In all of her novels, Ruta Sepetys focuses on a lost chapter in history. Her newest book, I Must Betray You, pulls back the curtain on life in Cold War Romania, the most closed-off nation in the Eastern Bloc that was ruled for more than two decades by the corrupt dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Her protagonist, 17-year-old Cristian Florescu, is forced by the secret police to become an informant and to collect information about both the American ambassador (for whom his mother cleans) and also his own friends and family. Cristian is seized with a desire to rebel against this regime that echoes the dissident rumblings of a nation on the precipice of revolution. PW spoke with Sepetys about what inspired this novel, how she conducted her research, and the many interviews that informed her characters and plot.
What drew you to set this novel in Romania and to choose to do so in 1989 right before its revolution?
When I was on tour in Romania for my first book Between Shades of Gray, I was sitting outside with my interpreter, publisher, and a few other people. We sat down at a table and one of the women immediately reached into the center of the table to grasp the ashtray and turned it over to look beneath it. And she saw me looking at her in shock and she apologized and said, “I’m sorry, habit.” She was looking for a recording device, and she told me, “they were listening, you know, always listening.” I asked who was listening and she said the blue-eyed boys [the secret police]. And this history started to unravel of collective trauma, mass surveillance, and this atmosphere of fear beneath this maniacal dictator. I realized in that moment that there are so many different faces and brands of communism, and I knew I wanted to write about it and to peel back the layers on the story of Romania. Can you imagine this world in which your nutrition is controlled, a woman’s body belongs to the state, your electricity and water is rationed, and everything you do is watched? It sounded so dystopian, but it was real.
In all my books, I write about young people who are fighting for change. In Romania it was the young people who made the revolution [in 1989] happen—these defiant young people who had a dream of freedom that couldn’t be stopped.
How did you research the history of a country that was so cut off from the rest of the world?
As always, it was a journey that took multiple years. When I decided that I wanted to write about Romania I began to research right away, which for me, always begins with nonfiction. My historical fiction stands on the shoulders of the nonfiction of academic texts, historical papers, and, of course, personal testimony of the true witnesses. When I told my Romanian publisher [Epica] I wanted to write about this, they said “we’ll help you.” Over the many years in my research I took many trips to Romania. When I was on tour in other countries, I met with people from the Romanian embassy because in all of my books there is this intersection between the United States government and the regime or country that I am writing about.
The most exciting part was meeting with the true witnesses themselves, these innocent young people who lived in this dark world of enforced obedience. For each book, I do probably 75 to 100 interviews. I noticed that there were common stories. For example, the way people described the black market and the Kent cigarette economy amazed me. If you had to go to the dentist, you’d better be armed with a carton of Kents. They even had to bribe their schoolteachers. The Romanians had to keep a certain stock in reserve for emergencies, whether it was vodka, perfume, or cigarettes, to have when the only option was to bribe a taxi driver to get you where you needed to go.
It became clear that the movies making their way in from the West made a huge impact. One historian told me those [movies] were loading the guns that eventually killed Ceaușescu. When Romanians saw movies like Pretty Woman or others that were big during the ’80s, they thought it was all a fantasy world. That people drove these cars, could choose where to live and what kind of job they wanted, or turn on a faucet and hot water rolled out. What was most painful was to hear the Romanians speak of their hunger—to see someone open a refrigerator full of food, this was fantasy. I interviewed Irina Margareta Nistor, who secretly dubbed more than 3,000 movies from the West into Romanian. The films were illegal and they would hold these video nights where 50 people would pack into a small flat and stay up all night watching. She was risking her life knowing the difference that [these movies] could make and yet having to keep it secret from everyone who knew her.
By far the most important research to inform my character was my interview with Nicoleta Giurcanu, who was 14 at the time of the revolution, and who took to the streets as many of these young people did. They had no weapons. They were attacking tanks with their bare hands. The regime began to gun down the students and she was arrested and endured the horrors I describe in the book. I was wrecked after that interview. She was crying, I was crying, and in my bald ignorance I felt like how can I not know this story?
If you read my early drafts, you would understand what a messy writer I am. I don’t want to miss anything. My first drafts are full of info dumps, and that’s just a guide telling myself I want to incorporate this information here. Then I challenge myself to go back and ask how can I make this part of the character development. How can I make the history human? If I don’t, the reader is not going to walk with that character for 300 pages holding their hand and feeling their fear. My mantra is, make it human.
What made you decide to place your hero in the ominous role of an informer, and how did you go about crafting this suspenseful and oppressive atmosphere?
I interviewed my childhood hero, [Olympic gymnast] Nadia Comăneci, who underscored that the book had to center on an ordinary Romanian, an ordinary citizen, not someone like herself who traveled to different countries. And that this ordinary Romanian would show the endurance of the Romanians.
During my initial research, I read an article that documented that the regime had recruited children and teenagers as informers and this was Ceaușescu’s method to control the population. One in 10 people were informers and as a result, no one knew who could be trusted. Young people were often recruited in their schools. That’s when the scene really came to life for me. You’re walking down the hallway and the school director flags you and says, go to the office and you’re thinking maybe it has something to do with your family, your parents. And there’s an officer of the secret police who blackmails you. Some of these people [I interviewed] who were recruited as informers, they described how listening devices were so prevalent. They were listening through your light fixtures, through window frames. One U.S. diplomat said he found a listening device in his shoe. When they brought these young people in, they had so much background information on their lives, on their emotions, and on what their hopes and fears were to use to blackmail them. I thought that was particularly evil.
But I believe in the strength and power of young hearts and young students, and I thought wow, what a situation. These young people are smarter than you could ever imagine. And what if this security officer goes face to face with this young dissident heart?
What’s your next project?
Through my years of touring, I realized that every human being has a story to tell. But not everyone feels equipped to tell that story. So, I have written a book called You, The Story: A Writer’s Guide to Craft Through Memory that helps unpack all of the building blocks of story, including plot, character development, setting, voice, all through memories of personal experience. It breaks down how to fictionalize, or tell a story as memoir. The book comes out in May 2023 from Viking. There are so many stories that need to be told, and I want to encourage people because the world needs their stories.
I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys. Philomel, $18.99 Feb. 1 ISBN 978-1-984836-03-8