Zibby is joined by author Gina Sorell to talk about her second novel, The Wise Women, which was named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. The two discuss how listening to Zibby’s podcast helped her feel more connected to her writing during the pandemic, why she made the shift from acting to writing, and the ways in which her experience with this book differs from her first. Gina also shares how she hopes readers will connect with all of the book’s protagonists and whether or not she’ll continue on with them in the future.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ruta. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Must Betray You.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: I learned so much about Romania in this book. I had no idea — I feel very foolish for admitting this. I didn’t know the extent of the communist protocols, the extent of how watched everybody was, how similarly everyone was forced to live, how much brutality. All the things in the book are just — not only the story itself, which was incredibly compelling, but even all of what you wrote about at the end and the sources and the pictures, I had no idea. I had a sliver of an idea, but certainly not an idea. This book just completely brought this all to light for me. First of all, thank you. Second of all, now that I’ve rambled, why don’t you talk about what the story is about? What compelled you to write it?

Ruta: I will start with the second question first. Thank you so much. Do not feel foolish. Exactly what you’ve expressed, that you did not know about Romania, you did not know what happened to the Romanian people, I didn’t either, and I’m the daughter of a victim of communism. My father fled from Lithuania when he was a child and spent nine years in refugee camps before coming to the States. I wrongly assumed that I had an understanding of post-war communism. When I was on tour in Romania for my first book, I realized I knew nothing about what had happened to more than twenty million Romanian people. How do we not know this story? All of us and all of your listeners, we probably know Romanian people, and we don’t know their story. That’s what inspired me to write the book. I’m drawn to these underrepresented parts of history. The story follows a seventeen-year-old guy, Cristian Florescu, who is blackmailed by the Romanian secret police to become an informer for the regime. Cristian is expected not only to inform on his neighbors, her friends, his girlfriend, and really betray everyone, but he decides that he’s going to turn the tables and he’s going to inform on the regime. He is going to get information to the American embassy. The betrayed becomes the betrayer. Who betrays who? That’s a little bit about this story.

Zibby: Wow. It’s hard to even comprehend. A lot of the books on this podcast, a theme is the corrosive power of secrets, having to keep a secret, what happens when you’re the keeper, when someone keeps it from you, when it enters into a dynamic. There’s this distance that it immediately adds to any relationship, which then breeds a sense of loneliness, all of which have been happening here in your book. To extrapolate that to an entire nation of millions of people, the ramifications of something like that are just almost unfathomably large and pervasive when you make it a generational to generational thing as well. It’s crazy. Not to mention all the brutality. You even had some statistics about the Jewish population and how — I think I underlined it at some point — how now there are about three thousand Jews among millions and millions. Whereas before, I feel like you said there was something like 280,000 Jews. I have so many thoughts. The forced experimentation on the women in the workplace, this fertility experimentation, all of this is unthinkably horrific.

Ruta: It sounds dystopian, right?

Zibby: Yes, yes.

Ruta: You’re living in this dark world of enforced obedience. Your nutrition is controlled. The electricity is controlled, and the utilities. You don’t know when the lights will turn on or off or when you’ll have water. That was a form of control. Then recruiting civilians to be informers was so terrible. There were so many Romanians who helped me with this book. They’re really my cowriters. I could not have done this without these true witnesses. Imagine how traumatic that must have been to revisit these times and discuss them with me. With regard to your comment about secrets and the corrosive nature of secrets, many Romanians told me that this form of control and power and not knowing who you might be able to trust, if someone in your own family might be an informer — they explained to me that this dictator, Ceaușescu, he betrayed other countries. The United States and England, they were all thinking he was this benevolent guy and working with him and, in some cases, supporting him. In betraying others, the Romanians told me that they felt that sometimes they were forced to betray themselves. That feeling of being a traitor to your own soul, it broke my heart. Then to have the story misunderstood or, as sometimes happens, narrative form — the narrative about the fall of communism is often the fall of the Berlin Wall. The narrative about Romania in the early nineties was that of orphanages, but we didn’t have the full story. We were missing so much. I feel that’s so unfair to the people who experienced it.

Zibby: I even watched a documentary about Nadia Comăneci, so I actually had some of this knowledge, but not in the way that you communicated it. I know that she was a participant in your research, which is amazing.

Ruta: Talk about generous as well. Nadia is so humble. Of course, I was a superfan. I had all these questions. Rather than speaking about herself, she was so intent upon me understanding what the average Romanian citizen must have experienced and the importance that I focus on, let’s say, the mom. Here’s a mother who’s trying to provide for her children. Amidst this atmosphere of terror, how some Romanians still found it in their heart to be generous, to help each other even at their own cost, that was really, really interesting to me. A note about Nadia — growing up as a Lithuanian American, when the Baltic nations were occupied, the names Lithuanian, Latvia, Estonia, they were just taken off the map. It just said Soviet Union. I remember watching the Olympics in ’76 with Nadia and remarking that the Romanian athletes, when they were walking into the opening ceremony, they were dressed in their own colors and the word “Romania” across the back of their warm-up suits. I remember thinking how lucky they were, how fortunate. Oh, my goodness, boy, it must be so wonderful in Romania. They’re not suffering. How wrong I was. It took decades for me to realize that I did not know the story.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What you said earlier about electricity and how it would turn on and off, you had this one scene of the neighbor, who you described as having a fallen face that aged twenty years after the electricity went off, in the hospital. Her newborn baby, who was in an incubator, died. The idea that you could trust a hospital, put your baby in the incubator, and then have them just decide, oh, okay, cutting electricity tonight, that’s a life right there. It’s so cold-hearted, all of it.

Ruta: It is. The level and scale of the human rights abuses were just incredible. What also was incredible was the endurance of the Romanian people. Romanians are just brilliant in so many ways. They combated this in their own ways. For example, they would come up with jokes. They would joke. Imagine the danger of joking about the regime. It could ferry you straight to the secret police office, but they did it anyway. They found these, I guess I’ll say release values. They were so creative and so brilliant. It taught me so much about resilience, researching and writing the book.

Zibby: And the dependence on and the eventual mind shift provided by American films and how watching them was a huge lifeline. There was one scene when — I’m always so bad with names. Nikolai was like, could this actually be reality in America? It couldn’t, right? It was so unfathomable.

Ruta: That was an interesting part of my research, sitting down with Romanians who were young in the eighties. When I do research, many people will tell me similar things. Many people tell different things. One of the similar threads was the impact of movies from the West. There was one woman who dubbed these movies into Romanian. She, for them, was the voice of freedom. There were several people who told me that when they first started seeing movies — I’m talking about movies from the eighties, so Pretty Woman, Top Gun, which now is having this renaissance. They said that initially when they saw those movies, they thought it was all fantasy. These people were choosing their own jobs. They would go into a kitchen and turn a faucet, and water would come out. This was crazy. Then the older that they got and word on the street and conversations, they realized, wait a minute, this is real, what we’re seeing. There was a historian I met with that said that those movies, those VHS tapes, they loaded the guns that eventually killed Ceaușescu, the dictator. That’s how powerful exposure to music, to art, that freedom of expression, that intellectual freedom that they didn’t have is. That exposure to it, for the young people, it motivated them. It was the young people who were the bravest when the revolution arrived, who took to the streets with nothing, just their bare hands to attack tanks. So many gave their lives for this.

Zibby: Wow. Even just them noticing the individual choices, even something as simple as what to eat and what to wear and even noticing, wait a minute, all of this is up to the individual to decide, blew my mind. It just blew my mind that that would be anathema to their own experience. Yes, and then ultimately led to this huge showdown, if you will.

Ruta: What I didn’t realize prior to researching the book was that when Romania finally did fight for independence, sadly, a replacement set of communists took over. Their suffering was extended for several more years. These young people who had fought for freedom felt like their revolution, it had been stolen from them. The book, in the end, kind of reflects that. It just gave me an insight into a culture that I knew so little about. Romania’s a gorgeous country. It’s absolutely beautiful. When they were describing to me how Bucharest had been turned, it was once a luxury stop on the Orient Express and had been turned into this apocalyptic landscape of the lost. I wanted to convey that atmosphere to the reader so you would feel like you’re there.

Zibby: I felt it. I felt like I was in this cement, one-bedroom apartment with the grandfather in the kitchen and living in the closet. You could feel the coldness. I think that’s something that is one of the overwhelming things. The whole nation was just cold. A, cold outside, but B, taking away the warmth among people and the coldblooded nature of so many of the acts. I worry that I’m making this book sound like a history book. Whereas actually, it’s very much about people and characters. The way you wrote it is so page-turning. You just want to find out, what is going on? What’s going to happen with Nikolai and the girlfriend? Even scenes like them protecting the girl who’s walking home and gets attacked by wild dogs, all of these things, you paint such a picture of the environment, but then ultimately, it’s the interior lives of the characters that just fly off the page and make it a story, not a history book.

Ruta: I hope so. I did try to write it as a suspense novel. Those who’ve read my books know that my style, or I should say lack of style, is short sentences, short chapters. I’ve found through writing about times of adversity, despite what’s going on, there are universal themes. Amidst war, people are falling desperately in love. They’re forging friendships through shared experience. That’s what happens here. The main character, there’s a girl across the street that he’s desperately in love with. We see these hopeful universal themes despite the hardship.

Zibby: Yes, absolutely. It was immersive. It’s, I want to say appalling. The conditions in which these characters were living, I’m like, could this have happened like this? Really? Then learning that it could’ve just imbued this whole other layer of meaning onto the day-to-day life of your characters and what they decided and everything. A little bit of everything packed in here.

Ruta: It also makes us realize, though, how humble Romanians are that they speak very rarely of what they endured and how they endured it. They’re so generous to speak about you and to ask about you and what’s going on. Whereas Lithuanians, we’re so open to say, oh, my family went to Siberia. This is what our family experienced. I just really hope that it might open a door. Of course, this is fiction, but I hope it might open a door so people might research on their own. It might lead them to the nonfiction work of Romanians. My historical fiction sits on the shoulders of nonfiction and memoir and testimony. In this case, so many Romanians were my cowriters with this. I really want to give voice to their story and this underrepresented history.

Zibby: I have to say that in fifth grade, for whatever reason, I was assigned a research project on Lithuania. That was my country. Everybody got a different place. I don’t know why. That was mine. We didn’t know anyone from there. My mom’s like, “So-and-so is from Estonia. Why don’t you talk to her?” I remember interviewing her at the time. I don’t even know. That’s not even related to what we’re talking about, but with your Lithuanian past. This is the eighties. In the eighties, this is what we were doing in school.

Ruta: You know what? Good for your teacher because in the eighties, Lithuania wasn’t even on the map as its own country. It was only after 1991. People from these underrepresented countries, it becomes a bit of an identity struggle. I remember growing up in the States, people called me Ruta Sepetys. My Lithuanian name is (with accent) Ruta Sepetys. When people would see my name, they’d say, “What are you?” I’d say, “I’m Lithuanian.” Then the conversation would just end. I remember watching movies. There was an Adam Sandler film where they were trying to make a joke about — the character had a girlfriend. They said, oh, she’s from Lithuania. Then this woman came in who was bumbling and odd. It was a joke because no one knew. It was this very far-flung, remote place. I think that when their stories remain hidden in the shadows and the histories of the countries remain hidden in the shadows, people can feel misunderstood. I know even for myself when I would say I’m Lithuanian, very rarely would someone say, what is it like to be Lithuanian? What’s the history of your country? I just think we don’t do that. If we understand the backgrounds and histories, we might better understand our neighbors, even. Then once we understand their background, we understand their motivation. That facilitates human understanding, I like to think. I think that’s one of the hidden powers of historical fiction, is that power for dialogue and human understanding.

Zibby: It’s so true. I interviewed recently, a man named Matti Friedman about when Leonard Cohen went into the Yom Kippur War in Mount Sinai. He was saying in Israel at that time when you asked where people were from, they just said, I’m from the Holocaust. That’s where I’m from. It doesn’t matter. Here’s where I am. That’s where I’m from. There’s something sort of similar in that. I am from this place. This place has changed. Who does that make me? What is my identity when my nation is — I think about all the Ukrainians now too. Obviously, they identify so strongly. I have so much respect for them. What happens when you’re all booted out of your country? Who are you? Who do you become? I’m rambling. I’m sorry.

Ruta: No, you’re not rambling at all. I think we see that people become courageous lamplighters. We see the power of the human spirit when families are separated and people are displaced. Of course, it’s awful to see history repeating itself. I really try to also cling to the strength that the Ukrainians are showing the world. It’s so inspiring.

Zibby: When you’re writing, how do you go back and forth with your regular life? Tell me about a day where you’re sitting there. Then what happens when you shut your computer down and get up? Is it easy for you to go from this intensity to then whatever else you’re doing?

Ruta: No. It’s not. I would think it would be a little bit weird if I could write about pain and death and destruction and then be like, oh, now it’s time to make dinner. Someone once told me that compassion is being able to hold both hope and hardship and love and loss at the same time. That made sense to me. I think to write authentic historical fiction where the reader feels connected to the characters and feels empathy towards what they’re experiencing, I have to kind of get in the trenches. What I do is I carve out large blocks of time to write and allow myself to go there, into the trenches. Also, I feel a great debt to these people who helped my research. I want to deliver something great just for them, to honor them. I do allow myself to go there. Then I have to slowly come out of it. On the tail end of, let’s say, a writing bender, instead of writing fourteen hours a day or being in it fourteen hours a day, I’ll sort of wean myself off. That helps. I’m probably a really bad candidate for this because I get so emotional. Then I think, maybe it’s the fact that I care so deeply about these human beings. I feel really invested. I laugh with my other friends who write historical fiction. They say, “Ruta, you’re nuts.” I will go to the nth degree to hunt down a detail for authenticity. I laugh with my other friends who write historical fiction. They’re like, “You’re crazy. Don’t tell anyone you do that because then they’ll expect us to do it too.”

Zibby: On a day when you’re not writing, what’s your life like? What do you love to do when you’re not working?

Ruta: I live just outside of Nashville. It’s lovely. I love to walk. I love to be outside. It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer. There’s that saying. To truly go inside, you need to go outside. I believe that. I get my best ideas for plotting and dialogue when I’m taking walks. How cliché is that? The writer who takes a long walk in the woods. For me, it really works. That combinatory play of physically moving and either listening to music and activating a different part of my brain, I can put together plots and scenes and dialogue. Even when I’m not writing, I am kind of writing and crafting and reflecting on story and history and things like that.

Zibby: Love it. You can’t really escape it. The books kind of follow you everywhere you go.

Ruta: Story follows us. Something I do is I go to — I think a lot of writers probably do this. Here in the South, these estate sales are really great. I go to a lot of estate sales. I’ll wander through these estate sales. Every item has a story attached to it. The way shoes are worn at the heels, I’m thinking, this woman, she danced herself to death. A dress that has a cigarette burn in a really odd place, everything, to me, is story. I love going to estate sales. I don’t often buy too many things. It’s not that I’m buying things. I’m looking and immersing myself in those stories. That’s a little hobby of mine.

Zibby: They’re like artifacts. It’s like looking at artifacts in a museum or something. I was in Charleston years ago, maybe six years ago. We went to one of these consignment jewelry stores. That’s where I ended up getting my ring with my husband. I remember sitting there in the store and holding it. I’m like, who is the woman who wore this before me? What was her story? Who could she have been? It could be anything. Did she live around here? Which house did she live in? I’ll never know, and yet it would be around my finger forever the way it was around her finger forever. It’s just so wild.

Ruta: I love that you think that way. I love that you think that way because it does have story. There’s a story there. There’s a plot. There’s a setting. For writers, there was dialogue. All the elements of stories are in that ring. Then of course, you created a whole new story around it.

Zibby: Maybe I’ll try some historical fiction.

Ruta: I think you should.

Zibby: It turns out, we bought the ring and then brought it up to New York where I live. I needed it resized because it was too big. Another clue about this woman. When the jeweler went to resize it, they said, actually, there’s a huge crack that you can’t see with the naked eye, but the diamond is cracked. The place I bought it, I had taken out the insurance or whatever. Point is, we got to send it back. I got my money back. The actual ring went there. Then I had the jeweler here make an exact copy of what it looked like. That’s how I have this one.

Ruta: That’s an even better story. Don’t you wonder, how did that diamond get cracked? Did she clobber someone?

Zibby: Did she fall? Is that how she died?

Ruta: Were you tempted to keep the cracked diamond and ask for a discount? No, you didn’t want the cracked one.

Zibby: I thought about it a minute. Then, maybe this was a sales hook, but the jeweler up here said over time it would get worse. There were reasons why you should not wear a cracked diamond or whatever, even if I had gotten the discount. Yes, I think I was tempted because I liked the history of it. I love the idea of wearing an antique ring and everything, but not if it’s totally broken. Anyway, I don’t even know how we ended up on that tangent. Material from the South is rife with story. Who knows where it will lead?

Ruta: Exactly.

Zibby: What are you writing now? What are you working on?

Ruta: I just finished a book. It pertains to what we’re talking about. My books require a lot of research. I have to travel for this research. During COVID, that just became impossible. I was not able to work the way I was accustomed to working, to being boots on the ground in another country. I wrote a book helping writers craft their own story. I believe every human being has a story. Sometimes it’s intimidating to get started. I wanted to show them in easy prompts and easy ways, how they can open the door to their memory. All the elements that we’ve been discussing, character, plot, setting, they’re all there. Even if someone doesn’t want to publish a novel or write a memoir, I want them to be able to archive their own story. I think every adult wishes that we had asked our parents or our grandparents or that we had better archived our story. The book is called You: The Story. I just finished that. That’ll be coming out next year.

Zibby: That sounds great.

Ruta: It’s a writer’s guide to craft through memory.

Zibby: That’s very, very useful. You should team up with — Rabbi Steve Leder has a book that’s coming out this June about how to write letters for the people you love, what to leave. It’s called How to Write a Life, or something. It’s something similar. It’s taking memory and packaging it for future generations. I think you would have an interesting conversation. He’s great.

Ruta: That book sounds absolutely amazing. Yes, I would love that.

Zibby: I’ll put you in touch if you need the help.

Ruta: Please. I’d love it.

Zibby: Great. Ruta, thank you so much. Thank you for teaching me so much about Romanian history, for opening up this vast sympathy feeling and understanding of an entire nation-state and filling some gaps in my obvious terrible history repertoire and then the story itself and keeping me so engaged and rooting for someone and the crying with the sister, just all the emotions that the story evoked. Thanks.

Ruta: Thank you so much for having me. I hope your listeners might pick it up. It’s a quick read.

Zibby: Yes, I Must Betray You, but I won’t betray you. Thank you so much. Take care.

Ruta: Thank you so much. I was so grateful to do this.

Zibby: It was my pleasure, really.

Ruta: I’m sorry I’m going to miss your event here. I’ll have to check your tour schedule. Maybe I’ll check you somewhere else. I’d love to meet you in person.

Zibby: I would love to meet you in person too. That would be fun.

Ruta: All right, take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Ruta: Bye.

I MUST BETRAY YOU by Ruta Sepetys

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