Ruta Sepetys talks about ‘Shades of Gray,’ tears of joy

Each year, the Nashville Reads project brings the greater Nashville community together through literature. This year, the award-winning “Between Shades of Gray” was selected as the book of choice.

It’s the first novel from Nashville author Ruta Sepetys.


A series of citywide book events will conclude Tuesday evening, at the Nashville Public Library, with local students reading selected passages from Sepetys’ work of historical fiction and a special solo performance by Gavin Mikhail, who composed a soundtrack inspired by the novel’s harrowing journey of a teenage refugee from Lithuania.

Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, also will engage readers in a discussion of themes related to the book.

There was certainly a personal satisfaction that came with writing “Between Shades of Gray,” but did you ever think it would have the impact it’s had on readers around the world?

I never imagined that this book would be published in 45 countries. I never imagined that, and I underestimated the universal themes of hope and love and courage and the miraculous nature of the human spirit. But that has probably been the most rewarding aspect of “Between Shades of Gray.”

It’s had to have warranted some tears — both joyous and purely raw emotion — on more than one occasion.

I’ve cried more in the last five years, since “Between Shades of Gray” has been published, than I’ve probably ever cried in my life, including adolescence, but the difference is they are tears of joy, of compassion, of surprise. You write a book and you think you know what your book is about and you think that you’re sort of alone in your story and then your story connects you with other people, who have experienced something similar or something even more tragic and suddenly the world is less lonely and that brings tears. That’s what empathy is, someone reaching out and saying, “I feel for you. You are not alone.” That causes tears, but good tears.

Because of the overwhelming success of “Shades,” do you ever feel as though “Out of the Easy,” perhaps, got a little shortchanged?

No. I don’t. I did not anticipate the longevity of “Between Shades of Gray,” and my publisher, they did. I felt like, no, we should come with the next book. My publisher anticipated and predicted the longevity of “Between Shades of Gray.” Five years have passed and the book and the story are still selling the same amount that it did the first year that it came out … but it’s a different audience for “Out of the Easy.” Just as a child of a refugee might gravitate towards “Between Shades of Gray,” the people who need the message in “Out of the Easy,” they find the book. Some people who read “Out of the Easy” have no idea that I’ve written another book. They have no idea about “Between Shades of Gray.”

Talk about being the first local author to have a book selected for the Nashville Reads program?

Am I?

It’s an indescribable honor for the city to choose the book as a community read. Why I was told it was chosen is because this year they specifically wanted more interaction between young readers, college readers, adult readers. And “Between Shades of Gray” is read in middle school and all the way up to the university level and then by elderly people.

At the book events, what’s been so incredible is seeing people of the community discuss this. It’s really transcended generations, and that’s incredible to me because history divides us. History divided the world, but through a book we’re somehow brought together. … I think that’s unique to Nashville. Some cities are about industry. Nashville is about community and, so as an author, to have your book selected as the city read, there’s nothing more rewarding.

There have been several events, but the Nashville Reads finale, on May 12, also features pianist Gavin Mikhail. How did the idea of having Gavin compose eight original songs actually come about? 

As you know, I worked in the music business for 22 years, so music is part of my storytelling process. When I listen to music, I visualize a story almost like I’m creating a video in my head. It’s a very visual process for me and I’ve always thought that music and books are natural companions. In some stores, they’re even sold together.

And Gavin is a dear friend of mine and we were talking about it, and I thought, “I would love for you to create a soundtrack.” He read the book and loved the book and came up with the most moving soundtrack. It was beautiful, not only that he captured the story, but he captured the story as I, the author, saw it as well, and some readers.

I’m excited for people to attend the finale because there will be students who will read a passage from the book and then Gavin will perform the composition that was inspired by that part of the book, and then I’ll speak a little bit.