Each year, YALSA awards one debut novelist with the prestigious William C. Morris YA Debut Award. The winner will be announced on January 23, but the finalists are in right now: Rae Carson, with The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Jenny Hubbard with Paper Covers Rock, Guadalupe Garcia McCall with Under the Mesquite, Ruta Sepetys with Between Shades of Gray, and John Corey Whaley with Where Things Come Back. We’ll be running Q&A’s with all these talented writers in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned!
Ruta Sepetys wanted her debut novel to tell a story rarely told. In 1941, Stalin began an ethnic cleansing of the Baltic region, tearing apart families and destroying lives. As the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, Ruta knew her family’s story was one worth telling, so she fictionalized aspects of their experience into her novel Between Shades of Gray, about fifteen-year-old Lina. When Lina, her mother, and her younger brother are deported to Siberia by the Soviet secret police and her father is sent to a work camp and almost certain death, Lina risks everything to document their experience through art in hopes that she might send her father a message. Read our interview with Morris Award finalist Ruta Sepetys below.
Congrats on being nominated for such a prestigious award! How does it feel to be a William C. Morris finalist?
It’s beyond description. I’ve always loved the Morris books and immediately add them to my reading list. And to be included amongst such incredible finalists is a tremendous honor.
What do you like about writing for teens?
They’re the most honest audience. Here are some wonderful quotes from recent school visits:
Teen #1 – Why are you trying to act cool? Relax, we already like you.
Teen #2 – For your next book, could you write about something better than a Lithuanian girl?
Teen #3 – Did you ever kiss a guy in Siberia? In your book you make it sound pretty cool.
What advice can you give to aspiring young writers?
1. Read. Good writers are good readers. Read hundreds of books and think about why you love them or hate them.
2. Get your heart broken and stomped on a few times. Take a whirl at being an outcast, a total loser, or publicly humiliated. Although painful at the time, it will provide great material for future books. It worked for me.
3. Swear your allegiance to vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. John’s books set a bar in YA literature that none of us will ever achieve and the amazing vlogbrothers videos will become a delightful companion during a dinner of canned peaches at your computer.
Between Shades of Gray is inspired by your family’s history. What made you decide to write about their experience, and how did you go about researching it?
While visiting Lithuania, I discovered that after my father fled the country, some of my family members were deported to Siberia. Stories of Soviet occupation and Stalin are rarely discussed. There are so many heroes we’ve never had a chance to meet. They’re nameless and faceless. I wanted to give voice to the many people who were deported to Siberia by Stalin.
In terms of research, I took two trips to Lithuania and interviewed survivors, historians, and members of government. I was also a complete idiot and took part in a prison simulation experiment and was locked in a former Soviet prison. Yep. Let’s just say it was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life.
Though Between Shades of Gray is based on true historical events, heroine Lina and her family are fictional. What’s your favorite part of writing historical fiction? What are some of the challenges?
History holds secrets. Writing historical fiction is a bit like being a detective and I love that aspect. You really have to research, question, and dig to unearth information that will be interesting to readers. In terms of challenges, many of the survivors I interviewed told me, “I will tell you what happened to me, but you must promise you will never mention my name.” Fifty years had passed but the pain and fear were still raw. In order to honor their request for anonymity, I had to wrap fictional characters around the events they described. There was a lot of pressure and I was concerned about portraying situations accurately.
Thanks so much for having me here at Figment!