Writers & Books: I know that when you were growing up you read much nineteenth-century fiction by British and American women, such as the Bröntes, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. You took a detour through theater for several years as a first career but did you always harbor an inclination to write?
Debra Dean: Not at all. I was a bookworm, but it never occurred to me that writing books might actually be a viable vocation. Until I left college, I rarely read anyone who hadn’t been dead for at least fifty years, so I didn’t have a model for writing as something that people still did. I think subconsciously I figured you had to have been born in the nineteenth century and have three names.
W&B: Acting is not the most common route to writing (with the notable exception of Shakespeare, of course). We tend to think of actors as extroverts and writers as introverts. What inspired you to move from acting to writing?
DD: At the time that I was making this move, I remember it felt very original. I’ve since met dozens of writers who started in the theater. And on closer examination, it makes sense. I had spent my adult life pretending to be other people. That’s not a transferrable skill that will take you into many other professions. Really, just fiction writer and maybe undercover spy. You may find this surprising, but there are probably just as many introverts in the acting profession as extroverts. A lot of shy people can be quite a bit more comfortable on stage than off, because on stage they have the protection of a character with lines.
W&B: How has your experience of acting informed your writing practice? The expositions of the content of the paintings in The Madonnas of Leningrad could in some cases be considered monologues….
DD: That’s a good question. What I do now is very similar to what I did as an actor: I imagine my way into other people’s lives. When I started writing fiction, almost all of my stories were in the first person because that was how I knew to tell stories, in the voice of the character. The Madonnas of Leningrad had to be told in third person because Marina in the grip of Alzheimer’s couldn’t be relied on as a narrator, but I still tried to tell the story as much as possible from inside her consciousness. So yes, those short descriptive passages on the paintings and rooms in the Hermitage are monologues, Marina giving us her tour of the museum.
W&B: What writers have influenced your style? What kind of literature do you tend to read now?
DD: I’m such a sponge, I’ve probably been influenced to some degree by every writer I’ve ever read. When I was first apprenticing as a writer, I read Updike and Cheever as holy texts. At a certain point, though, you stop consciously imitating. As to what I read now, I wouldn’t change my circumstances, but being a writer and a teacher of writing means having very little time to read freely. Most of the time I’m reading my students’ stories or researching for the next book. That said, I’ll make the time to read certain authors: Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Ian McEwan and Luis Urrea come to mind. I want to read master stylists.
W&B: Tell us how the two storylines—of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II and an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in the present day—came about for you and then came together in this rich novel that spans so many decades and such disparate experiences for the main character.
DD: One night, I happened to catch a three-part series on PBS about the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Part 2 was about the museum during the Siege of Leningrad. In this program, there was a remarkable story about a curator who, as the siege wore on, began giving tours of the empty museum. He would take people around and stand them in front of an empty frame and describe the painting that had hung inside the frame. Those who witnessed this said that he described the paintings in such detail and with such passion that they could almost see them. When I heard this, a chill ran up my spine. In my journal the next day, I wrote, “This would make an amazing short story” and in parentheses afterwards: “or a novel, but for the research.” I was supremely unqualified to write a novel set in Russia, but with a short story, you can sometimes cheat around what you don’t know. So I did enough research to support a short story. As it turns out, it doesn’t make an amazing short story. Reluctantly, I put it away in a drawer—writers have lots of failed experiments—and went back to my life.
During this same period, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She and I had always been close, but now we started spending more regular time together. Every Friday, I took her to have her hair done at the beauty parlor and afterwards, we’d go to Starbucks, have coffee and a pastry and talk. And I started to wonder what that experience must be like for her, coping with the increasing gaps in her short-term memory, drifting back and forth between her childhood. Of course, there’s no way for us to know—it’s a divide that can only be bridged by the imagination. So I started to write a story. And in the process, my grandmother—who was, by the way, from Tennessee—morphed into a Russian woman who had lived through the Siege of Leningrad as a youth.
W&B: How did your family experience your grandmother’s condition and did this inform how you wrote about Marina’s family members?
DD: Though everything that happens in the contemporary parts of the novel is invention, my family members recognize my grandparents’ relationship and our general experience of the disease, which was relatively benign. Alzheimer’s can dramatically alter a person’s character, but my grandmother remained a gracious Southern lady until the day she died. And like Dmitri, my grandfather was very protective of her. As she lost her abilities, he took up the slack and learned to cook and clean and sew. He was a remarkable and loving man. The other family members, her children and grandchildren, are entirely made up. Probably the single important thread of truth there is that though we were close, my grandmother took a few mysteries to her grave. Things we still wonder about. But I think that’s a fairly universal experience.
W&B: You offer very specific analogies about Marina’s experience of memory loss such as “It is as though she has been transported into a two-dimensional world, a book perhaps, and she exists only on this page. When the page turns, whatever was on the previous page disappears from her view” and “It is like being underwater, rising toward the light and hearing muffled voices above the surface.” Where did these perceptions come from?
DD: My grandmother wasn’t able to articulate her experience of Alzheimer’s; that’s part of the tragedy of the disease. But had she been able, I doubt she would have expressed herself that way. In the end, Marina is a fictional character. The analogies and metaphors in the book come from my intuition and imagination, and I can’t vouch that they reflect what is really happening with someone in the throes of the disease. There is, however, a short passage late in the novel wherein Marina is looking at a leaf and thinking about the color green: “Each day, the world is made fresh again, holy, and she takes it in, in all its raw intensity, like a young child.” The idea that there might be some positive compensation in Alzheimer’s, an intensifying of experience because it is always new—this came to me while reading a daily journal kept by a man who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and was thus able to talk a little about what was happening to him in the early stages. He wrote eloquently about the change in his attention, his ability to be wholly absorbed in what he would not even have noticed previously. I found that hopeful, a little match being lit in a dark room.
W&B: Does Marina’s habitual fluidity of thought make Alzheimer’s less frightening to her than it would to a more rigid, less artistic and imaginative soul?
DD: It’s a great question and a good argument, but the counterargument would be that hell holds no terrors for a person without imagination. Honestly, I have no idea. It helps me to believe in the soul, that the core of who we are is apart from our intelligence and our bodies. When I think about the possibility of getting Alzheimer’s—I don’t think about it a lot, but there is a statistical uptick given my family history—I am more concerned for my husband than for myself. It seems hardest on the loved ones.
W&B: In a video posted on your publisher’s web site, you state “Alzheimer’s is magical realism.” Can you expand on that intriguing statement and how it relates to the novel?
DD: People with Alzheimer’s reinvent the world with the pieces they have left. There are gaps in the story, things that no longer quite fit, so they make up stories to elide over those gaps. My grandmother, for instance, was at one time telling me which of her things she wanted to go to whom after she died. And she was very insistent that I should get a particular brooch that was very valuable, that it shouldn’t go to another family member who supposedly had her eye on it. Of course, my curiosity was piqued, especially since I didn’t recall her having any expensive jewelry. I asked a few more questions. And then it came out. “Oh yes,” she told me, “it’s worth a lot of money. People come to the house and pay to see it.” Did I mention we come from Tennessee? I mean, we’re not the Windsors. It was often like that with her, that experience of realizing only in retrospect that we had left terra firma and were walking calmly across empty air.
Ironically, in Marina’s case, her own history, the actual events of the Siege of Leningrad, is mistaken by her family for the fabrications of Alzheimer’s, because what really happened is just so outlandish and unbelievable.
W&B: At one point, your narrator states, “What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world.” This sentiment reminds me of Theodor Adorno’s avowal (in a longer passage) that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. How did you decide to counter the atrocity and tragedy and trauma of the events of the novel with such an observation?
DD: We human beings, by thoughtlessness and by intent, exercise such a stunning capacity for destruction and evil. That this darkness can coexist with such incredible beauty in the natural world, at a gut level, it’s just inexplicable. But there it is. The beauty, the poetry is no more a lie than the ugliness. Though I haven’t experienced tragedy in my own life on anything like that scale, I’ve known pain and loss, and it’s one of those deep mysteries, how it can either kill our souls and blind us to beauty or it can scour away the dead skin and make us more sensitive to it.
W&B: Have you always had an interest in historical events? In art or art history?
DD: I’m always so heartened to find students who are interested in history; our only hope as a culture is our memory. But I wasn’t one of those young people. Art is another thing. My mother is a visual artist, and I spent many happy years in painting classes. I also slept through a lot of art history classes in college—they were in a darkened auditorium right after lunch and the whole focus was on memorizing titles and dates—but I must have stayed awake through some of them.
W&B: What was your research process like for the book? I understand you used the internet quite a bit.
DD: I’m going to sound like such a dinosaur when I say this, but I started researching Madonnas before Google was anybody’s default mode. I used to teach research writing, so I did what I tell my students to do: I went to the library and I ordered books. At some point during that long process, though, the Hermitage created a website, and I remember my excitement the day I found it. It’s a pretty amazing and exhaustive site: a huge chunk of the collection is digitized, but even better for my purposes, there are maps of the museum and you can click on a room and bring up scrolling video. That was enormously helpful. The book would have been different if I had written it without the internet.
W&B: At what stage did you finally visit St. Petersburg (previously known as Leningrad) and the Hermitage and did it change any of your prior perspectives of the narrative or the locations in the story (and by extension, the movements of the characters)?
DD: I didn’t visit until after I had completed the novel. (Hence, the value of the internet.) This wasn’t a choice on my part; I just couldn’t afford the trip. I had to save up my money to buy time off to write. But when HarperCollins bought the book and I realized that it was actually going to go out into the world, I can’t overstate my giddiness, but there was also the Woody Allen part of my brain that thought, “Oh no, I’m going to be found out for a fraud. I’ve never even been there.” So we used part of the advance, and my husband and I went to St. Petersburg. It was a two-week déjà vu. I had spent the better part of ten years in the Leningrad of my imagination, and here it was, exactly as I had imagined it. Well, not exactly. Somehow, I had transposed some of the rooms on the map, so that the tour that Marina gives the boys would have required them to beam up from one floor to the next without the benefit of stairs. I rewrote their route while I was there. But otherwise . . . not to be too woo woo, but I came out of the museum one day and in Palace Square were hundreds of soldiers and sailors and generals in World War II-era uniforms, with tanks and old trucks, the whole deal. It was as though my novel were being re-enacted. Actually, it was Lenin’s birthday and they were rehearsing for a parade.
W&B: Was it difficult to read about the life-and-death struggles of the people of Leningrad during the siege? What were your feelings when you saw the city, and the museum, in person? Were you able to tour all of the areas you wrote about such as the basement shelter?
DD: I never forgot that I was writing about real people who had suffered almost beyond imagining, and it was important to me to honor their lives by telling the truth as best I could. But there’s also a certain necessary detachment that sets in when you’re writing—I couldn’t have written the novel if I was weeping over my keyboard. So I was unprepared for the emotional tsunami that hit me when I went there. It was ridiculous, I was blubbering at every turn.
I wasn’t able to go into the basement shelter; it’s closed to the public and though the Hermitage was very accommodating, they didn’t see any compelling reason to open it to some American nobody. But they gave me a private tour guide, and when I asked to see the entrance to Bomb Shelter #3, she found a guard who knew where that would be. He took me to a window and pointed across the bare, muddy courtyard: there was a nondescript set of stairs disappearing below ground. Nothing special, but because I had never seen an image of it before, and so was not inured to it, the reality of the history just hit me between the eyes.
W&B: With its rich content, I am sure the book has attracted art historians who do not necessarily read literary fiction. Have you received feedback from anyone in this regard?
DD: When the book first came out, I had the honor of doing an evening in New York with curators from the Met and MoMA and the Whitney. It was fascinating because they related so personally to the story. Living in New York City after 9/11, I think the idea of the art in their care being threatened by war didn’t seem at all farfetched to them. You know, they all have disaster plans. I was also invited a few years ago to do an event with the docents at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati. I had never been to that museum, and it’s a little gem. I love being in the company of others who love art.
W&B: How did you choose which paintings to highlight in the narrative?
DD: Well, in the beginning, I was just writing these little descriptions of whatever caught my eye without any clear idea of how I would use them. It was an exercise, something to do at my writing desk to limber up, and I was limited to what was reproduced in the art books, what are regarded as the crown jewels of their collection. Once I decided that the paintings would serve as thematic bridges between Marina’s present and her past, then I chose paintings that could be related to something happening in the story. So, for instance, near the beginning of the novel, there is a snippet describing Fragonard’s The Stolen Kiss and that launches Marina back in her memory to her last evening with Dmitri before he went off to war. As the book developed and the Madonnas became more central to the theme, I started describing more of them.
W&B: “Memory palaces” have a long history in forms such as the Buddhist and Hindu mandalas, where multidimensional structures are created out of imagination. Where did you first learn of the “memory palaces,” and the tours docents gave of the empty museum? At what stage did you incorporate this idea into the story?
DD: I stumbled on the idea of the memory palace when I was looking for something else. (This is a reason to continue to do one’s own research, even when you have the opportunity for an assistant.) The Memory Palace is a mnemonic technique that has been in use since the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s a way to use one’s spatial and visual memory in support of memorizing text. You memorize a route through the rooms of a palace—or a museum or any place, really—and once you are familiar with that route, in your imagination you place successive lines of your speech along the route. So you might imagine placing the first line of the speech at the bottom of the stair rail, the second line on the bust at the top of the stair, etc. When you go to give the speech, you walk the palace in your imagination and retrieve the lines, one by one. Now, for Madonnas I gave it a twist in that Anya was teaching Marina to memorize paintings rather than text, but I loved that I had a literal palace, the Winter Palace.
W&B: Before writing this novel were you a student of history? You obviously believe that World War II stories are still important to tell. Why?
DD: I consider myself well educated, but there are embarrassing gaps and the Siege of Leningrad was one of them. I had never heard of it. Conservative estimates put the number of civilian deaths at about a million people, and I was astonished and chagrined: how could a million people have died and I hadn’t even heard about it? The easy answer is that I was a Cold War baby, and Soviet history was a big blank spot in the American education of my youth. But it points to the importance of telling these stories. The past can be buried so easily and once we’ve forgotten, it becomes that much easier to make the same mistakes all over again.
W&B: The book ends with the young Marina giving the cadets a tour of the museum, and the elderly Marina referring to herself as a madonna and showing “the world” to the young man who finds her. How did you come to this concluding scene and sentiment?
DD: Oh boy, I don’t know how to answer that one simply. I like to think that it took me the whole book to get there. I can say this, though, the idea of having Marina giving the tour to a carpenter in a half-built house, the credit for that goes to my husband. The scene in which Marina gives a tour to the cadets came fairly easily—I had known from the beginning that that was where I would end up—but once I had written it I realized that I also needed an ending for the contemporary story line and that somehow the two endings should conflate, the past and present overlapping. But I didn’t know how to pull that off. My husband Cliff and I were staying with my father on San Juan Island, the real-life Drake Island, and at the time all the Microsoft millionaires were building big summer homes there, and Cliff said, “Why don’t you have someone find Marina in one of those places?”
W&B: The book been translated into at least seventeen languages. Can we assume one of them was Russian? If so, what was the reaction of readers in Russia?
DD: Yeah, logic would suggest that Russian should be one of those languages, but sadly it’s not. I was told by my agent early on not to expect that; I think it has something to do with the degree to which copyright law is respected in Russia. It may also be some lingering skepticism about an American telling their story. However, the book has found its way over there. At first, it was tourists bringing over copies and leaving them with their hosts and guides. I get emails from Russians who have read the book in English, and their responses are very gratifying. According to them, I got it right, which is great to hear because you just never know when you’re writing about a culture that is not your own. The highest honor, though, is that I understand the docents at the museum now recommend the book on their tours.
W&B: Has there ever been discussion with the Hermitage of doing an edition that includes some of the paintings that are described? Or would including the paintings take away from the story?
DD: I don’t know if it was ever discussed here. The Korean language edition included beautiful plates of some of the paintings, but then the book becomes more expensive to print. I set myself the challenge when I was writing to describe the paintings in such a way that illustrations would be unnecessary; whether I succeeded is not for me to say. But I do think an illustrated edition would be great; I love picture books. And it would save readers from searching out the images on their own. It might be an e-book version with the option to open up the images if you wished.
W&B: The book is so imagistic; it is just teeming with visual possibilities. Would you like to see it translated into film? Has it been optioned?
DD: It’s funny, but I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about it’s being made into a film. If it happens, fine, but for me the story was complete when I finished writing it. I have been approached a few times. We were in negotiations for a couple of years with a Russian producer who had shot a film inside the Hermitage. I would have liked that one to work out, if only because it’s their story and it’s only right that it should be done there, but the money to make films in Russia has apparently gotten very tight. And I suspect this would be an expensive film.
W&B: You began your writing career with short fiction, then published a novel, and your last book, Confessions of a Falling Woman (2008) is short stories (many about actors and creative people, and also much praised by critics and readers). Can you describe the difference for you in writing the two forms?
DD: For me, writing short stories is like building a ship in a bottle. I enjoy that miniaturist kind of work, figuring out how to get something huge into as few words as possible. Novels are more forgiving in that sense, and they also allow the writer to go really deep, but they’re probably not my natural medium. I write sentence by sentence and it’s very hard for me to move on to the next sentence until I think I’ve got this one just right. It’s a terrible way to write a novel—you want to keep up a head of steam, a forward momentum, or you’ll never reach the end. I know that, but I can’t help myself. It’s why my novels are short.
W&B: What are your strategies for teaching writing? To what extent do you believe good writing can be taught?
DD: If I didn’t believe that good writing can be taught, it would be unforgivably cynical of me to do what I do. But such a large part of fiction writing is craft and technique, like learning to knit or make a hollandaise sauce or shoot from the free-throw line. Another large part is discipline, again something that can be, if not taught, encouraged. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The answer is no different for writers than it is for musicians. I think this question, whether writing can be taught, comes up so often because the truth is harder and less romantic than the myths of talent and inspiration, that the muse descends and anoints a chosen few. I’m not saying that inspiration and talent don’t exist—they’re the breath of life, the difference between good and great, the part you can’t teach—but alone, they won’t carry you to the end of a book.
W&B: How does teaching feed your writing and vice versa?
DD: I love teaching—it’s its own reward—but it feeds my writing only in the most literal sense that it takes the pressure off to write bestsellers. On the contrary, to do either one well, teaching or writing, requires all one’s attention and energy. So I continually feel as though I’m toggling back and forth, shortchanging first one and then the other. But maybe that’s just me being neurotic.
W&B: What can we look forward to reading from you in the near future?
DD: I have a novel coming out this summer called Xenia. It’s a reimagining of the life of one of Russia’s most beloved saints, a holy fool who lived in the time of Catherine the Great. I came across her when I was researching The Madonnas of Leningrad and became intrigued. I was raised Presbyterian, so for me saints are pretty over the top. But the fragments of her life were so compelling, extreme in the way only Russian stories can be, and at the same time human and familiar. She was widowed at age twenty-six and went mad with grief, gave away all her possessions, and then disappeared from St. Petersburg for eight years. When she showed up again, she was living on the streets, dressed in the rags of her husband’s military uniform, and answering only to his name. This, against the backdrop of the lavish excesses of the Russian court, the cross-dressing balls, the Italian castrati. As much as I was wary—all that research and in Russia again—how can you not want to follow that trail?