SALT TO THE SEA Relives Tale of Ill-Fated Vessel

An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Ruta Sepetys
Salt to the Sea (Speak [Trade Paperback] August 2017)

Columnist Anna Roins

October, 2017

Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys

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Salt to the Sea is a work of historical fiction widely read by students and adults alike. It tells the story of three teenagers from Poland, Lithuania and East Prussia fleeing from the Red Army that is advancing through the German enclave around Danzig, (now the Polish city of Gdansk) as World War II is coming to an end. Alongside thousands of other refugees’ and a German sailor who adheres to Hitler’s propaganda, they board the converted German cruise ship, the ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’ to escape to Kiel.

This ill-fated vessel was one of several pressed into service as part of Operation Hannibal, a massive effort by Hitler’s government to evacuate refugees from the war zone. However, within hours after it set out, the ‘Wilhem Gustloff’ was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. More than 9,000 people were killed, many of them children — a greater loss of life than that of the Titanic and the Lusitania disasters put together.

Ruta Sepetys once again unearths a little-known yet terrible casualty of history which at the time, neither Moscow, nor Berlin acknowledged. It also draws on Sepetys family history from that era.

“There are several contributing factors as to why the sinking remains unknown.”

AUTHORLINK: Ms Sepetys, thank you for taking the time to talk to Authorlink today. We understand you heard about the sinking of the Gustloff, from your father’s cousin who was granted passage on the German ship. By some stroke of luck, she did not board that fateful day of 30 January 1945. The ship was torpedoed by Soviet Submarine S-13 and 9,343 people including innocent refugees from Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Croatia (some 5,000 of them teenagers and children) lost their lives. Even though it’s the worst maritime disaster in world history, most people have never heard of it. Can you please tell us the reasons you discovered why this was so? Your book has helped give these innocent victims a voice. Is this why you felt this ‘hidden chapter in history’ needed to be known?

SEPETYS: There are several contributing factors as to why the sinking remains unknown. 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 for bad behavior. 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. Although the Gustloff was a German ship, there were passengers from several other countries on board and I wanted to share their story.

AUTHORLINK: That’s very interesting. You like writing historical fiction for middle grade and young adult readers, yet your books are equally read by adults. Some of the themes and stories layered in your books are confronting. For instance, lines like, “…surrounded by hundreds of drowned children, heads in the water, their little feet in the air…” are difficult. Do you feel censorship of history is appropriate for children?

SEPETYS: To paraphrase GK Chesterton:
“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be beaten.”

I feel the same about history. History gives us a framework through which to understand not only obstacles, but one another. We learn love through loss and hope through hardship. When we learn of a person’s story or a country’s story, we gain a better understanding of who they are. It provides a window into their experience and allows us to empathize. In order to fully understand historical context, the account should be authentic but not gratuitous. It should honor the true witnesses and the trauma and terror they experienced. Young people have a tremendous sense of justice. Books we read as teens have an opportunity to make a profound, lasting impression that stays with us into adulthood. Young adults process stories with an intense emotional truth.

Through my novels, I hope young readers will be introduced to underrepresented parts of history. Moving forward, that information will become part of the collective consciousness and help us heal the wounds of the past and create hope for a more just future. Censorship would deny us that opportunity for growth and reconciliation.

AUTHORLINK: There are four main characters in Salt to the Sea all from different cultural backgrounds. Joana (who first appears in your debut novel Between Shades of Grey (2011)) is a young Lithuanian nurse; Emilia is the pregnant daughter of a Polish mathematician; Florian, is an East Prussian and a restoration artist who has been recruited by the Nazis, and Alfred, is a German sailor on the Gustloff. You are exceptionally skilful at bringing their voices to life, but especially Alfred, a delusional, boastful psychopath. We understand you based him on Hitler in his youth. Can you tell us a bit about this? What parts of Hitler’s character and quirks did you borrow for Alfred?

SEPETYS: For me, Alfred was a study of visibility. What happens to a young man who is rejected and invisible for much of his youth, but when given a uniform he suddenly becomes very visible and powerful, if only in his own mind? Feeling separate or left out sometimes creates a “me against the world” mentality.  When Alfred’s prior illusion of separation meets a newfound visibility, could it mutate into a sense of power? In Salt to the Sea, the uniform makes Alfred feel superior and suddenly entitled to possess beautiful, innocent things—like the butterflies pinned to his closet wall— and also his young neighbor, Hannelore.

Yes, in order to create the character of Alfred, I studied Adolf Hitler in his youth and tried to track the manifestation of self-importance and brutality. Hitler wrote lengthy letters to a girl but never mailed them, he had a difficult relationship with his father. Hitler also had a fascination with hands. He kept photo albums and drawings of the hands of famous people. So I included that via a manifestation on Alfred’s hands. The number on Alfred’s identification tag (that he recites in a letter) is actually Hitler’s birth date.

“I feel strongly that when my books are published they belong to the reader. To me, what’s most important is the reader’s interpretation . . .”

AUTHORLINK: How perceptive you are and what remarkable discoveries! You once said about Between Shades of Gray (2011), that if you could change anything in the novel you would change the character of the ‘bald man’ a little bit because you intended for readers to see him as a hero, but that you felt you missed the mark on this. Is that correct? Would you kindly elaborate on this?

SEPETYS: I feel strongly that when my books are published they belong to the reader. To me, what’s most important is the reader’s interpretation, not the author’s explanation. In my first novel, my intention was to portray a character known as “the bald man” as a hero. He refused to help the Soviets, was a virtuous person, and was deported. But readers have pointed out that the reveal comes at the end of the novel and for hundreds of pages prior, he is a complex and unsympathetic character. More importantly, some readers have felt the representation of the character was a negative stereotype and for that I am incredibly sorry.

My intentions to share hidden history are of little consequence if my work perpetuates negativity of any kind. The last thing we need in this world is negativity or prejudice. But to learn and grow, conversations are essential. I want to grow not only as a writer, but as a human being and to do that I need…to listen.  I’m writing about historical periods that I did not experience. Some of my readers are the true witnesses, survivors of the tragedies I’m writing about. Their feelings are incredibly important to me. To write my novels it’s not only essential that I look for history, but I must also be open to looking myself in the mirror.

AUTHORLINK: We admire your humility. ForBetween Shades of Gray (2011), we understand the research was particularly challenging because there was very little information in English on the deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia and refugees had not spoken of the terror for decades. In your author’s note in Salt in the Sea, you mentioned the extensive research necessary to learn about the Gustloff. Can you tell us a bit about this? Was it hard to try and cull what you were going to put into the book and what you were going to leave out? In all your research of this tragedy, did you come across any stories of hope?

SEPETYS: I travelled to six different countries while researching Salt to the Sea and interviewed countless people connected to the time period. Although I was confronted with mountains of information, some accounts carried such a profound and haunting emotional resonance that I immediately knew I wanted to include them in the novel. Yes, there were many stories of hope, love, and the miraculous nature of the human spirit. There were people, previously pronounced as dead, who reunited with their family. There were generous and brave people who saved many innocent children.

AUTHORLINK: How many other books had you attempted to write or finished before Between Shades of Gray (2011)? Do you have the same writing/critiquing group you had with your first book? Do you work to an outline or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you once you know what section of history you wish to write about?

SEPETYS: Prior to writing Between Shades of Gray, I had written a quirky, middle-grade mystery, but soon learned that my true passion was in young adult historical. I found my writing group through the Midsouth region of SCBWI and we’ve been together for over a decade now. I don’t have a defined writing process, but I do like to have time to think carefully about the basic story concept and plot framework. So I’ll spend months incubating a story idea and characters. Solitude is often my greatest inspiration. For me, much of the creativity blooms during the revision process. I prefer to have an extended, undisturbed period of time to write, but that’s not always possible. If I only have a short window every day I try to write early in the morning.

AUTHORLINK: You studied opera at college and then international finance. After graduating, you set up your own entertainment management firm and worked for twenty years in the music industry. You were representing Grammy award winning musicians when you published your first novel, Between Shades of Gray (2011). How many years were you working on this book and working full-timebefore you felt ready to approach an agent? After securing an agent, did they do any editing on your book? How many publishers did they approach on their behalf? Did the publishing house do any editing? Do you have the same agent or publisher to this day? (Sorry for all the questions!)

SEPETYS: I worked on my middle-grade book for a few years before speaking with an agent. When I was ready to query, I exclusively queried only one agent. He read the middle-grade mystery and also a few early pages of Between Shades of Gray and was kind enough to have a very early conversation with me about building a career as an author. He advised patience and reminded me that I would get one chance to make a first impression. At his suggestion, I abandoned the quirky middle-grade novel and wrote Between Shades of Gray. It was my agent who helped me realize that my authentic voice was in historical fiction. The book was submitted to fifteen publishers and fourteen passed. Thank goodness for Philomel and Penguin Young Readers Group! Yes, the book went through a very heavy editing process prior to submission and also prior to publication. I rewrote the entire book over a dozen times and I’m so glad of that. I am a writer who not only needs an editor but loves revision and the editorial process. Yes, I am still represented by Writers House and published by Philomel and feel very fortunate about that!

“It’s important to me that with each book I continue to learn and grow as a writer.”

AUTHORLINK: They must feel very fortunate to have you! A few months ago, in June, you were awarded The Carnegie Medal in a ceremony in London for Salt in the Sea which is extraordinary. Congratulations! You had been previously shortlisted in 2012 for Between Shades of Gray. How do you feel your writing has evolved in the last six years? What advice would you give to your younger self?

SEPETYS: Thank you! It’s important to me that with each book I continue to learn and grow as a writer. Over the past six years, I’ve worked with different topics and different formats. In my new novel, I’m using a POV that I’ve never worked with before. In terms of advice to my younger self, I would encourage the younger me to rejoice in my experiences of heartbreak, loss, and even humiliation. Triumphs and scars are part of our individual emotional truth and if we write about them —and through them —the work will have a feeling of authenticity. So I would tell my younger self to embrace failure. It’s a prerequisite to success and helps us create meaningful art.

AUTHORLINK: We understand your book, Between Shades of Grey (2011) will be turned into a movie called Ashes in the Snow to be released this year. Did you contribute to the screenplay? Recently, Salt to the Sea was sold to Universal, which must be very exciting. At what stage of development is this film?

SEPETYS: The movie adaptation of Between Shades of Gray is progressing beautifully! The film is in post-production and will be released in 2018. The screenplay was written by Ben York Jones and it’s wonderful. Ben graciously allowed me to read each draft. Yes, Salt to the Sea has been optioned by Universal. The project is in very early stages. Superstar screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter are writing the script and legendary producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura will produce. I’m still pinching myself!

“In terms of tips for writers of middle-grade and YA: Read as much as you can. Good writers are good readers. Also, don’t forget about melody and rhythm.”

AUTHORLINK: How fantastic! We can’t wait to see the films. We loved the short chapters in the Salt in the Sea. How many words per chapter were there on average? Can you suggest any tips for writers of Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction?

SEPETYS: I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t track word count. I track rhythm and pacing. As I’m drafting, I reread the book in one sitting many times to determine pacing and chapter length. In terms of tips for writers of middle-grade and YA: Read as much as you can. Good writers are good readers. Also, don’t forget about melody and rhythm. Read your work aloud, listening for rhythm and flow. If you stumble as you’re reading aloud, revise the sentence. Melody and rhythm will breathe life into the prose and make it memorable. We can’t often recite something we’ve just read online, but when we hear a song that we haven’t heard in years we can sing every lyric. That’s the power of melody and rhythm. Infuse your work with it!

AUTHORLINK: Wonderful advice, thank you. We understand you’re now working on your next book which is set in Spain in the 1957. It too reveals a part of history that is unknown relating to the reign of dictator Francisco Franco. Can you tell us a bit more about it? How is this experience of writing this book different from your other books?

SEPETYS: Yes, I’m hard at work on the new novel. It’s set in Spain during the elusive dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Although there are many important books about the Spanish Civil War, I wanted to focus on the post-war era and some of the hidden stories of the dictatorship. The book tells the story of an American teen who intersects with a Spanish teen in Madrid. Together they embark on a dangerous journey in search of truth. In terms of being different, the book is set in the late 1950’s. It’s a very rich time period, but a much later time period than I’ve ever written about.

AUTHORLINK: It sounds fascinating! Ms Sepetys, thank you for your time today. It was so very interesting to talk to you about Salt in the Sea and your writing process. We wish you your continued success in the future.

SEPETYS: Thank you and thanks to everyone at Authorlink! I’m so grateful for this opportunity to chat with a community of writers


About the Author:

Ruta Sepetys is a No 1 New York Times and international bestselling author, and winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal. She is a Lithuanian-American writer of historical fiction and the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.

Ruta is a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellow and the first American writer of young adult literature to speak at European Parliament.

Her work is published in more than fifty countries and thirty languages and is currently in development for two films.

You can find out more about Ruta Sepetys at,, and

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About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.

She has studied creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.

Anna enjoys writing novels and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.

You can find out more about Anna Roins at and