Five questions for Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You (Philomel, 12 years and up) by Ruta Sepetys takes place in 1989 Romania under the repressive rule of Ceauşescu and on the cusp of revolution. Sepetys (most recently The Fountains of Silence) once again proves her mastery of immersive, propulsive, historical-fiction thrillers.

1. What draws you in about a period in history enough to decide to write about it?

Ruta Sepetys: I’m drawn to underrepresented pieces of history that involve young people as key players, specifically stories that impacted many but for some reason remain untold. In addition, I’m interested in historical events where I might still have access to the true witnesses. While researching, I like to partner with as many witnesses as possible.

2. How do you balance the elements of pulse-pounding thriller with violence and tragedy from modern history to avoid sensationalism?

RS: To achieve balance, I focus on the human aspect. I’ve spent years researching stories of adversity and I often find that within the hardships, elements of hope shine through. Amidst wars, armed conflict, exile, and tyranny people were still able to embrace key elements of the human experience — like falling in love. Totalitarianism steals so much from humanity, but survivors consistently illustrate that despite all that was taken from them, they retained and protected their capacity for the human experience. So to create balance, I make certain that I have the proper juxtapositions and opposing elements in place.

3. The story’s climax is somewhat abrupt — but that’s what happened. Did you know from the beginning where you wanted it to end?

RS: No, it generally takes me years of research to determine the appropriate note to end on. I did a virtual event today with students in Bahrain who were eager to discuss their surprise about the book’s climax and ending. I explained that during my interviews with Romanians, many repeated and stressed that the dictator’s fate was an abrupt shock that didn’t bring an immediate resolution. Romanians emphasized that for the story to be authentic, I had to portray that ambiguity and avoid an expository, happy ending because in some cases, historical lustration is still ongoing.

4. The tension you create — through fear, mistrust, neighbor versus neighbor, family betrayal — is agonizing. What do you hope your characters’ experiences can teach us today?

RS: Mistrust is a form of terror and fear can be an army unto itself. It was agonizing for the Romanians who experienced it. One of the timely themes of this book is the repression of intellectual freedom — an issue some might be facing in their own libraries and communities through challenged materials. I hope readers might take a moment to consider the impact and long-term effects of the control of information and the significance of First Amendment rights.

In many cases, history shows that limiting access to information restricts citizens from thinking for themselves which denies them the basic, fundamental human right of evaluation and choice. That limitation can create mistrust which, at times, manifests in resentment and defiance. The patterns can be studied through history and knowledge of the past gives context to the present.

5. Has the war in Ukraine, and all that led up to it, influenced how you read your own novel now?

RS: I think my own family’s background and struggle influences me the most. My grandmother grew up in Ukraine. My father was a victim of communism and was forced to flee from Lithuania as a young boy when the Soviets pushed in and occupied the country. My dad spent nine years in refugee camps and saw the name of his country disappear from maps for half a century. I’m first-generation American and as such, my parents and grandparents always stressed that freedom is fragile and progress isn’t always permanent. It’s important to share stories of the past for wider context. That prompting led me to write my first novel, Between Shades of Gray — which sadly parallels some of the events in Ukraine — and continues to inspire me to share stories of the oppressed.

From the May 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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