Lee: "Between Shades of Gray" is your debut novel - and when a debut novelist gets huge awards and accolades for a work that is really brilliant, like yours, there's this myth of it being an "overnight success". Other writers can hear the news and feel, 'It's probably the first draft of the first book Ruta ever tried to write, and it came out perfect.' Is that your story?
Ruta: Oh my gosh, no overnight success here and nothing was perfect. It took several years, dozens of drafts, 17 rounds of revision, many rejections. I lost an agent. I lost an editor. I lost my confidence. I considered flinging myself off of a building. My critique group talked me off the ledge. The pub date was moved. I got a new editor who requested difficult revisions. The little voice inside my head began to taunt me, saying I'd never be able to do it. Are you seeing a pattern? It was so damn hard.
Lee: Five years ago, In 2007, you won the SCBWI Work-In-Progress grant - was that for "Between Shades of Gray?" How did the grant help?
Ruta: Yes! It was for "Between Shades of Gray." It helped in so many ways. At the time, I was so discouraged and winning the grant gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, I didn't suck. Arthur Levine was one of the judges that year and he sent me a beautiful, congratulatory email. I still have it. That email and the grant gave me the courage and energy to finish the book. And then, after millions of revisions when my agent shopped the book, we were able to say that it had won the Work-In-Progress grant!
Lee: There is so much description of Lina's art throughout the novel - was there ever discussion of making this an illustrated novel in some way?
Ruta: Yes, some of the international publishers wanted to include illustrations in their versions of the book. But we found that everyone had different ideas of what Lina's art might look like so we decided to leave it up to the reader to imagine the art.
Lee: Tackling a giant moment in history that no one really knows much about - Stalin's cleansing of the Baltic region - seems so overwhelming. How did you focus in on the story you wanted to tell, and find the balance of on the one hand creating characters people would love with on the other hand including all the challenges happening to those characters that mirror the true life horrors people experienced?
Ruta: I chose to focus on the group of people who were deported to the Arctic because their experience was so harrowing and really emphasized the power of the human spirit to transcend occupation. Balancing the hope and horror was much more difficult. I owe that balance to my editor, Tamra Tuller at Philomel. When she got the book it was definitely heavy on the horror and light on the hope. Although I love dark stories that leave me sad for days, Tamra explained that most readers do not. She helped me level out some of the horror and amplify the elements of hope.
Lee: I'm curious to find out more about how you struck a balance between Dark and Light, Despair and Hope, Evil and Love throughout the book. Not to spoil anything for those who haven't read it yet, but in some of the darkest moments, Lina finds a shred of light, and it lets us as readers breathe again. Tell us more about that.
Ruta: When I interviewed survivors, they explained that they found hope in small things–a shiny rock, a pretty melody, or a funny story from home. Those small things created glimmers of light between endless bands of gray and sometimes gave them the will to fight for one more day of survival. They found beauty in each breath and somehow used their suffering as a spiritual teacher. That inspired me and I wanted to include those elements in the book. The Soviets took their flag, they took their language, they took their country, but they couldn't take their spirit.
Lee: First page, first lines - yours is brilliant. Did the story always start in this way?
Ruta: Thank you! Yes, the first line was always, "They took me in my nightgown." It was the first line I wrote and it stuck.
Here's the opening of "Between Shades Of Gray"
thieves and prostitutes1
THEY TOOK ME IN MY NIGHTGOWN.
Thinking back, the signs were there--family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.
We were taken.
Lee: Do you have hopes for this book in terms of how history is taught, or for it to be used in schools?
Ruta: My dream is that teachers and librarians might use the book to open the door– to study Stalin and the other side of WWII.
Lee: Can you tell us about what you're working on next?
Ruta: My next novel, OUT OF THE EASY, is finished and will be published by Philomel in spring of 2013. It's set in post-war New Orleans in 1950 and follows the daughter of a French Quarter prostitute who is trying to get into a prestigious East Coast college but gets tangled in a murder investigation. It's sort of "Good Will Hunting" meets "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"...in a brothel. Ha! But seriously–it's about decisions and how we learn to fly when we're born with broken wings.
Lee: What's the best piece of career advice you've received that you can share with us?
Ruta: Several years ago at the SCBWI LA conference I attended a session with Walter Dean Myers. He shared two pieces of writing advice that I swear by: 1.) Don't wait for the muse to come. Sit down and immediately start writing. Write something, anything, even if it's crap. Just let the words sputter out and after several minutes of writing non-stop you'll find a groove. 2.) Don't be afraid to change gears and write something else. I was originally trying to sell a middle-grade mystery. After reading a few pages of "Between Shades of Gray" an agent told me to put aside the middle-grade book. There were a few editors that had requested the middle-grade novel. But the agent explained that my middle-grade novel was derivative but "Between Shades of Gray" showcased my authentic voice. I'm so glad I took the agent's advice!
Lee: Congratulations on your award - it will be great to hear you speak at the Golden Kite Luncheon at this Summer's SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles.
Ruta: Thank you so much, Lee! And thank you to everyone at SCBWI. Bottom line - I am a published author because of SCBWI!
You can find out more about Ruta and her books at her website here.