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 story behind The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean's fascinating novel set partially in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad during World War II.

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!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Your Duck Is My Duck
    Your Duck Is My Duck
    by Deborah Eisenberg
    In this collection of six short stories, Deborah Eisenberg presents characters confronting limits ...
  • Book Jacket: Unsheltered
    Unsheltered
    by Barbara Kingsolver
    Willa Knox's house is falling down. She recently inherited a Victorian residence in Vineland, ...
  • Book Jacket: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree
    Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree
    by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
    Ya Ta, the main character in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, ...
  • Book Jacket: The Boneless Mercies
    The Boneless Mercies
    by April Genevieve Tucholke
    The Mercies are assassins, part of a long tradition of killers who serve to end the suffering of the...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Winter Soldier
by Daniel Mason

A story of war and medicine, of finding love in the sweeping tides of history, and of the mistakes we make.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Gone So Long
    by Andre Dubus III

    Dubus' first novel in a decade is a masterpiece of thrilling tension and heartrending empathy.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Gone So Long

Andre Dubus III's First Novel in a Decade

A masterpiece of thrilling tension and heartrending empathy.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

G H E Rope A H Will H H

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.