Breaking the Silence: an interview with Ruta Sepetys, author of hidden histories

Authors, Book Review, Political Viewpoint

By: Jamie Gregory

While I was reading my advance reader copy of The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys, I was also reading Stasiland by Anna Funder, which was recommended to me by a tour guide from a recent trip to Germany. In a truly serendipitous fashion, these books touch on very similar themes: the cost of silence.

This quote in particular stood out as connecting both books: “From 1989 to October 1990 debate raged hot in Germany as to what to do with the Stasi files. Should they be opened or burnt? Should they be locked away for fifty years and then opened, when the people in them would be dead or, possibly, forgiven? What were the dangers of knowing? Or the dangers of ignoring the past and doing it all again, with different coloured flags or neckerchiefs or helmets?” (from Stasiland by Anna Funder, page 70)

In other words: If our knowledge of history is dependent upon those who record it and pass it down, what are the consequences when a number of factors silence that process? 

This theme is not a new one for Carnegie medal-winning author Ruta Sepetys. Two of her three previous novels explore historical issues related to her own Lithuanian heritage, exploring historical stories previously unknown or little discussed, some even intentionally hidden. She draws on her own family’s history in Between Shades of Gray, featuring a Lithuanian family forced to enter a Siberian work camp by the Soviets during World War II. Her grandfather was in the Lithuanian army and fled from the Soviet occupation, eventually settling in America. In Salt to the Sea, readers learn the true story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945, a German military transport ship set to take refugees to safety. It was sunk by a Soviet torpedo, resulting in the loss of almost 10,000 lives. In a 2016 Time interview, Sepetys suggested that perhaps the Nazis minimized news of the sinking, even denying it happened and threatening those who did speak of it, since it represented a heavy loss. Also, post-World War II, Germans may have been reluctant to pass down stories which made them appear to be victims.

Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea
Author Ruta Sepetys and her two novels; Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea

In her newest novel, Sepetys tells a story of life in Madrid, Spain, during the 1950s under the oppressive shadow of General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime. Daniel is the son of a prominent American oil tycoon, whose family travels to Spain to take part in business deals as an effort to bring economic advantages and tourism to the country. He is a rising photographer, and his budding friendship with a journalist provides the framework through which the reader learns of the dark realities of the Franco regime. While staying at the Castellana Hilton, he meets Ana, whose parents were murdered for being part of the Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War. She, along with her family and friends, fears the wrath of the Guardia Civil and other unspoken terrors. Ana’s cousin Puri works with the Catholic Church operating an orphanage, wanting to ask more questions than she knows is acceptable to the regime and her religion. She becomes increasingly uneasy about the treatment of mothers and how the babies arrive at the Inclusa. But she is scolded, “‘Being nosy is a sin. Don’t ask so many questions,’” linking faith and loyalty.

The rich array of characters supplies a multi-faceted view of Franco’s Spain. Ana’s sister Julia, conflicted between keeping her parent’s memories alive and staying safe, ruminates: “keeping the drawer of secrets tightly locked doesn’t mean she condones the dictator or the Falange. It means she wants to protect all that remains. So she repeats Aunt Teresa’s mantra: Estamos mas guapas con la boca cerrada. We are prettier with our mouths shut. Life is prettier with its mouth shut.”

Living under a fascist regime, and then trying to move on after its overthrow, presents very complicated issues for future generations (as the above quote from Stasiland exemplifies of former East Germans). 

I recently interviewed Ruta Sepetys ahead of the October 1, 2019 publication date of The Fountains of Silence about the novel and her role as novelist-historian. Read excerpts below of our conversation.

How difficult was the research for The Fountains of Silence, given the topic?

RS: There is a lot of information available and many wonderful sources on the time period. The topic is complex and nuanced so my goal was to present various sides of the history—Francoist, Spanish Republican, U.S. role, and the point of view of an unknowing American tourist. The challenge came in identifying what portion of the research served the story best and how to incorporate the information in a way that would be compelling for readers instead of an info dump. 

Have you ever encountered primary or human sources which you weren’t sure were credible? If so, how do you balance potential veracity from those with fact-checking via secondary sources?

RS: In interviewing people, sometimes they passionately present opinion as fact. If, however, I receive the same information from several people, including those on opposing sides, and also find the same information in my secondary sources, that helps me make a determination. In general, I always feel the more research the better!

How do you transition from gathering research, which is factual in nature, to writing historical fiction?

RS: I begin with the historical dates and setting as a framework, deciding exactly where the story should take place and what event dates must be included. As I’m researching, I’ll make note of elements that carry a particular emotional resonance. I’ll then weave those emotional details into characters, hopefully bringing a touch of humanity to the history in the process. The character development is crucial. If I can create characters that the reader loves or hates, they will be more compelled to follow them throughout the story, and absorb the associated history in the process. 

Why have you decided to feature young adult characters in your novels?

RS: Young adults tend to operate from a place of emotional truth. They have a strong sense of justice and their actions and reactions are not yet clouded by preconception or bitterness. 

Their vulnerability makes them sincere, courageous, and compelling. 

After all of the research you have done for your novels, what is your personal opinion about forgetting and letting go after an unjust regime crumbles versus wanting to tell the stories for posterity? (or, your views of the Pact of Forgetting)

RS: I understand both sides. Some are desperate to remember while others are desperate to forget. Sometimes a buffer of time is helpful. But if we ignore the past, we lose the opportunity for reflection, discussion, and context in order to build a more just future. If we simply forget history we’re losing opportunities for crucial growth experiences, such as conflict resolution and cooperation. Often, the response is action: reaction. But what if the response was action: reflection? Historical fiction allows for reflection. Readers from all backgrounds converge around a topic and engage in critical thinking. 

Some people argue that photography can portray false images, distortions of what is real, only showing what the photographer wants viewers to see. What role do you believe photography plays in historical records, since it plays such an important role in the novel?

RS: As you describe, sometimes the interpretation of a photo creates an accepted narrative. And that can be dangerous. For example, let’s say we’re looking at an old black and white photo of a grimacing child with a weapon. We must remind ourselves that a photo is simply one frame of a large landscape. If given a birds-eye view, we may see the child with a weapon, but also see a movie crew and film camera rolling overhead. Suddenly, the narrative changes entirely. So when I’m examining photographs from historical periods, I always hunt for multiple photos that show varying angles of the same scene. That helps inform my interpretation. The Spanish Civil war was captured through a painter’s brush, a writer’s pen, and a photographer’s lens. The idea of varying interpretation intrigued me and I wanted to include it in the novel. 

For young readers, what elements of hope are there in the novel as they contemplate fascist regimes and dictatorships? Must they just be endured until there is a breaking point?

RS: As we see with Rafa in the novel, sometimes the breaking point is the note of hope. Heroes and survivors throughout history have shown us that sometimes it’s in our broken moments that we truly find ourselves. And amidst that discovery is strength we never knew we had—the will to survive and the ability to find meaning in hardship. Amidst historical brutality we also find love. Despite oppression, people were falling desperately in love and forged everlasting bonds through shared experience. The capacity to love is the very essence of being human. As the saying goes, “We meet ourselves through loving and being loved” I hope young readers discover those elements of hope. 

The contrasts among Puri, Ana, Lorenza, and Julia provide a wonderfully complex reading experience. Are they an effort to show the challenges of being a woman living under Franco’s regime? I was especially struck by Puri’s thoughts and feelings throughout the novel, especially at the end as she tells Daniel she felt a calling to silence, seeking God, not explanations. Why doesn’t she feel compelled to try to provide justice in her own way with spreading the truth?

RS: As mentioned above, I wanted to represent varying interpretations. Puri, Ana, Lorenza, Julia—and even Puri and Ana’s mothers and Daniel’s mother—all provide context for the varied experiences of women during the Franco era. And the experiences were varied. Puri’s inquiries, self-discovery, disillusionment, and burden of guilt all play into her feeling of helplessness. 

I am interviewing you as a contributor to an intellectual freedom blog. What do you hope readers learn about the importance of intellectual freedom to a free society by reading your novels?

RS: I hope readers understand that intellectual freedom allows for varying opinions, progress, change through civil discourse, and growth through diversity. As described in the novel, during the Franco dictatorship, the regime controlled schools, textbooks, religion and media. First Amendment rights, as we know them, did not exist.  

The title of the novel is The Fountains of Silence. Julia asks, “What is the cost of silence?” After your research, what do you think silence has cost Spain in the time since Franco?

RS: As an outsider, I’m unable to give a definitive answer, but I fear that silence breeds speculation and uncertainty. Young people in Spain tell me they don’t understand or have a full grasp of the country’s history. Some older people struggle with the issue of stolen children and stolen identity. Ambiguity can lead to unnecessary suspicion and confusion. 

The novel seems to implicate the Catholic Church in Spain as much as Franco and his regime. How would you respond to criticism of this portrayal? 

RS: I hoped to present a balanced portrayal of the Catholic Church. Although some Catholics perpetuated offenses, there were others, like the priest I describe in Vallecas, who protected his flock and brought peace and comfort to so many. Through the characters of Rafa and Fuga we see examples of enduring faith and dedication to the Catholic church despite their circumstances. 

It’s difficult to apply generalizations to the time period because there were many exceptions. And those exceptions are perhaps even more important and worth studying.  

In thinking about how you conduct research, what are your observations about archives and libraries around the world compared to those in the US? Any major differences or difficulties you have encountered?

RS: I’m not as experienced as many researchers, but I have noticed a few things: 

  • Hunting for information can be unifying for some but competitive for others. 
  • Librarians and archivists around the world are all superheroes. They’re passionate and eager to help. I would be lost without them.
  • Guidelines vary greatly by archive and institution. Gloves vs. no gloves, permissions, duplication, photography, advance registration, etc. I’ve found archives and libraries outside the U.S. to have more stringent regulations and hours. Plan ahead. 

Ben tells Daniel that he doesn’t learn about Franco in school like he does Hitler and Mussolini because Franco is still alive, so “The history hasn’t written itself yet, Matheson. But you’re capturing it as we speak with your photos.” Do you think we still tend to skip over Spain’s history in our education system? Why do you think today’s young people should learn about this particular time period?

RS: I don’t think we intentionally skip over Spain’s history. Franco’s reign lasted until 1975, Spain was open for tourism, and the U.S. had initiatives in Spain. So perhaps the perception was one of flexibility rather than rigidity. In studying Franco’s dictatorship, it’s interesting to note how his reputation evolved later in life and how that may have affected his final legacy. All of those factors might contribute to the history being underrepresented. I think it’s valuable for young people to analyze totalitarian regimes vs. free societies. Also, Spain’s transition to democracy should be studied. 

The excerpt between chapters 56 and 57 provides an interesting American perspective. The tone of this newspaper almost seems to praise the Spanish for constructing the Valley of the Fallen monument; however, the reader has already considered Ben’s opinion of the topic. Which perspectives did you strive to portray through the excerpts between chapters?

RS: In that particular excerpt, I hoped readers might note the contrast of how The Valley of the Fallen was reported outside of Spain vs. the perceptions of people inside the country and that readers might choose to research it and draw their own conclusions. In general, the news reports and excerpts between chapters serve as ‘thought pauses’ and discussion opportunities.

What role do you feel the international community plays in intervening where there are dictatorial or totalitarian regimes around the world? 

RS: Defending fundamental human rights must be a priority whenever possible. Through my study and research of totalitarian regimes, I’ve learned that a response from the international community brings hope and sends a message to the oppressed that they are not alone. To help a human being feel less lonely in the world—that is an opportunity beyond description.

Jamie Gregory

Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working as the Upper School Librarian and journalism teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC.   

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