Can you tell me a bit about the extensive research you did in order to write Between Shades of Gray?
I took two trips to Lithuania while writing the book. During the first trip I outlined the general idea of the story. I took the second trip when I had started writing, but needed more clarity on the experience in Siberia. On that second trip, I met with historians, survivors, psychologists and conducted days of interviews. I also met members from a group of Lithuanians who had been deported to the Arctic. Their story of survival was just incredible. I was so moved by these people and just had to incorporate their experience into the book.
Why did you choose to write this story?
History holds secrets. But secrets can be painful and secrets can be destructive. When I was in Lithuania meeting with family members they told me that they had burned all of the photos of my family, because they couldn’t let anyone know they were related to my grandfather. And so many people in the Baltics had experienced the terror of Stalin but had never spoken of it for fear of the consequences. The stories of Soviet occupation and Stalin are rarely discussed. And it occurred to me, there are so many heroes that we’ve never had the chance to meet or hear about. We’ve never been able to celebrate their bravery or console their regret. They’re nameless and faceless. So I was inspired to write the book to honor the many people who were deported to Siberia by Stalin.
Did you ever think any of the content would be too harrowing for YA readers?
No, I think teens are incredibly adept at processing emotional complexities within a narrative. I find that adults are having a harder time with the sadness and injustice described in the story. Writing the book pulled me through the wringer emotionally. Every day I was left pondering questions like “What does it take to bear the unbearable? And “Who Survives? Would I survive?” I was left in awe of these people who managed to use suffering as a great teacher and somehow while everyone around them was dying, their will to live burned like fire.
What do you hope readers will take away from Lina's story?
I hope readers feel that through examining these tragic parts of history and learning from mistakes of the past we create hope for a more just future. These three small countries have taught us a large lesson about the miracles that are hope and courage and how to speak when your voice has been extinguished. And most of all - an affirmation of the force of life and power of love.
Although Between Shades of Gray is a story of evil and desperation, it is ultimately about hope. Did you set out to write it that way?
I set out to capture an authenticity of emotion and setting and unfortunately, that included a lot of horror and desperation. It was difficult because I was trying to address the search for self in the face of death. I owe the balance of hope in the book to my editor, Tamra Tuller. Many of her revision suggestions centered around amplifying the sense of hope. I enjoy bleak stories so my first drafts tend to be pretty depressing. My editor was fantastic, her suggestions added incredible dimension to the story but allowed me to retain the dark atmosphere I felt was critical to remain authentic.
I have a big interest in WWII, but I knew nothing about this side of it until I read Between Shades of Gray. Why do you think the Baltic deportations aren't as well-known as other parts of the war?
Discussions about postwar reorganization took place at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945. During those discussions, Stalin persuaded the Western allies to leave the Baltics under Soviet control – and they agreed. So the Baltics remained Soviet occupied until 1990. During that fifty-year occupation, those who experienced Stalin’s terror or deportation couldn’t speak of it. If they did, they would have been punished or arrested by the Soviet secret police. So the story went dormant.
You spoke to some real-life survivors over the course of your research, and as someone with personal ties to this story, was it ever difficult for you to learn more about your own history?
It was difficult to learn that I had been so ignorant. I had no idea, for example, that some of my grandfather’s extended family had been deported to Siberia. As I learned about their experience it occurred to me that all of the freedoms I enjoy as an American citizen perhaps came at the expense of my extended family members.
What are you writing next? Do you have any plans to return to WWII in the future?
I’m currently working on another historical fiction novel for Penguin that I’m really excited about. It’s set in New Orleans in the ‘50’s. After I finish the book I will start on another WWII story.
Thank you so much for having me here at Wondrous Reads!
- UK publisher's: Site
- My review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys