Debra Dean is the author of two novels, The Madonnas of Leningrad and The Mirrored World, and a short story collection, Confessions of a Falling Woman.
Q: Your new novel, The Mirrored World, involves the story of St. Xenia, a Russian holy figure. How did you learn about her, and why did you decide to write a novel based on her life?
A: When I finished The Madonnas of Leningrad I thought I was going to follow it with a novel set in my hometown of Seattle. Best laid plans. It was a good idea, but that's where it stayed -- an idea -- and it just wouldn't come to life. You can usually tell by about page 50 if you've got a dead book on the table. I had signed a contract and taken an advance and I was panicked.
And what kept returning to my thoughts was an intriguing little historical footnote I had come across in my research for Madonnas about an 18th century Russian saint. A wealthy young woman on the periphery of the Court, after the death of her husband she renounced material possessions and went to live on the streets of the city's worst slum. I'm not Russian Orthodox or Catholic, I was raised Presbyterian, so I've tended to view saints as being like superheroes. But something about her got under my skin. It was said she went mad with grief, and I kept thinking of Joan Didion's remarkable memoir The Year of Magical Thinking where she talks about the radical dislocation that followed the sudden death of her husband.
Q: The Madonnas of Leningrad, your first novel, also is set, at least in part, in Russia. Have you always been interested in Russia, and how much research did you need to do to write your novels?
A: Yes, "Why Russia?" It’s a good question for which I have never been able to provide a logical answer. I have nothing in my background to explain this: I'm not Russian, and it wasn't a focus of my studies. My husband says I was Russian in a former life, and that may be as good an explanation as any. But given my former ignorance, I had to do years of research for each book, almost none of which served both. St. Petersburg in the 18th century and Leningrad in the 1940's are very different worlds, and each in their own way very strange places. There's a practical reason why creative writing teachers counsel their students to write what they know. But for good or ill, I happen to be much more fascinated by what I don't know. I think writing historical fiction may be the next best thing to the pleasures of being a student.
Q: You also have worked as an actor, and that background is reflected in your short story collection, Confessions of a Falling Woman. Are the disciplines of writing and acting linked, in your opinion, or do they require completely different skills?
A: When I made the move from acting to writing fiction, I didn't realize what a short hop it is. I'm doing very much the same thing I did as an actor: pretending to be other people. Of course, as an actor I was given the lines and here I have to make them up for myself, but it's all deep play and invention. And then, the public part of being a writer -- the book tours and public speaking -- that, too, is similar to what I did as an actor. Luckily, it's easy for me to go from the solitary to the public sphere.
Q: Of the fictional characters that you've created, do you have a favorite?
A: Hmm, it's a bit like asking which of one's children is the favorite. I love them all. But I do have a special fondness for Gaspari -- he's an Italian castrato in The Mirrored World. He was a lot of fun to write, and is someone I would like to have for a friend in real life.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: At this moment, I'm on hiatus because I broke my wrist and can only type one-handed. But I have a new book underway. I'm playing it a bit close to the vest right now, but I will say it's a departure for me, to non-fiction. It's a biography of three artists, and it follows their stories from pre-war Europe to Greenwich Village in the 50's and 60's.
Q: Anything else we should know?
Interview with Deborah Kalb.