Last month, we fell in love with Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys’ historical novel about four young people whose fates converge aboard a doomed German transport ship at the end of World War II. And having fallen in love, we had to know more about the story behind the story: maritime tragedies, lost treasures, creepy Nazis, and all. Here’s the author on how she came to write Salt to the Sea (plus a few titillating hints about what’s next on her to-do list.)
How did you decide to set this story aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff?
I love hidden history. When I discovered that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was history’s single largest maritime disaster—with a death toll dwarfing the Titanic—I thought it would make a compelling backdrop.
The loss of life when the Gustloff sank was astronomical, but I had never heard of it; why do you think it’s so overlooked, historically?
I think there are several contributing factors: When the ship sank, the Nazis tried to conceal the story (and the fact that they were losing the war.) The Soviet submarine commander who torpedoed the Gustloff was dishonorably discharged shortly after, so the Russians weren’t drawing attention to the story. And after the war, Germans didn’t publicize the sinking as they felt it was inappropriate to speak of their losses during the war considering the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
What was the process of writing this book like?
It took me three years to research and write the novel and I loved every minute of it! I generally research and write simultaneously to retain the emotional immediacy of the information I’m receiving. As a result, the writing process was very emotional. Lots of tears!
Were there any real-life refugee stories you encountered in your research that inspired your characters, or that have really stuck with you?
Yes, there were many. One that particularly haunts me was a story of a woman from Latvia who was on board the Gustloff with her young daughter and son. When the ship was torpedoed, they were in the dining room of the ship. In the chaos to push up to the lifeboats, the woman lost sight of her son. When she arrived up on the top deck she had her daughter, but her son was nowhere in sight. She put her daughter in a lifeboat but didn’t get in herself as she was desperate to find her son. They cut the ropes to the lifeboat and the boat dropped into water. The little girl was in the lifeboat but her mother was still up on deck. The daughter’s last memory of her mother was watching her scream for her son as the ship rolled over and slid into the sea.
Your Nazi narrator seems to be suffering from mental illness, on top of the fact that he’s a Nazi. How did that come to be a part of the character? Did it make it easier to get inside his head?
The character of the young Nazi, Alfred, was an opportunity for me to study visibility. What happens to a young guy who is basically invisible but one day is given a uniform and suddenly becomes visible…even in his own mind? Is it mental illness or a perversion of power?
I love the shoe poet, who’s basically a Sherlock Holmes for footwear. It really made me look differently at my favorite shoes. If you had to pick a pair from your own closet that tells your story, what would they be?
Ooh, what a great question! I have a pair of black boots I’ve owned for many years. I’ve worn them all over the world and they’ve seen me through many great and crazy adventures. Those boots could narrate a novel!
One of your characters is embroiled in an art heist. How did that come to be a part of his backstory?
The Amber Room was a glittering chamber of amber, jewels, and gold. The Nazis stole it from the Russians during the war, but it disappeared during the evacuation. The Amber Room was last seen in 1944 and to this day remains one of the enduring mysteries of the art world. During my research, I read a few accounts that claimed the Amber Room treasure had been loaded onto the Wilhelm Gustloff. So I wove that storyline into the novel and one of the characters.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a novel about the lost children in Spain during the Franco dictatorship. I’m in the research and early writing phase now, and it’s really exciting!
We got another perspective on the events of Between Shades of Gray in this book; is it possible you’ll revisit any of the characters from Salt to the Sea? (Perhaps a certain Olympic swimmer?)
I would love to revisit the characters in a future book! As I’m writing a novel, I become so attached to the characters. They feel very real to me. It would be such a joy to return to the wandering boy, Halinka, or one of the others. But which one to choose?
Salt to the Sea is on sale now.