Ruta Sepetys’ stunning new novel, The Fountains of Silence, takes place during a period rarely explored in young adult literature: Franco’s Spain. Here, the beloved YA writer reflects on her invitation to the table of history.
We gave you the haunted room. After all, we know you love history.
That’s what the hotel clerk in New Orleans said when she gave me the key. I do love history, and of course I want to hear all about local ghosts. But I don’t want to sleep with them. I wasn’t over the moon in Berlin either when I discovered my resting place had once been the office of Nazi propaganda henchman Joseph Goebbels. My host was quick to reassure: Yes, lots of history here! Come, be our guest, and don’t worry, Goebbels shot his wife and six children in a bunker. None of that happened here.
But—what did happen here?
As an author of historical fiction, that’s a common query of mine when traveling. And often my next question is, Why don’t we know more about this? Those questions were on my mind when I set off for Spain to research The Fountains of Silence.
The setting is Madrid, 1957. An American family from Dallas lands in the Spanish capital for a mix of business and family bonding. But things take a dark turn when the 18-year-old son unknowingly stumbles into a shadow of danger.
Although I had read numerous works on the Spanish Civil War, I knew little of Francisco Franco’s regime and the postwar dictatorship that gripped the country for 36 years. In the 1950s, glossy brochures promoted Spain as a welcoming land of sunshine and wine. But I soon learned that beneath the midcentury heat and snapping fingers of flamenco lived a hidden truth: Many in Spain suffered in silence.
And so came the questions. What happened in Spain, and why don’t we know more about it?
I spent seven years researching The Fountains of Silence, crisscrossing the country for interviews and information. I wanted facts but also rich, cultural detail. When I inquired where most Americans stayed in Madrid during the dictatorship, the answer came quickly: the glorious, infamous Castellana Hilton.
Be our guest, a voice whispered.
With or without ghosts, an old hotel is a house of secrets. Hidden history breathes through each room. Wallpaper curls, inviting you to peel back a layer or two.
The first Hilton property in Europe was not in London or Paris. No, Conrad Hilton planted his first corporate flag across the Atlantic in Spain—amid a fascist dictatorship. Formerly a palace, the grand eight-floor structure was rebuilt by Hilton’s crews as the Castellana Hilton, and the advertising team dubbed the property “Your Castle in Spain.”
The former Hilton in Madrid is now affiliated with a different luxury brand. With the assistance of my Spanish publisher, I reached out to the marketing department at the hotel, and the manager generously replied. My heart thundered as bait burst from her email:
Many stories. Materials in the archives. Be our guest. Private tour, if you’d like.
If I’d like? I couldn’t get there fast enough.
Over the course of several stays in Madrid, I immersed myself in the world of the hotel. I followed my fictional characters through the narrow hallways, crept alongside them into the dark basements and accompanied them down wrinkled side streets.
In its heyday, the Castellana Hilton was a magnet for VIPs and media. The accommodating staff looked the other way when Ava Gardner lured a bellhop into her milk bath. They even tolerated actor Marlon Brando when he slaughtered live ducks in his suite.
So many salacious stories! My research notebook brimmed with scribbles and secrets. My phone tipped to capacity with photos. The details were all so incredibly rich and colorful. How would I ever decide what to include and exclude from the story? And then the words whispered back at me: Be our guest.
When writing historical fiction, I often wonder, what right do we have to history other than our own? If someone is generous enough to share their story, I am a guest within the archives of their history and memory. And that’s a sacred place.
So I strive for balance. Sometimes pomp and circumstance is appropriate for a chapter. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes being a guest comes with responsibility—in this case, a commitment to historical truth and those who experienced it.
Most Spaniards never saw the likes of Ava Gardner, nor bellied up to the bar with Brando. Many lie in unmarked graves. Even among those who survived the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship, many never had a chance to tell their stories.
Historical novels blend fact with fiction. They allow us to enter the past and look through the eyes of those it affected. When that happens, we are guests at history’s table. We’re given keys to a hidden door and the opportunity to keep it open. If we do, dark corners are suddenly illuminated. Progress through awareness is possible, and—most importantly—those who have suffered will not be forgotten.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Fountains of Silence.