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YA Wednesday: Ruta Sepetys on "Salt to the Sea"

Amazon book reviewSalt to the Sea, our spotlight pick for the best young adult books of February, is another exceptional work of historical fiction from Ruta Sepetys. As she did in her first book, Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys took a tragic and neglected moment in history and created a beautifully written novel around it. 

There's no shortage of World War II books, but Salt to the Sea brings the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, with thousands of refugees on board, to the forefront. The story unfolds through four alternating viewpoints, including a young German soldier who writes letters home bloated with false bravado, all the while trying to hide from his duties at every opportunity.

Salt to the Sea is an emotional read. We see how people caught up in war react with cruelty or hatred, kindness or apathy, in a novel that readers are unlikely to forget anytime soon. Sepetys graciously agreed to answer a few questions for the Amazon Book Review, so a handful of us around the Books office sent her some, both about the book and apropos of nothing except curiosity...

Q: The loss of human life in the sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff was estimated to be about six times greater than that of the Titanic. Why do you think the sinking of MV Wilhelm Gustloff has remained hidden history?

Ruta Sepetys: There are several contributing factors. Immediately following the disaster, the Nazi regime tried to conceal the story. They were concerned it would affect morale and cause further panic during the ongoing evacuation. On the Soviet side, they did not widely publicize the event because the submarine commander, Alexander Marinesko, had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy. In the years following the war, Germany felt it was inappropriate to draw attention to their war losses in light of the horrors inflicted by the Nazi regime. As a result, the sinking, and the story of thousands of refugees from several countries, remained unknown.

Q: Was there anything that prompted you to tell this story now?

Ruta Sepetys: Yes, a personal connection. After I wrote Between Shades of Gray, my father's cousin visited from Europe. We were discussing my love for hidden history and she told me the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I was shocked that the greatest maritime disaster—with losses dwarfing the those of Titanic—was unknown to much of the world. When I asked my father's cousin how she knew of the story, she revealed that she herself had been granted passage on the Gustloff. The day of the voyage, fate intervened and she was not able to board the ship.

Q: Was there a particular piece of research that was most impactful on you?

Ruta Sepetys: So many elements of the research process were moving and impactful. One that still haunts me was the testimony of a Latvian survivor who was just six years old at the time. Her mother made sure that she, and many other children, were put into a lifeboat. But the woman was not able to get into a lifeboat herself. When the lifeboat dropped into the water, the daughter was in the boat; her mother was still standing on deck of the Gustloff. The small girl watched as the ship rolled onto its side and disappeared beneath the sea, taking her mother with it.

Q: Have you had any nautical "adventures" of your own?

Ruta Sepetys: I think the term "misadventures" is more appropriate! When I lived in France I was invited to sail from Toulon to Porquerolles aboard an ancient 185-foot sailing yacht. I was so excited for the journey. Shortly after departure I became desperately seasick. I spent the entire trip collapsed on deck, so weak I could barely speak.

Q: When's the last time you laughed so hard, you cried?

Ruta Sepetys: Yesterday, in the parking lot of the library. I seem to be quite accomplished at laughing too loud and crying too much.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote that keeps you motivated as a writer? Please share.

Ruta Sepetys: To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton:

"Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be beaten."

Q: What was your favorite read of 2015?

Ruta Sepetys: I have long been a fan of Rod Serling. In addition to being a writer, television producer, and master of rhythmic form, Serling was a World War II paratrooper and humanitarian crusader. His work and stories express deep social conscience, the desire to destroy prejudice, and a yearning to help his fellow man. I finally had the opportunity to read As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling by Anne Serling and I loved it.

Q: If you could be a character in any book, which character would you be?

Ruta Sepetys: I would be Beryl Markham in West with the Night. What an adventure that would be! An extraordinary life. An extraordinary woman.

Q: What's your favorite movie? Why?

Ruta Sepetys: Oh, it's so hard to name just one. But I do love The Pianist, a World War II drama based on the memoir by Władysław Szpilman. I love it because it features a story of Poland and addresses themes of inhumanity, survival, and the enduring spirit of art.

Q: What book are you most excited to read in 2016?

Ruta Sepetys: I can't wait to read The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, a mysterious tale of a courtesan who becomes a Paris opera sensation. 

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