Debra Dean Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Debra Dean
Photo: David Hiller

Debra Dean

An interview with Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad : The Story Behind The Book by Debra Dean

In 1995, I watched a PBS series on the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. My journal entry for the next day read in part: "I was particularly struck by one incident which might make a story (even a novel, but for the research)." During the first winter that the Nazis lay siege to Leningrad, the Hermitage staff and their families – nearly 2000 people - lived in the basement of the museum itself. In the first days of the war, they had evacuated all the art – millions of objects, thousands of undisputed masterpieces - but they had left the empty frames hanging on the walls of the museum as a token of their pledge that the art would return. A story was related that one of the staff, a former guide now living in the cellar, began to give tours of the empty museum to visitors. It was said that he described the paintings so well that the visitors could almost see them.

This image gripped me. Still, I was a short story writer and even my short stories tended towards the brevity of poems, so the prospect of writing something the size of a novel terrified me. Let alone a novel set in a country that I had never visited and during a tumultuous period about which I knew next to nothing. Throw in a foreign language and some art history on top of that, and I dismissed the notion as far exceeding any reasonable hubris. I tried writing it as a short story, but this world was too expansive to be contained in the short form. I set it aside. Every once in a while, I would return wistfully and rework it a little, adding a few pages or moving pieces around.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A woman who had resolutely focused forward throughout her life, she began in her dotage to drift back to her youth. She told stories that I had never heard before, some of them beginning quite plausibly and then segueing suspiciously into magical realism. (A nice topaz pendant that a great niece had admired spiraled in value and became a rare heirloom that strangers sometimes dropped by and paid money to see.) I started writing about her, but quickly she metamorphosed into a fictional character, a Russian woman who had survived the siege. Before I knew it, there we were again, back in the museum during the war.

The Madonnas of Leningrad was researched and written over several summers between teaching. During most of that time, I and my husband, a poet, lived in a sweet little apartment with a sweeping view of the city and the water but with not quite enough room for an office. So we set up shop in the windowless laundry that we shared with the neighbors, our desk wedged between garbage cans and the hot water furnace – not so different from the cellars of the Hermitage during the war perhaps, but decidedly warmer with the dryer humming. He worked in the mornings and I took the afternoons. The novel was written slowly, circuitously, and without expectations. Eat breakfast, go for a long walk, write another page or two, make dinner, watch a movie. Repeat. And then one day there was a book.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Pope and Mussolini
    The Pope and Mussolini
    by David I. Kertzer
    The Pope and Mussolini is a riveting account of the parallel rise to power of the authoritarian ...
  • Book Jacket: The Promise
    The Promise
    by Ann Weisgarber
    Canadian author, Lucy Maud Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame, once wrote that "...all things ...
  • Book Jacket: Black Moon
    Black Moon
    by Kenneth Calhoun
    The popularity of book-turned-movie World War Z and television series The Walking Dead points to a ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Win this book!
Win The Steady Running of the Hour

The Steady Running of the Hour

"Exciting, emotionally engaging and amibtious. I loved it!" - Kate Mosse

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

I T T O A Eye

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.