As I mentioned previously, last weekend I spent my Saturday at a Creative Writing conference. You know something has impacted you when you can’t stop thinking about it, or what you learned from it. I’ve had many moments this past week, in between my prepping, teaching, and grading commitments of my teaching job, where I would think about something that I learned; something that was shared during the event.
I have to say that of the five years that I’ve been attending this conference, this year’s keynote speaker was one of the best I’ve heard. Some might think that’s not a fair statement to say. But in fairness, I’m speaking of my own take-away, in terms of what was shared, how it was delivered, and the impact it had on me personally.
Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, sat at my table during lunch prior to her keynote address. I didn’t know how to say her name, and felt better when she jokingly talked about the fact that most people have difficulty pronouncing it. She was pleasant, and we hit it off from the start. Then I found out that Ruta used to work in the music industry. Maybe that was part of the reason for my instant connection with her.
To borrow a little from her bio, Ruta is an internationally acclaimed author of historical fiction. She is published in over fifty countries and thirty-six languages. Historical fiction isn’t really something I’d ever considered writing. I wouldn’t say I’m too lazy to do the appropriate research, but I will say that I find research, in general, a difficult challenge for me; hard to focus on. Add history to the mix, and you’ve lost me a bit.
Sepetys is considered a “crossover” novelist, a term I’d never heard before applied to writers, but it’s because her books are read by both students and adults.
Even before she spoke, I felt like I was going to want to take home one of her novels. They had all three on site. Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy are both New York Times bestsellers. Her latest novel, Salt to the Sea, is a #1 New York Times bestseller and winner of the Carnegie Medal.
I settled on the one whose description spoke to me the most — Out of the Easy.
But back to the other part. Ruta spent 20 years in the music industry working as an artist manager. Yes, that caught my attention. How did this former music industry executive go from managing artists to successfully writing fiction; especially historical fiction? I was also curious as to how she managed to write her first two novels while still working full-time; keeping her “day job.”
Her story is too long and interestingly detailed to try to include even close to everything about it here. And after hearing her speak, and the motivational encouragement I got from it, I certainly regret not taping the session.
I will say this. Her books are tied into her heritage, her family’s history, and Lithuania. If you’re curious, start by researching the history of Lithuania, and what happened to the people there during WWII. She writes about her family’s history in her novel Between Shades of Gray. I haven’t read it yet, but after hearing what she shared, I think it’s something I would spend the time doing. On her website she describes some of her inspiration to write it like this:
During a trip to Lithuania I visited my father’s cousin and learned that after my father fled from Lithuania, some of our extended family members were deported to Siberia. I was shocked, but learned that my family’s history was not unique. There are millions of people whose lives were taken or affected during the Soviet occupation. Yet very few people know the story. I wanted to write a novel to honor the people of the Baltics and also to illustrate the power of love and patriotism.
Also curious to me was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff near the end of WWII. They never taught that to us when I was in school. This is what Ruta had to say about why she thinks the story is unknown to so many, which ties into her current novel, Salt to Sea:
When the ship sank, the Nazis tried to conceal the story (and the fact that they were losing the war.) The Soviet submarine commander who torpedoed the Gustloff was dishonorably discharged shortly after, so the Russians weren’t drawing attention to the story. And after the war, Germany didn’t publicize the sinking as they felt it was inappropriate to speak of their losses during the war considering the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Her presentation was very inspirational. Whether she was sharing her process on researching history, how she creates characters, or sharing words of encouragement about how she started writing, and came into doing it full-time (she gave up the day job to focus solely on writing), I left the conference motivated and ready to lock myself into a room for 12 hours at a time, and just write.
Of course, that didn’t happened. The reality of teaching, grading, working towards tenure, and lots of other non-classroom academia requirements, hit me first thing that next Monday morning!
But how did she do it?
One of the courses I teach is Artist Management. So I know how time consuming that work is. But she somehow managed to carve out the time to follow her other passion. She got the research completed. She got the writing done. She landed an agent, a publishing deal, all while she kept on building her management company.
That… That is part of what inspired me most about being in the audience that afternoon. It’s not an impossible task. It’s not a “that’s for someone else; I could never do that.” If she could do it, and do it well, then what was holding me back?
I have to say it’s been a while since I’ve felt so determined to complete what I’ve started.