Ruta Sepetys on the Tension Between History and Memory in The Fountains of Silence

Ruta Sepetys on the Tension Between History and Memory in The Fountains of Silence

Ruta Sepetys is well-known to YA readers for her richly detailed works of historical fiction. Her latest, The Fountains of Silence, is one of our must-reads of the season! This book transports readers to Madrid during the rule of fascist dictator General Francisco Franco. It’s there that Texan Daniel Matheson meets Ana, and the two begin to uncover dangerous secrets about the world around them. Here, Sepetys shares her research process, the inspiration behind the title, and the character that was the most difficult to write.


Psst: Read an excerpt of the book here!

Bookish: Silence is a recurring theme in this book, and it’s reflected in the title. How did you decide to call the book The Fountains of Silence?

Ruta Sepetys: During the postwar period and dictatorship in Spain, many young people were left in the wreckage to navigate an inheritance of heartache and responsibility for events they had no role in causing. Citizens were obedient and remained silent about things their families had experienced or were experiencing. The young adult narrative is what I chose to represent in the story—innocent youths who, instead of pursuing hopes and dreams, became fountains of silence.

Bookish: Anna talks about the “tension that exists between history and memory.” Did writing this novel impact your own thoughts about the connection between them?

RS: Researching and writing the novel absolutely impacted my thoughts and perceptions. It also tugged at my heart. In the novel, some are desperate to remember while others are desperate to forget. The characters are hunted and haunted by their memories. Things that happened in their past are now dictating their future. The story asks the questions: Is it better to face the demons of the past head-on, or to ignore them and allow them to remain on the sidelines? Can silence truly heal pain or, in some cases, does it just prolong it? 

Bookish: In the author’s note, you mention that elements of your personal family history allowed you to write your other books “from the inside out,” while for this release you needed to write the story “from the outside in.” How did that affect your writing process?

RS: My previous books all contained threads of my personal family history. I felt acquainted with the topics and was able to write those stories from the inside out. Since I have no family ties to Spain, I had to write The Fountains of Silence from the outside in. That’s why I chose to write a character visiting Spain from Dallas, to give the reader the lens of an outsider. It affected my research and writing because I required a lot more time to complete the project. I insisted on doing more research than normal. I spent seven years researching The Fountains of Silence and I could have spent seven more!

Bookish: You get into the minds of so many different characters in this book. Which was your favorite to write and why? Was there any POV whose voice took longer to find than the others?

RS: I enjoyed writing the character of Daniel Matheson—an American visiting Spain—because with no ancestral connection to Spain, I myself am an outsider. In an attempt to present a balanced portrayal, I also created characters from varied walks of life to illustrate how each person’s experience was unique. Puri navigates the Francoist side, while Ana and Rafa represent the Spanish Republican side. The character of Puri was the most challenging to write because her character required a certain pacing toward awareness. 

Bookish: The book ends with its characters still plagued by uncertainty, but it’s ultimately a hopeful ending. What do you want readers to take away from that?

RS: I’d love for readers to reflect on the idea that sometimes, during dark and devastating moments, we discover a strength we never knew we had. I look for those threads of hope and resilience and try to weave them into my novels. As history illustrates, amidst war and oppression people still fall desperately in love and forge everlasting bonds through shared experience. That capacity to love is the very essence of being human, and I try to highlight that.

Bookish: You list books, films, papers, and other resources that helped to shape the novel. If readers are interested in learning more about the missing children of Spain, where would you recommend that they start. 

RS: If readers are interested in learning more about the reports of stolen children, I would encourage them to search within NPR’s online archives. Over the last 15 years, NPR has delivered many interesting and informative reports on the controversy. I would suggest reading the reports in chronological order to see how the issue has evolved throughout the years. 

Bookish: Between some chapters there are excerpts from historical speeches, letters, and interviews. What inspired you to include those in the novel? How did you decide which excerpts to feature?

RS: Initially, the excerpts were for my personal research purposes only. But I found them so illuminating that I felt they would bring added dimension to the book. In terms of choosing excerpts, I tried to pace the insertions so they added to the reading experience, but wouldn’t distract. 

Bookish: Daniel says his mother uses happiness as a shield, and in different ways we see that each character has something (humor, anger, etc) that they use to shield them. How did you decide which shields to give each character?

RS: As I’m developing characters, I try very hard to flesh them out in as much detail as possible—even if I don’t include all of that detail on the page. The more I know my characters, the more easily I’ll be able to navigate their paths through the story. The shields I chose related to each character’s fears or dreams. 

Bookish: You include a series of photos at the end of the book. Were any of Daniel’s photographs in the book inspired by real pictures you found in your research?

RS: Absolutely! Some of the photos I found of the Guardia Civil during my research were so menacing, they made a deep impression. So I knew that I wanted Daniel to try to photograph them. And Daniel’s photos of Fuga were inspired by research I did on young, amateur bullfighters in the 1950s who came from the Andalusia region. 

Ruta Sepetys is an internationally acclaimed, #1 New York Times bestselling author of historical fiction. She is considered a “crossover” novelist as her books are read by both teens and adults worldwide. Sepetys’ novels are published in over sixty countries and forty languages. Her books have won or been shortlisted for over forty book prizes, are included on over sixty state award lists, and are currently in development for film. Winner of the Carnegie Medal, Ruta is passionate about the power of history and literature to foster global awareness and connectivity. She has presented to NATO, European Parliament, the United States Capitol, and embassies worldwide. Ruta was born and raised in Michigan, and now lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee.

Kelly Gallucci
Kelly Gallucci is the Executive Editor of, where she oversees Bookish's editorial content, offers book recommendations, and interviews authors like Leigh Bardugo, V.E. Schwab, and Sabaa Tahir. She's just coming off of moderating an author panel at New York Comic Con. When she's not working, Kelly can be found color coordinating her bookshelves, eating Chipotle, and binging Netflix with her pitbull. She is a Gryffindor.


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