On December 9th, 2022, New York Times bestselling author Ruta Sepetys visited AISB to promote her new historical fiction novel set in Romania during the Ceaușescu era, I Must Betray You. During a presentation in the Library, students were given the opportunity to ask her questions and learn about her new work. The Bite was also given an opportunity to interview her about her processes and experiences.

Becoming a best-selling author

Sepetys’ catalogue of works spans many books, including two that are set to develop into a series for Amazon. Her list of novels comprises: Between Shades of Gray, Salt to the Sea, Out of the Easy, The Fountains of Silence, and many others, including I Must Betray You.

The road to becoming an author started when she was nine years old, according to her. 

“At nine years old, I read James and the Giant Peach, and I loved how Roald Dahl could combine such cleverness and humor but still touch the reader in an emotional way (…) There was cleverness, there was fun, there was wit, but there was also this sensitivity and vulnerability that I probably didn’t really recognise at the time. But it touched me, I felt for those characters, I wanted to be their friends, and it made me want to be a writer.”

She was also greatly impacted by her childhood in the United States as a Lithuanian-American, growing up with a Lithuanian name but with very little knowledge of her culture.

“Maybe initially, it was also me trying to express my own Lithuanian identity, my own archetype for the world, and not just mine, but for other Lithuanians. I think that really drew me to writing these books and once the first book came out and I realised the impact, and how powerful It could be for readers to give voice to these other experiences.”

Her research and writing process

Sepetys utilises a particular research process when writing all of her novels, an approach that can take around five to seven years per book. According to her, it begins with reading. Non-fiction novels, academic papers, history books, journals, memoirs, and testimonies are all vital parts of her routine. Interviewing is next, with Sepetys often traveling to the places she writes about before interviewing those who have experienced the events in her books. 

I partner with the true witnesses, the people who experience the place or the event that I’m writing about, and they bring this story to life for me(…)I think it’s very important that the witnesses are the ones giving the story instead of me telling the story.

Ruta Sepetys

After these key steps, she begins to write, sketching out scenes throughout the interview process before starting to draft. She typically starts with the dialogue between the characters, visualising their conversations in her head. Then, she begins to revise, ”The biggest part of my process in revisions, I’m a rewriter more than a writer; I’m a reviser.”

To avoid writer’s block, she works in stints – planning out a chapter and periodically revising and adding detail, which allows her to have an idea of what to write on one of her writing days. She states that, ”history provides the story’s skeleton and scaffolding,” and helps her get a basic idea of what is going to happen to the characters throughout the story. 

I almost write a book like I’m writing a screenplay

Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You

I Must Betray You narrates 17-year-old Cristian Florescu’s experience under the tyrannical dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, leader of Communist Romania. Amidst the oppression and lack of freedom, Cristian is blackmailed by the secret police to become an informer. Will he be forced to betray his family or will he risk his life to join the resistance?

Have you read I Must Betray You? What would you do in Christian’s position?