Ruta Sepetys has three bestselling novels under her belt, but the ’89 Hillsdale College alumna’s first book was banned — by the parents of her 3rd-grade classmates.
“The Adventures of Betsy,” written in a notebook with a scratch-and-sniff pickle on the cover, drew popularity from 8-year-olds but wary glances from parents. Discouraged, Sepetys put her writing career on hold until a series of events led her back to storytelling and unexpected prominence. Decades later, her three New York Times bestsellers have been translated into 37 languages and published in 53 countries. Two are even being adapted for film, “which is just so surreal,” she said.
“I knew I always wanted to be an author, but that [book banning] stole my courage,” said Sepetys, who was named a distinguished alumna for this month’s Alumni Awards Banquet on homecoming weekend. (Sepetys said she can’t attend the event because she’s touring for her latest release, “Salt to the Sea.”)
“Really, I’ve come back to what I’ve always dreamed of doing, but in order to do that I had to find the courage,” she said.
Setting writing aside, Sepetys focused on other skills during her undergraduate years at Hillsdale. She studied international business and French and took courses at a graduate school in France, where she juggled Japanese and Spanish classes and a job with AirFrance. At Hillsdale, she delved into the music program, joining the choir and participating in musicals.
“She had a beautiful voice,” said Kris Kornmeier, Sepetys’ “big sister” in the Chi Omega sorority, remembering that Sepetys sang at events around campus. “She was such a perfectionist — everything she did, she did so beautifully.”
Sepetys didn’t divulge her writing skills in college, but her friends remember her gift for weaving a story.
“She’s always been a great storyteller,” said Connie Sisinyak Buick, Sepetys’ freshman roommate. “You could take the most ordinary event, and when she told the story, it was no longer ordinary.”
Sepetys took her storytelling skills into her first job. After graduating from Hillsdale in December of 1989 (but walking the stage in May 1990 because “that was my class”), Sepetys jumped into artist management in Los Angeles, California, helping musicians tell their stories through songs.
“It was excellent training ground for becoming an author,” she said. “Studying song structure was so helpful, because a song is essentially a three-minute story. I really learned to distill story through my work in the music business.”
In 2003, Sepetys started her own music business in Nashville, Tennessee, working with artists such as Grammy-award winner Steve Vai, country singer Eric Church, and rock band Lit.
“Part of my job was always asking someone, ‘What is the story here?’” Sepetys said. “And one day, one of the musicians asked me, ‘Ruta, what is your story?’”
Sepetys took the question back to her Lithuanian roots. Her father fled the European country as a 4-year-old during the Soviet occupation and spent nine years in refugee camps before the U.S. allowed him in through the Displaced Persons Act. Sepetys’ family settled in Detroit, where Sepetys grew up.
“All throughout school and college life and working, those are things I’ve always kept in mind and that I believe have led me now to write the type of literature I now write about people who were not able to tell their story,” Sepetys said. “Why are some parts of history part of our collective consciousness and other parts hidden?”
Deciding to write about the “horrors of totalitarianism” like the ones her family experienced, Sepetys published her first novel, “Between Shades of Gray,” in 2011. The historical fiction book follows a young Lithuanian girl who’s deported with her family to Siberia.
Jettisoning her music business to become a full-time author, Sepetys has thrown herself wholly into her books: She reads primary sources and travels to the countries where her stories take place, immersing herself in the cultures and interviewing people with stories for her to tell.
Calling herself a “seeker of lost stories,” Sepetys writes historical fiction “crossover” stories that engage both children and adults, focusing on tales of survivors of oppression in the not-so-distant past.
Sepetys said listening to survivors’ stories has “transformed” her.
“Listening is an act of love,” she said. “We live in such a busy time period where productivity is rewarded often over presence. Really to listen is to be gentle with one another and to be able to look through another person’s eyes and consider their heart.”
With two more historical fiction books in her repertoire — “Out of the Easy” and “Salt to the Sea” — Sepetys travels the world to deliver lectures on her books and the historical subjects she writes about. Her work has earned her the Carnegie Medal and the Cross of the Knight of the Order from the Lithuanian president.
It’s fulfilling but overwhelming, she said, but the familiar Hillsdale face that occasionally shows up at her events is comforting.
“So much of my writing success comes from my friends who believed in me,” she said. “At almost every event, there’s someone from Hillsdale — people have traveled all over.”
Her Hillsdale friends remember her just as fondly, recalling her humility, talent, hard work ethic, and love for fun. Buick remembered singing with Sepetys to Bon Jovi and Madonna in the dorm room and described Sepetys as adventurous and enthusiastic.
“She was great at telling stories, made you want to listen — you gravitated to Ruta,” said Michelle Gumbko, another Chi Omega friend of Sepetys, in an email. “She was mesmerizing. I always knew Ruta would be amazing, although I wouldn’t of thought of her as being a famous author.”
The three women said they stay in touch with Sepetys, who sends them Christmas cards and gifts from time to time. Sepetys has always been loyal and thoughtful, Buick said.
Sepetys, who lives in Tennessee, is working on a fourth novel at the moment, set in Madrid, Spain, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the 1950s. As always, she’s pouring herself into the task: She rented an apartment in Spain and has traveled there six times to complete her research.
Kornmeier said she plans to see Sepetys’ presentation on “Salt to the Sea” — just released in paperback — in Cleveland next week.
“She’s a great storyteller,” Kornmeier said. “That’s such a talent, and she found it, and she’s sharing it with the world.”