Employees of some bookstores have to be alerted that Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys have nothing to do with each other. James’ kinky erotica novel is the biggest publishing phenomenon of 2012. Between Shades of Gray is a phenomenon in its own right, landing on several 2011 year-end best lists, and even more impressively, getting teens to read about genocide in Baltic countries at the hands of Stalin’s regime.
Both James and Sepetys are currently on book tour. James is attracting huge crowds of people who want to hear her read from her spicy trilogy. Sepetys is drawing crowds interested in her YA novel about a young Lithuanian girl’s unspeakable struggles — but she’s also getting confused Fifty Shades of Grey fans who show up at her appearances by mistake. “The subject has come up at every high school and every bookstore I’ve been to,” Sepetys says with a laugh. However, she counts the title confusion as a positive. Many of the E L James fans who wander into her readings — most of them men, she notes — stick around and end up learning something. You can read more about the funny mix-ups in the current issue of EW, and you can read more about Ruta Sepetys’ novel below:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to write about this topic?
RUTA SEPETYS: I learned that some of my grandfather’s extended family was deported to Siberia. I was so ashamed and embarrassed — this was part of my family history and I knew nothing of this. That inspired me. It made me think about how stories of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet occupation are rarely discussed, so these people are sort of nameless and faceless. I was inspired to give voice to these people who would never have a chance to tell their story.
Were you surprised that young kids actually wanted to read Between Shades of Gray?
Surprised is an understatement — I’m shocked! First of all, if anyone would have told me when I was 14, “Hey, there’s this great book about a Lithuanian girl starving in Siberia,” first I would have asked, “Is there kissing?” And if they said yes, then I may have read it, but otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. So I am so surprised but moreover grateful. I really do have to thank these book bloggers who have shared this story and teenagers in high school who are passing it on to friends. Word of mouth has been great among young adults.
What’s some of the most touching feedback you’ve gotten in response to the novel?
Some of the most touching feedback has actually come from people who truly own this story. Meaning I wrote the book but it’s not my story. History wrote this story. But there are people who have reached out to me and said, “I read your book and my grandmother died in Siberia, and I’m so grateful that I was able to tell their story.” Some of the stories that people have e-mailed me are just so incredible and illustrate the power of the human spirit. That’s really been so completely touching to know that this is really reaching people who have direct connections to this part of history.
How about a reaction from a teen reader?
One of the most touching comments that I received happened in Chicago. A kid stood up and asked me if I ever read The Hunger Games. And I said “Yes, I’ve read all three, I love them. Team Gale, all the way!” And he said, “Your book is The Hunger Games but for real.” The room got really quiet and this kid said, “If you live, you win. If you die, you lose. I don’t want to go to the Hunger Games.” And that basically was the end of the presentation because I basically came undone. I mean, what do you say to that? That was definitely the most touching from a teenager who read the book.
Were you always planning to write the novel from a young person’s point of view, or was that a decision you had to arrive at?
It was always going to be the case. I decided that I had to write this story as fiction because these survivors that I met with said that they would share their story but they would prefer if I didn’t use their names. You know, 50 years had passed, but the fear was still present. And of the people that I met with, most of them were teenagers when they were in Siberia. I asked people, “Why am I not meeting anyone that was 5 or 6 years old when they were in Siberia?” And they explained that teenagers had a will to live that burned like fire, and that they were stubborn. The teenagers and their stubborn nature, in a way, saved the nation.
Did you ever break down emotionally while you were writing this book?
Several times. There were several times when I wanted to quit because it was so incredibly emotional. I thought I was going to learn a lot about history when I was writing the book, but I also learned about myself. I learned that I’m a coward. The little bit of research that I did for this book I learned quickly that I never would have survived in Siberia. And yet when I was talking to people and they were telling me that their family was split up right in front of their eyes, and as grown men were telling me the stories, they were trembling. One woman got sick and threw up. History holds secrets, and secrets are painful and damaging. To see these people who’d held a secret for 50 years — basically a country had held this secret for 50 years and the damage that it did — it was overwhelming because how could I ever do justice to this story? I can’t. They’ve been so gracious to allow me to tell the story. I mean, I’m kind of a Lithuanian imposter. I have a Lithuanian name but I don’t speak Lithuanian. But yet these people have been so gracious to allow me to tell their story through fiction. And yeah, some of the stories they told me were so awful. What human beings are capable of doing to one another — I couldn’t sleep at night. It was that awful.
How does it feel getting such great critical honors for Between Shades of Gray?
It’s so gratifying because it means that people are truly interested in historical fiction and that especially teen readers are interested. They won’t allow crimes against humanity to be swept under the rug. These teen readers are so earnest, and that’s our future. It’s so encouraging especially when the book has shown up on teen choice lists. It makes me so hopeful.