Ruta Sepetys — author of last year's acclaimed WWII-era novel ''Between Shades of Gray'' — returns with ''Out of the Easy,'' a haunting peek at the life of a teenage girl in 1950s New Orleans.
Out of the Easy is about a prostitute’s daughter who’s desperate to escape her mother’s fate and who wants to attend Smith College. Are you worried parents might prejudge it?
I hope not! The story is about identity and family — the families we build for ourselves are sometimes stronger than the ones we’re born into.
New Orleans isn’t part of your personal history. What was your entry point into this story?
A friend of mine gave me a pair of vintage opera glasses for my birthday, and they were engraved and dated by a New Orleans jeweler to someone named Willie. I’m totally nuts about history, so I worked with a researcher to trace the origin of these glasses, and the researcher told me that Willie was a woman, not a man, and she told me that there’s a really good chance that Willie was a madam. Well, forget it. Are you kidding? I have a madam’s opera glasses?! My mind just started to churn with all these ideas, and then I stumbled upon this book called The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, and it was about a notorious madam in New Orleans named Norma Wallace, and that’s how these elements came together.
I heard you went to a real brothel to do your research.
I’m all about the immersion experience. I don’t think I would go so far as to check myself into a brothel, but yes, one of the most fascinating parts of my research was visiting a former brothel. I was outside taking pictures, and one of the residents came out and said, ”Hey, do you want to come in?” When I walked in that house, I could smell the cigarette smoke and I saw the stairways where the girls would take the dates upstairs. The building itself just had so much mojo to it. It was absolutely fascinating to be inside.
What’s great about both of your novels is that although they feature young protagonists, they don’t feel strictly young-adult. When you’re writing, do you target teen readers?
I don’t, because I believe that teenagers are such deep thinkers and deep feelers that that would be doing a disservice. Something I do try to do is include a historical basis in the stories. Let’s face it: Historical fiction has been the ugly chick at the dance for a long time. [Laughs] People told me, ”Ruta, Between Shades of Gray, she ain’t going to the prom!” So many publishers passed, but I try to find these underrepresented parts of history or historical settings and use them to try to explore these themes. Teenagers are so eager and willing to have these conversations, but we often say, ”Oh, they’re too young to understand that.”
It’s an advantage to have a large teen following, since they’re so engaged and communicative.
They’re so honest! First of all, I don’t have kids, so when I first started doing school visits, it was a little bit uncomfortable because teens are very savvy, and this one girl said to me, ”You know, you got us out of class, so we already like you. You don’t have to try so hard.” [Laughs] She really put me in my place, but in a good way. Another guy raised his hand, and he said, ”How old are you? Because you don’t look old, but you dress old.” When you write for a teen audience, man, you are going to get feedback that is so real, and with an emotional truth that these kids are feeling when they read this material.
Your first novel, Between Shades of Gray, spurred concerned parents to call schools and libraries because they confused it with Fifty Shades of Grey. Are there any books out there that have similar titles to Out of the Easy?
Trust me, I’m holding my breath thinking that I’m going to open the newspaper and there’s going to be the new book by E L James titled Out of My Easy or something! But I think we’re in the clear.