Ruta Sepetys – ‘I pretty much killed everyone’

My third and last interviewee is Ruta Sepetys, and I’m very keen on finding out how she discovered her Lithuanian family background. Partly because it’s an interesting topic, but also because I feel the Baltic states are almost part of my own background.

Ruta Sepetys

“Did you know anything about this subject before you went to Lithuania and started talking to family members?’

‘I definitely knew about the subject, but I didn’t really know about my family’s experience. It was the first time I went to Lithuania and the first time I had met my relatives. My father hadn’t even met the relatives that I was meeting. So that was the discovery when I first met with them. I knew of course of the deportations, but not my family’s involvement.’

‘So did your father not talk to you because he didn’t know either? In that case did your grandfather, or did you not know your grandfather?’

‘Oh no, I did. My grandfather lived to be nearly 90 years old, and in hindsight he absolutely knew, and now that opens up so much about my grandfather. So much more makes sense now you know, why his shoulders would look like he was carrying this sense of guilt, which he did not tell my father. And when I came home and said “Dad, do you know that when you fled they came for your cousins?” and he had no idea, you know. History holds secrets, and families hold secrets. Secrets are painful and secrets can be destructive, and when I spoke with these people you could see in their face… I mean 50 years had passed but their hands still shook when they spoke about it.’

‘I understand.’

‘And so I think it was easier, and also it was a generational thing I think. My grandparents didn’t live in the past, and my grandmother would say “enough of that”, you know.’

‘It was interesting, because you really only just skated over poor Mr Stalas. I wasn’t aware of this, but my husband told me that apparently the Jews didn’t fare very well in Lithuania in those days.’

‘I’m so glad you’re bringing that up, because it was tragic. Lithuania was first occupied by the Soviets and then later the Germans came, and they killed over 200,000 Jews. And then the Soviets came back in, and the Jewish population suffered under each occupation. It also created a really complex dynamic between neighbours even, and some people told me that in the face of fear they misjudged people, and that guilt is on them. So I created that character of the bald man and gave him a grumpy demeanour hoping that maybe the reader would misjudge him. In the end he’s really a hero.’

‘When he revealed himself as being a Jew I thought “so what?”, but clearly it was a far harder thing to admit to than I imagined. One thing I wondered about, was that Lina kept drawing throughout their dreadful journey. Do you think this is possible when things are so bad?’

‘Actually I got that directly from survivors. They showed me materials – in that train car where it was a lottery of life and death – they were expressing their pain through art and music and they showed me samples. A woman showed me a handkerchief, where in the train car she was trying to draw a map of where they were going, and another person showed me a very thin slice of wood that they had carved on, and they kept it with them the entire time. Probably the art was a bit more crude than in the book, but it was a survivor’s story that fired that.’

Ruta Sepetys

‘So what did happen to your grandfather? What age was he?’

‘My grandfather? He was in his late thirties, an officer in the Lithuanian military, and when Stalin pushed in they received word that they were at risk, so my grandfather fled with my father who was ten years old and my grandmother. They went into refugee camps in Germany.’

‘Like the cousin in your book?’

‘Exactly, and they lived there for nine years and they wanted to go to Australia and they went to the boat to get to Australia. But they refused my family because my aunt Ruta had a cough. So the next day they went over to the boat to the United States and got on.’ Ruta laughs. ‘And that’s how we ended up in the US.’

‘If I may say so, you look so very Baltic.’

‘Anna said the same thing.’

‘It’s surprising because… your mother’s from somewhere else?’

‘No, my mother is Lithuanian, born in the United States.’

Ruta Sepetys

‘OK, so you are fully Lithuanian in that sense. It’s very fascinating, that you are both so American and yet also Lithuanian.’

‘People have approached me in the street. We can sort of pick each other out. My parents very much wanted me to marry a Lithuanian, but I couldn’t find one.’ She laughs.

‘That must get harder for each generation, I imagine.’

‘Yes,’ she laughs.

‘You been over to visit Lithuania twice? And you’ve got relatives that you know and are in contact with?’

‘Yeah, but the younger generation, my cousins who are younger than me, their freedom is somewhat fragile and they’re interested in moving ahead. They don’t want to stay in the past. But the older generation very much still want to talk.’

‘Did you not think there was a drawback in ending the book quite so glumly?’

‘Well, it’s interesting that you say that, because the initial draft of the book was very, very bleak, and my editor said “you cannot do this, this story has to end with hope.” And that was difficult for me and I said “no, that is disrespectful to the people who went through this.” We really struggled with that, but in the end people say that it’s hopeful, so it’s interesting to hear you say you thought it was a bit glum.’

‘It’s less so than it could have been, but it’s still far off a really happy ending. The fact that they got together again, is a bit of a miracle seeing as they got separated.’

Ruta Sepetys

‘I thought so too, and that so many people survived as well. Originally I pretty much killed everyone’. She laughs heartily at this. ‘My editor said “why would someone want to read this? Who would willingly go in and subject themselves to this horror?”’

‘How has the book been received in America?’

‘Really well. I’m shocked, because this is a story about a girl deported to Siberia, and it’s competing against these commercial titles that are so exciting. As a teen, if you’d have said “oh, it’s this really great novel about this girl starving in Siberia.”’ We laugh, long and loudly. ‘Can you imagine? But you know, it’s been really well received. It’s been great. I’m so fortunate.’

‘Will you return to this subject?’

‘Six months ago when someone asked me I said actually I would not. I considered it done. But now that the book is published I’ve received so many requests to continue the story. They want to know what happened in the Baltics when these people returned. The other thing is that I’ve received a lot of emails from relatives of these survivors, telling me stories about what happened to their grandmother or their grandfather, and it might be nice to put together a collection of stories of the survivors.’

Ruta Sepetys

‘I agree.’

‘It would be interesting.’

‘Are you working on something else now?’

‘Yes, I’m working on another historical fiction novel, completely different, set in New Orleans in the 1950s.’

Our eleven minutes are over and we both get up to make our way to the next place on the agenda. I’m busy looking forward to Ruta’s next book, while she wants to know what else I’ve been reading, and it doesn’t take us long to discover a shared favourite.

4 responses to “Ruta Sepetys – ‘I pretty much killed everyone’

  1. Pingback: Mina tre mini-intervjuer | Bookwitch på svenska

  2. The book is amazing! It’s a MUST read.

  3. Awesome bit of history and a wonderful read.

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