In her newest book, Ruta Sepetys turns from YA historical fiction to the subject of writing to inspire readers to mine their memories and craft personal stories. Known for uncovering little-known chapters in history—including the story of Lithuanians deported by Stalin during WWII in her debut Between Shades of Gray—Sepetys intertwines stories from her own experience to guide and prompt those of aspiring writers in her latest undertaking. Viking Children’s Books will publish You: The Story on May 23, 2023. PW has an exclusive look at the cover and insights on the project from Sepetys and the book’s editor, Tamar Brazis, associate publisher of Viking.
Questions from readers at the hundreds of events Sepetys has done in the decade since her debut, Between Shades of Gray, led her to tackle a book on writing. “Conversations about historical fiction and history quickly turned to conversations about personal history,” she said. “Readers were interested in how they might uncover and articulate their own story. I found myself constantly saying that whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, experience and memory is the secret to strong and vivid writing.”
The pandemic lockdown offered an opportunity to turn inward. “It forced me to remain home, so I pulled out these ideas about storytelling and got to work,” Sepetys said. She described the challenges of writing this kind of personal nonfiction. “It is a bit of a vulnerable exercise because I use examples from my own life to share components of creating stories. In historical fiction, I am writing about others, but in this book, I’m using myself and my experience through these prompts to stir reflection.”
Sepetys quickly realized she needed to include nonfiction context to explain some of her experience. “I’m older than many of the readers, so I wrote these nonfiction blurbs about certain events that I was describing. For example, when I wrote about my mother’s experience with Jimmy Hoffa, I had to do a sidebar. Or when I wrote about being in the devastating Northridge earthquake in the 1990s in California,” she said. “This was also a way for me to include sneaky kinds of research prompts. Readers don’t even realize that they’re researching when they’re looking at these sidebars that have questions for them to uncover and discover.”
Some surprises emerged in the process. “I discovered that the most meaningful aspects [of story] dwell within what I call the wave,” she said. “That wave is heartbreak, hope, humor, and humiliation. We all have heartbreak, humor, hope, and humiliation in our lives. Reflecting on those emotions leads back to story. And in that we all have deep experiences to draw from for our creative projects.”
In this current climate of polarization and misinformation, Sepetys said she believes that stories offer an authentic way to connect. “The goal is to facilitate deeper understanding through stories and memory. When we share our story, we find that we are really never alone in our own experience, thoughts, or our opinions.” This understanding can eliminate speculation and false narratives. “Story helps classrooms, community, companies, and even countries function not only better, but more compassionately. I ask in the book, what is the story of your community or the school that you have attended? And do you know the history of the country that your neighbor is from and do they know your story? Because if not we are missing the chance for connection and a deeper experience.”
Though not Sepetys’s fiction editor, Brazis signed on to edit this project because she has an MFA in creative writing. “I have much experience with writing workshops and perspective on the process,” she said. “As someone who has struggled with writing or needed a boost of confidence in order to pursue an idea on the page, [I found that] You: The Story provides much inspiration and affirmation of that process.” Brazis believes the accessibility of the tools and prompts in this book will help readers overcome any shyness or apprehension about writing. “Ruta has done something very brave with this book. She shares intimate, and often laugh-inducing, stories from her own life. And because her stories are so compelling, the reader then realizes that they have also just learned something about the craft of writing, like establishing setting or creating a strong voice.”
Spanish artist Malena Valcarcel, who lives on the Mediterranean coast, designed the cover for You: The Story. She employs paper in her work to create book sculptures, jewelry, and other elaborate constructions. The cover piece is the Tree of Knowledge. “When we saw it, we felt it perfectly captured the essence of the book, which encourages writers to use the roots of their own life experiences as a foundation for the stories they are looking to tell,” Brazis said.
Though she said she loved writing nonfiction, after this Sepetys returns to historical fiction in a middle-grade collaboration with nonfiction author Steve Sheinkin (Fallout). Their novel is set in World War II at the British codebreaking headquarters Bletchley Park during the Battle of Britain. “Though quite a few projects describe adults at Bletchley and codebreakers, Steve and I discovered that there were teenagers there and that their stories had not yet been shared. When we got deeper into it we realized the vivid and eccentric world that these teenagers were in around Bletchley. It’s a very rich setting,” Sepetys said. The as-yet-untitled book will come out in 2024, and will include puzzles and codebreaking exercises alongside a mystery.
With You: The Story, Sepetys hopes to inspire readers to understand that everyone has personal experiences to share. “It is less about where we have traveled or worked or if we have experienced grand adventures,” she said. “It is more about the interior landscape. And through that we all have a story. A day is a story. A year is a story. A life is a story.”