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!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: If We Were Villains
    If We Were Villains
    by M L. Rio
    22 out of 28 of our reviewers rated If We Were Villains four or five stars, giving it an overall ...
  • Book Jacket: The Islamic Enlightenment
    The Islamic Enlightenment
    by Christopher de Bellaigue
    In this comprehensive and well-researched history, de Bellaigue examines the evolution of Islamic ...
  • Book Jacket: The Leavers
    The Leavers
    by Lisa Ko
    The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

A richly layered novel of hearts broken seemingly beyond repair and then bound by a stunning act of human devotion.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Scribe of Siena
    by Melodie Winawer

    Equal parts transporting love story, meticulously researched historical fiction, and compelling time-travel narrative.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Chalk Pit

The Chalk Pit:
A Ruth Galloway Mystery

A string of murders takes Ruth underground in the newest book in the series.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

T W Don't M A R

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

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

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
Modal popup -