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Ruta Sepetys on writing historical fiction and terrible first drafts

The bestselling author was recently in Manila for a book signing event and to conduct research for an upcoming novel.

Bestselling author Ruta Sepetys recently visited the Philippines, said hello to her readers, and even signed books last Feb. 17 at the Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street branch in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. 

Ecstatic fans were given the chance not only to have their books signed but also to listen to the 56-year-old’s thoughts on writing historical fiction, her years in the music industry, and memories of her visit to Palawan. 

She was not exactly here for a vacation, though, as her trip to Culion was to conduct research and interviews for an upcoming novel.

From music to humor to historical fiction

Ruta spent 22 years in the music business “helping writers and musicians tell stories through songs.” 

At first she thought she would be a humor writer but a literary agent she approached chose a four-page draft of what would be her debut novel, Between Shades of Gray, over the humor book she submitted.

Host Gabi Francisco (left) and bestselling author Ruta Sepetys during the latter’s book signing event in Fully Booked BGC last Feb. 17. Photos by Johanna L. Añes-de la Cruz

“I took his advice. I put away the humor book. I wrote Between Shades of Gray. It changed my life,” she said during her Q & A with host, Gabi Francisco, a teacher and bookworm.

Since that fateful meeting, Ruta continued on to finish writing Between Shades of Gray, which follows a Lithuanian girl sent to a Siberian labor camp in 1941. The story is close to her heart with her father, Jurgis Sepetys, forced to flee Lithuania when he was just four years old.

The book went on to be nominated for the Carnegie Medal and became a New York Times bestseller. It was also adapted to a film titled Ashes in the Snow which had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival in September 2018.

Following the success of Between Shades of Gray, Ruta continues to write more historical fiction, specifically those which tackle obscure moments in history. 

There’s the Carnegie Medal winner Salt to the Sea, which is about the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff off the Baltic Sea; The Fountains of Silence—which I absolutely loved—set during the reign of the fascist Francisco Franco in Spain; and I Must Betray You, a story that revolves around a boy’s struggle under Romania’s communist regime.

All her books are published by Penguin Random House.

13 years after Between Shades of Gray was published, the Nashville-based author’s critically acclaimed young adult (YA) novels have been published in 60 countries and translated into 40 languages. During the event, she kept on thanking “educators, teachers, and booksellers for helping her “get history out of the dark.”

Though her works are classified as YA, Ruta is more specifically a “crossover novelist,” with her books being read by both young readers and adults.

She has been invited to present at NATO, the European Parliament, the US Capitol, the Library of Congress, and embassies worldwide.

On historical revisionism

A member of the audience asked Ruta her thoughts on historical revisionism, with her works dealing mostly with real-life historical events. 

In response, Ruta shared a memorable exchange she had with someone here in the Philippines who said that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, we repeat history.”

That left a deep impression, she admitted, because in saying that history repeats itself, she realized, “It’s as if we’re taking ourselves out of the equation.”

During the event, Ruta kept on thanking “educators, teachers, and book sellers for helping her “get history out of the dark.”

When people ask her, for instance, if she ever feels frustrated about the war in Ukraine, she thinks it just shows that it has become more important, now more than ever, to talk about history.

But as important is telling the other side of the story. “For example in I Must Betray You, the main character also thinks about the Romanian secret agent who’s brutalizing him. ‘Who becomes a secret agent? How does this happen?’” she said. 

Ruta shared that she has partners in literacy organizations, schools, and does “hundreds of school visits” every year to tell the stories, ask questions, and “also to allow others to ask questions of me.”

“Trying to facilitate communication allows space for different opinions which helps in dispelling disinformation,” she added. 

Give yourself permission to write poorly

As in similar book signing events, it was inevitable for the guest author to be asked for advice on writing. Ruta started off by reminding everyone that success doesn’t come easy.

“You don’t have to write perfect first drafts,” the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio fellow advised on more than one occasion. 

Ruta works on simultaneous stories at a time, spending anywhere between five to seven years doing research on each of her books.

The Carnegie Medal awardee for her book Salt to the Sea admits that she writes “terrible”
first drafts.

“My first drafts are like screenplays; they’re all dialogue. I hear and see the characters so I write them like a screenplay,” she shared. “And they are so bad.”

“So I give myself permission to write poorly, to just write junk. My writing is rewriting. I write each book 15 to 16 times before it goes into editing,” she confessed.

The Lithuanian-American writer added: “Writing is a practice. Your first drafts will stink. They’re going to be terrible. Please, just allow yourself to write something, anything. Writing is rewriting and you can revise.”

Read nonfiction books

For those aspiring to write historical fiction, Ruta shared that she starts by reading all the nonfiction books she can find on the topic she’s writing about.

“My work sits on the shoulders of academic papers, nonfiction books, and most importantly, witness testimonies (and) the diaries that are shared to me by family members,” she said.  

This is why, she explained, she always posts on social media about what she’s working on because she refuses to claim ownership of those stories in the way a mainstream novelist can. “The characters are my creation, I write the books, but history writes the story and the story belongs to history.”

The author took time to sign her fans’ books while chatting with them a bit.

She continued: “That gives me the framework. If I can connect with human beings who have experienced what I’m writing about, that’s my go to.”

Ruta also reads out of respect, emphasizing that she finds it disrespectful to ask her resource persons to “educate” her. “I need to know the dates, the places, the basic framework of the history—and then I want to know their story.”

The host mentioned that many fans like her appreciate the reference lists Ruta includes at the end of every novel.

“It’s mainly to honor these people. They’re my co-writers in a way. If I could, I would put all their names on the cover but my publisher says ‘no,’” she quipped. 

Ask sense memory questions

When writing historical fiction, it’s a must for one to have a pool of resource persons for interviews. Ruta has already conducted hundreds over the years.

In her interviews, instead of just asking a question, she asks “sense memory questions,” a technique which draws on the memory of sensations from personal experiences to create a genuine response. 

Fully Booked BGC’s The Studio was packed with eager fans who also brought their books
for signing.

“When you ask someone, (say) take me there. When you ask them, (say) walk me through it,” Ruta explained. “It will open a door to their memory then into their experience, sometimes things they haven’t thought about for many years. In doing that, they will share details with you that you’d never think to ask.”

These details, she enthused, are what makes historical fiction richer.

Go for handwritten notes

Ruta turned emotional while sharing how many of her former interviewees were at first “very frightened,” thinking she was a member of the KGB or that she was a spy. This explains why, in her books, some of the characters don’t have names.

For the interviews she conducted in the Philippines, she sent her interviewees a written document with her signature prior to the interview, explaining what she was going to do and that she was not going to record.

“This was tough but I learned early on that when someone says, ‘You don’t mind if I record this?’ I don’t know, it changes the chemistry of the conversation. It’s not a conversation for some people I was writing about, it feels like an interrogation,” she said. 

Her notes, then, are handwritten, with the interviewees welcome to review them. They are also provided a copy.

“At any point you feel uncomfortable, you do not have to answer a question and you can end the interview. It’s optional if they want their name listed in the acknowledgments of the book.”

Immediately ‘sketch out scenes’ after an interview

Ruta admitted that she usually cried along with her interviewees. This is why after an interview, she immediately sketches out scenes. 

“I worry that I will lose the emotional immediacy,” she said. “ (If) I wait six months and get back to it and try to write it, I might lose that emotional content.”

“Feelings stay with us longer than facts,” she told the audience who all seemed to agree with her.

That is why, if you read her novels, you’d notice her preference for concise sentences, short chapters, and economy in phrasing which are all balanced by strong emotions.

Verbalize your fears

Asked how she overcomes writer’s block, Ruta went back to how she spent over two decades working in the music industry. “I was working with very talented artists, songwriters, these people who were superstars. It (writer’s block) happens to artists; it happens to musicians.”

“I worked with video games, Halo, Ratchet and Clank, Hitman,” she added. “Video gaming is storytelling, so even developers experience it.”

She clarified, however, that it’s not just writer’s block—“It’s creative block, and what it is, is fear.”

What she does is ask the people she used to work with questions like: “Tell me what’s the worst thing that could happen with this?” or “What do you fear?”

“Once you verbalize it, it’s no longer this inner dragon,” she said. “For me, when I have writer’s block, the biggest fear is that I’m not going to honor and do justice to the incredible human beings whom I spoke with, who shared their story.”

When a “knot” forms in her mind, making her unable to write, she takes a walk and listens to music—Eminem being her (surprising) bias.

“And the knot begins to untangle. Sometimes this is also the technique they use with trauma patients who have this knot of trauma to untangle,” she shared. 

Find balance

With the immense weight of the topics she writes about, Ruta mentioned she strives for balance to keep her mental health in check. “To go inside, sometimes I go outside, literally. I take a walk. Nature is really a great inspiration for me.”

“I was just in Palawan. I thought this was a dream,” she continued. “Finding such beauty in the world helps me (find) balance sometimes and reminds me that in this universe there is this balance.”

She said that balance, specifically juxtaposition, is the essence of strong writing and storytelling.

“We find strength through struggle. We find hope through hardship. If we feel lost, that means we have the capacity to love because we feel lost.”

Ruta Sepetys’ novels are available at all Fully Booked branches and on Fully Booked online. You may follow Ruta on Instagram for updates.

Associate Editor

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