“Clearly,” Ruta Sepetys says with a good-natured laugh, “I have no idea what my books are about.”
She’s speaking to a room packed full of people who have come to hear her discuss her latest release, Salt to the Sea, a novel about the greatest maritime disaster in history. As a multi-award-winning author whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages, Sepetys can certainly pull a crowd, and, despite the fact that she’s already admitted public speaking makes her nervous, she’s addressing this particular crowd with the unflappable poise and confidence of a seasoned pro.
It’s those 30-plus translations she’s referring to now. Though the story remains the same, she says, she’s been continuously amazed at the way her novels change from translation to translation, and country to country. Of her second novel, Out of the Easy (2013), she tells us that, while it’s marketed in the U.S. as a survival story, “In Germany, it’s a noir thriller. In France, it’s a story of feminism in historical context. In Sweden, it’s a journey story.”
The point she’s making—and she’ll make it many times before the night is out—is that books belong to the reader. Introspective and earnest, Sepetys is deeply committed to her readers, taking them as seriously as she does her research (which is extensive). I was lucky enough to sit down with her for a few minutes before her talk, and though her research process was the first thing I asked her about, it quickly became clear that what matters to her is people. And that means the people on both sides of a novel: the ones whose story she’s telling, and the ones she’s telling it to. “I want to give voice to those who have never had a chance to tell their story,” she says of Salt to the Sea—the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff off the coast of Poland during WWII resulted in nearly 10 times the loss of life as the Titanic disaster, but almost no one has heard of it.
“The book belongs to the reader. It’s a creative partnership.”
Her research is astoundingly thorough. When working on a book, she travels to the country she’s writing about, whenever possible, and for Salt to the Sea, that journey began in Poland. “The Polish people were just amazing,” she says. “They helped me with research, gave me suggestions, housed me, and it really made it come alive for me.” Researching and writing aren’t separate things for her, either—she writes as she researches, because if she doesn’t, she says, “I fear that I’ll lose some of the emotional content. When I’m sitting in front of these people and they’re crying and sharing some of their fears and their memories and their trauma, I feel that if I just take notes and come back to them, I’ll lose some of that charge.”
As is, there’s certainly no emotional charge lost here. Her books are tours de force, and the presentation she’ll give later in the evening, which focuses on many of the people she met during her research, is much the same. If her goal is to bring the stories of historical people—often victims of tragedy (“We know the villains’ names,” she says, “but not the victims”)—into the minds and hearts of a modern reader, than she’s certainly succeeded.
But who, exactly, is that reader? Whichever way you spin it, this is heavy stuff. Sepetys herself, though, is as cheery and warm as a person can be, despite this tendency towards tragedy. Then again, maybe that’s why. “I have this theory,” she tells me, “that we can find strength through struggle, and that there is wisdom to be found through suffering. I’ve seen through my research that human beings are able to endure in such a profound way, and if we can find meaning through our suffering, we emerge stronger and better. These feelings of love and death, they deepen the life experience. If you feel lost, if you feel devastated, it’s because you’ve loved. They’re essentially the human experience, they’re completely interrelated—love and death, laughter and tears—and so I love to explore that. In our broken moments, we can truly find ourselves.”
These are issues that many adults find difficult, and Sepetys has been questioned about her audience before: isn’t she really just a writer of adult literary fiction that just happens to appeal to young adults? She thinks not. “I’m an author of young adult fiction that happens to appeal to adults,” she corrects adamantly, passionately loyal to her intended audience. “Young readers are deep thinkers and deep feelers and they process with such emotional truth, and they have such a sense of justice. They are the ones who are going to take this hidden history and move forward and add chapters to history books, and they have the energy to do it.” Her faith in younger readers is unshakable, and she’s unfailingly generous when discussing them. “The book belongs to the reader,” she says, the first time I’ll hear it that night. “It’s a creative partnership. I’m giving the text, but they’re creating the characters. It belongs to them, too. Adults might not position it that way.”
I ask her if she’s ever tempted to soften the more brutal aspects of the histories she revisits for her younger audience, but here, too, she has faith. “They can handle it,” she tells me, well beyond any shadow of a doubt. “They appreciate having these deep discussions, and they can handle it.”