Tag Archives: Salt to the Sea

Interview with Ruta Sepetys

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Photo of Ruta Sepetys by by Magda Starowieyska

Photo by Magda Starowieyska

Ruta Sepetys is the New York Times bestselling author of Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy, and Salt to the Sea. Born and raised in Michigan, she grew up in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. She currently lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee. You can find her online at rutasepetys.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest book, Salt to the Sea?

Ruta Sepetys: My father’s cousin was involved in the refugee evacuation of East Prussia and was granted passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff. By a twist of fate, she did not board the ship the day it sailed. She shared the story with me and that inspired me to write about it.

How fortunate! Your novels are all historical fiction; how much time do you typically spend on research for them?

I typically spend three years researching each novel. I know it seems like a very long time, but it goes so quickly!

What was the most interesting fact you discovered while researching the Wilhelm Gustloff?

There were so many interesting and surprising things I discovered, but one that stays with me is that it’s estimated that during World War II, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea.

Wow! On your website, you say that while researching your books, you interview people who have experienced the event you’re writing about, then you combine their stories into one character.  Have you always used this method to make your characters?  

Yes, I generally interview and research the background of dozens of people and then weave elements of all of them into one character. That allows me to represent a larger human experience.

Are any of the characters in Salt to the Sea based off of real people, or are they all amalgamations of people you have interviewed?

The main character of Joana was partially inspired by the story of a Lithuanian nurse who fled during the evacuation, but then I quilted together elements from several other witnesses as well.

All three of your books are set between 1940-1950.  Why does that decade appeal to you?

I’m drawn to stories of strength through struggle and the journey of finding meaning through hardship. The war and post war period are full of experiences of hope, courage, love, and loss.

So what are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a novel set in 1957 Madrid, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain.

Good luck with that!  Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

There were many authors and many books, but as a young child I was incredibly inspired by the work of Roald Dahl. His books are so full of creativity and imagination, of innocent young people at the mercy of unsavory adults. I still cherish my copy of James and the Giant Peach.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I love Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It reminds us that even if suffering is unavoidable, we alone choose how we cope with our suffering.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading research materials for my new book, so I’m reading Interrogating Francoism by Helen Graham. Once I’m finished with research, I can’t wait to read Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman.

 

Salt to the Sea cover

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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saltsea

Everyone’s familiar with the fate of the Titanic, but very few have heard of the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the greatest maritime disaster ever in terms of lives lost on a single vessel. As the Red Army advanced through Prussia in 1945, the desperate Germans planned a naval evacuation of refugees and personnel across the Baltic Sea. Thousands of desperate citizens swarmed the ship and the estimated final count on board is 10,500. Five thousand of those were youth and children. The conditions were unimaginably overcrowded and dangerously cramped, but being on board was seen as the only hope for survival.

The Gustloff was hit by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on 30 January 1945 and an estimated 9,400 of those on board perished. The sinking was not reported by the Third Reich in order to avoid spreading more bad news within the losing regime. It was also underreported in western Allied countries, and the official line in Russia stated (inaccurately) that the ship was transporting armed personnel. Due to these factors and the disinclination of the survivors to discuss the event due to their extreme trauma, the Gustloff largely disappeared from public knowledge.

This tragedy is the inspiration for Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Poignant, engrossing, and emotionally intense, we see the horrors of war-time Germany though four different perspectives of Lithuanian, Polish, Prussian and German youth. They endure starvation and brutality, but also find moments of hope, joy, and love. Different kinds of bravery and sacrifice are shown throughout the story, highlighting the heroism often found in society during terrible times, and despite the tragedy the book ends with moments of hope. I highly recommend this book to all readers of historical fiction.