Ruta Sepety’s first novel about a girl’s struggle to survive in Lithuania during turbulent times earned her a passionate young following. That novel’s title — Between Shades of Gray — caused a stir owing to its similarity to that of publishing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey (the title is where the similarity ends). Out of the Easy, Sepetys’ second novel, due out in February, takes place in an entirely new setting. From the official description: “Known amongst locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie Moraine wants more out of life than The Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld, New Orleans lures Josie in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.”
Interested? Check out the exclusive cover and an interview with Sepetys below!
What inspired you to write a novel set in New Orleans in 1950?
I chose New Orleans, and specifically 1950, because I wanted to capture that celebrated yet painful time period in a novel. Following World War II, the U.S. experienced unparalleled prosperity. But “the American dream” for some became the quiet nightmare for others and what looked perfect on the outside was sometimes quietly rotting on the inside. Societal pressures to conform were severe and deep tensions developed. People escaped those pressures in various ways, and the alluring “come hither” of New Orleans was one of them. But for some, the sizzle of The Big Easy was more than they could handle. It swallowed them whole.
What about New Orleans makes it such a rich backdrop for a novel?
New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture — even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.
Between Shades of Gray was set in Lithuania and inspired by your family’s personal experience. Do you have a personal connection to New Orleans as well?
For this novel I’m definitely on the outside peering in. My introduction to New Orleans came through a vintage pair of opera glasses I received for my birthday. The glasses, still in their original case from the jeweler in New Orleans, were engraved and dated from someone named Willie. I hired a researcher in New Orleans to trace their origin and learned that Willie was a woman in the French Quarter. And the jeweler who sold Willie the glasses? Poisoned. He ate a dozen oysters in the Quarter and kicked the bucket. My fascination with the city was born.
What kind of research did you do to capture the French Quarter in the 1950s?
I took several trips to New Orleans and met with people who had intimate knowledge of the underbelly of the city in the 1950′s. The meetings were both fascinating and terrifying. Scandals, murders, crooks and crime — all beyond your wildest imagination. And as a writer, I loved it. I also spent many days at the Williams Research Center in the Quarter and combed library archives.
Did you actually visit a brothel during your research?
Yes! The most incredible part of my research was visiting the former brothel of French Quarter madam, Norma Wallace. The house in “Out of The Easy” is based on Norma’s. Standing in Norma’s old bedroom, it all came to life — where she’d count the money, the hiding places, and the escape route in the event the cops would show up. That house was just simmering with secrets.
The settings for this novel and Between Shades of Gray are so different — but are there some parallels between Josie and Lina? They both seem to be strong-willed girls growing up in difficult environments.
Yes, they’re both survivors who are full of hope and courage. Years ago I was part of a mentoring program for young women. I met girls who were swept into the dysfunctional current that surrounded their home life. But I also met young women who made difficult decisions and completely separated themselves from a negative environment. Those girls inspired me. They taught me that we can learn to fly, even if we’re born with broken wings. The idea of that broken, yet beautiful bird became the character of Josie Moraine.
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