It’s no surprise that international bestselling author Ruta Sepetys has won awards for compelling, emotionally gripping historical fiction that highlights moments in history that most young readers know little about. In her fifth novel I have to betray you (Philomel, February 1), she focuses on Cristian Florescu, a Romanian teenage boy living during the final days of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal communist dictatorship in the late 1980s. Cristian is threatened with treason charges and has been promised medicine to help his beloved ailing grandfather. He agrees to betray friends and family and become an informant for the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. This page-turning thriller is made all the more gripping and tragic by the knowledge that millions of ordinary Romanians have experienced nightmarish situations like his. Sepetys spoke to us via Zoom from her home in Nashville; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to write about this point in Romanian history?
My father was a victim of communism: he fled Lithuania and spent nine years in refugee camps before reaching the United States. My family’s experience made me feel like I had a general understanding of post-war communist systems. [But] when I was on tour for my first novel, Between shades of gray,,I was in Bucharest and sat outside with my publisher, my interpreter and a few other people. A woman picked up the ashtray on the table, lifted it and looked underneath. I don’t know what I was thinking – she checked the brand or something? She said, “Oh, I’m sorry, habit. They listened, you know?† They always listened.” Could you imagine? They had invited me to speak about victims of communism from another country; they were so compassionate. I started pressing: Tell me more† I became breathless and cold. The stories that kept coming were about the young people: the courage, the courage, it was unparalleled. These children – only with a defiant heart – attacked tanks with their bare hands. And I thought, Okay, this is what I’m going to write about†
How do you balance details needed for worldbuilding with avoiding info dumps?
I’m a nerd for historical detail – I want more and more. The last thing I want to do is push a moral, though; young readers are so smart. So I constantly remind myself: make it human first and foremost. Something that really impressed me was the impact of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. If I have a piece of research that I think is important, I make a scene around it before I describe it. In this case, I take the reader to that small kitchen where the whole family is gathered around a radio with an illegal antenna. They know there is probably a surveillance device in their apartment. Through that radio comes the voice of freedom, a crackling broadcast that makes them feel less lonely. When we care about a character, our hearts open and that is a moment of potential progress. A stat can become a person when I create an experience that is immersive to convey [readers] on that trip so they want to know more.
Writing about these traumatic events must take an emotional toll on you.
I don’t doubt the emotional toll for writing about something I haven’t experienced. What right do we have to history other than our own? It’s a big question I struggle with. So if I’m going to do this, I have to give 500% to the people who allow me to share their story. What would it be like to live in a culture of fear to the point where they are still looking over their shoulders many years later? What was it like to be [in the] Romanian secret police? I don’t want to just judge you. I have to stay objective, but I can’t stay emotionally distant because when I do, it’s disrespecting the people who are so generous [as] to open those wounds and share them with me. It does take its toll, but if I can experience those emotions, the work will resonate more emotionally.
There may be resistance to books for young people on disturbing topics.
We should not underestimate the hearts of young readers. If we don’t give them access to these stories, can we deny them the use of the greatest gifts they have as human beings—of caring, compassion, empathy, human understanding? Studying the past gives context to the present, and if studying the past helps them hope for a more just future, I can think of no better reason. Teachers and librarians [are] Hidden Heroes: While a young reader might come across a library asking what the hottest new contemporary fiction is, I doubt a reader will come in saying, “I want to know more about the Securitate and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe .” Teachers and librarians deeply understand the power of the young reader. If children are sensitive to injustice and [have] the energy to become crusaders against it, why deny not only them, but our future world?
Do you start with the setting or the characters first?
My starting point is history: dissertations and scientific publications. Then I move on to poetry, memoirs, art, music, even cookbooks, photo archives, radio archives, newspaper archives. My next step is to travel and talk to the people who have experienced [these events], and I need to understand what was going on so they don’t have to give me a history lesson. That would be disrespectful. History gives my overview and my scaffolding. As soon as I start doing interviews with witnesses, the characters come forward. For each novel, I work with experts – historians, interpreters, a team of people. Ionel Boyeru, who executed Ceaușescu – I met him personally – he [said]”The world needs to know this story.”
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I hope readers will wonder how they would react if their whole life were an existence of forced obedience – being listened to, followed. If there were microphones in their light fixtures, their bathrooms. If they were recruited to be informants against those they love most. Would they? We think we know how we’d react, but I’d say, read the book and ask yourself† I would say to the readers, never underestimate the power of telling someone you hear them† When I interviewed Romanians, they said that one of the most powerful moments on the radio was the… address [from then–President Ronald Reagan for Captive Nations Week] in July 1985. I interviewed about 75 to 100 people, and so many focused on exactly the same moment: when they heard that broadcast say: you may feel alone, but you are not aloneit gave [them] the courage to carry on. That’s the power we have. Read the book, tell someone, did you know what happened in Romania?† Sharing that might help restore a bit of human dignity. I believe so deeply in this power of historical fiction.
Laura Simeon is an editor for young readers†