Ruta Sepetys explores forgotten chapters in history in her novels. Between Shades of Gray unearthed the plight of Lithuanians forcibly relocated to Siberian work camps. (Currently Sepetys is an advisor on the film adaptation, tentatively titled Ashes in the Snow.) Out of the Easy unveiled a mystery in 1950s New Orleans. PW spoke with Sepetys about her latest book, Salt to the Sea, which chronicles four teens fleeing Prussia at the end of World War II and culminates in one of history’s biggest and least-known maritime disasters, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea.
Many writers hesitate to share details about their works in progress – but not you. Why and how do you involve others in the evolution of your research as you craft your novels?
Since I am looking into underrepresented parts of history, from the time I decide to do a project I am looking for people and ideas that connect me to that story. I can read a non-fiction book, and that’s helpful, but it ends there. However, if I can track down a person with a direct connection to the history I can get so much more in terms of memory and sensory details, and that person can often connect me to others. In 2011, when I started working on Salt to the Sea I was looking for people with a direct connection to the Wilhelm Gustloff, and I talked about it to everyone I could.
What made you decide to write about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff?
After I published Between Shades of Gray, my father’s cousin Erika visited from Europe. She knew I was interested in hidden chapters of history, and she asked if I knew about a shipwreck that had more casualties than the Lusitania and the Titanic combined and involved more than 5,000 innocent children. The fact that I knew nothing about it really made me think about what history is preserved and how. She knew about it directly because her family was granted passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff. And then fate intervened and her sister was clipped by a car, and because of the injury they could not board the Gustloff. Erika’s mother said to them, “Now we’re all dead but at least we’re together.” Then they were lucky and gained passage on another ship the next morning. Of this my relative Erika said, “Sometimes it’s not where you are but where you aren’t.”
How were booksellers specifically involved in your process of writing Salt to the Sea? How did they help shape your understanding about that period in history?
Booksellers played a large role. I was giving a presentation in Cambridge, Mass., and Carol Stoltz from Porter Square Books was in the audience. She is of Latvian descent and we started talking and became friends. Five months later she sent me an email telling me about a book on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff called Death in the Baltics by Cathryn J. Prince. I read the advance copy and then contacted the writer, who became a huge research asset and connected me to many people and places. In addition, when I was at a school visit in Tampa the folks from Inkwood Books attended the dinner. When I told them the thread of one of my characters in Salt to the Sea was involved in art forgery they pointed me toward books and resources that helped shape that plot element. My writing is really a team sport. I get so much support and resources from booksellers, teachers, librarians, publishers, readers, and even through social media.
What are you researching now?
I am working on a book set in Spain in the 1950s, during the Franco era. During that time the government stole hundreds of thousands of children from left-wing families who opposed Franco. These children – some of them even newborn babies – were given to families with Franco ties. I’m still in the early days on this project but I have traveled to Spain, and my Spanish publisher has helped put me in touch with resources. I attended a meeting of stolen children – now adults – and got to sit in the room with them and hear their stories. It confirmed for me how important family narrative is and how it impacts survival.