The cultural diversity is so incredibly rich – the language, the food, the superstitions, the architecture. And I had a great fear of not being able to capture the city as a native might. It will be up to the readers to decide if I’ve done a decent job.
What do you hope readers will come away with from this novel?
I hope that they will give thought to the identity one is labeled with at birth and the one we create for ourselves. And that it is possible to become the hero of your own life, and sometimes the families we build on our own can become just as important or more so as those into which we’re born.
What is your writing process? How do you structure your writing day?
I’m a binge writer. I work in the music business fulltime, in artist management and developing songwriters and recording artists, and so juggling my job I carve out as much time as I can on the weekends. It’s not ideal but between working and touring it leaves limited time to write.
How do you spend your time when you’re not writing?
I spend it with family, always. My sister and brother are both writers, as well. We are constantly discussing story and plot lines. And I love to discuss story ideas with my husband. I [also] love to travel, so touring feeds that part of me.
Have you considered writing a sequel to Between Shades of Gray?
When I finished Between Shades of Gray I didn’t think so. But then I’ve gotten countless emails from kids and parents who care about what happens to these characters. So, yes, of course, I will consider it.
What are you working on now?
I am working on another historical fiction novel. This one is set at the end of World War II in 1945 in East Prussia. It unearths a very little known piece of history, about a ship that was torpedoed by the Soviets. Nine thousand people drowned, and people know nothing about it because the Germans covered it up so completely. It is the largest maritime disaster. They were trying to get as many people as possible out of East Prussia, and chose teens because small children were too young to travel without their parents, and they had the best chance of creating new lives. Parents had to make agonizing choices about which of their children to send. The ship left without any lights on but the Soviets found it and torpedoed it. Like Between Shades of Gray, this is an opportunity to highlight a forgotten and hidden chapter in history.
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. Philomel, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-399-25692-9
See PW’s review here.