Debra Dean, The Madonna's Of Leningrad
I began this book on the way home from my vacation and read it in one day. Debra Dean depicts a vivid image of war- torn Russia, of the slow destruction of the Hermitage and the people whose lives are changed by war. Her writing is so full and dramatic, you cannot help but conjure up images of the very paintings she writes about.
Being a huge fan of painting and art, I especially enjoyed the glimpses of the paintings Debra richly describes, it's as if you are being given a personally guided tour. This is not a book for those of you looking for a humorous, beachy read. The Madonna’s of Leningrad is a serious novel, heavy in content and tone. Debra Dean’s writing is lovely and poetic and there is no doubt she has talent. It's hard to believe this is her debut novel.
I enjoyed the details and history you provide for the reader being as it is a part of the past I don't know much about. I have a much greater understanding and curiosity after reading The Madonna's of Leningrad.
How long did the research process take you? How did you go about such a daunting task as gaining detailed insight into the paintings of the Hermitage as well as the history of those affected by war?
There’s that old saw of creative writing classes, “Write what you know.” One could hardly be less knowledgeable about a subject, going in, than I was, but I loved doing the research. It’s a wonderful diversion when the writing gets jammed up to be able to turn to a book and read for awhile.
When I started researching, Google was not my default mode, so I went to the university library and used interlibrary loan to borrow histories of the war and journals of the siege and art books about the Hermitage collection. About midway through three years of researching, the Hermitage constructed a wonderful website – at least, I like to think it wasn’t there all along. I remember coming home one afternoon, absolutely giddy, and telling my husband, “there’s a website, and you can click on a map of the museum and it brings up revolving video of each room you want to look at.” Up until then, I had been trying to reconstruct the museum in my head with the books, a pretty impossible task.
From beginning to end, how long did it take you to write the novel? And how many agents did you submit to until you signed a contract for representation?
The germ of this novel was a short story I started in 1995. It quickly became apparent to me that the scope of the story was too large to be contained in the short form, but I couldn’t imagine how my life would allow space to write a novel, so I put it away. It continued to reemerge, to pester me, though.
When I finally decided to commit to the novel, I wrote it over three summers between teaching, and bought myself one spring term to finish it off. I already had an agent – she had taken me on when all I had was a collection of short stories and no promise of a novel – and she encouraged me to pursue this book. It took me a long time to write it, but when it was done, it sold over a long weekend.
What inspired you to write about Russian history? Did you always have an interest in this era?
I saw a documentary on PBS on the Hermitage Museum, and I was stunned to hear about this brilliant collection of art, and this amazing history of the siege. I had read Russian literature - Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Pushkin - but beyond a pass at Solzhenitsyn, I was unfamiliar with the Soviet period. I think it’s partly a function of being a Cold War baby.
If you could hop into a time machine and travel to another time period, what era would you choose to visit and why? I love the innocence of the fifties and the way the everything changed going into the sixties.
I have to choose one time? When I lived in New York, I had recurring fantasies about being able to time travel there (I loved the Jack Finney novel), but I wanted to stop at each decade. I’m greedy that way. It’s why I was a bookworm as a child – I wanted to go everywhere. Having said that, I don’t know that I’d want to stay in most parts of history for more than a short visit. I really like hot showers and good dental care and having choices.
The book deals with heavy themes such as war and mental illness. Inside Marina's brain she was living in another world, another time and place and it was really sad. Sadder is that many are affected by the disease with no cure or understanding.
Did you study Alzheimers or know anyone who has been affected by this disease? And I wish Marina had shared her story with her daughter, Helen. Why didn't she?
I did a little research on Alzheimer’s, but unfortunately, most of what I know, I observed first hand: my grandmother died of the disease.
I wish Marina had shared her story with her daughter, too. But characters don’t always behave the way we might wish, any more than living people do. Marina and Dmitri, like so many immigrants of their generation, turned their back on a painful past and started over.
I think this is even more the norm with those who came of age under the repression of Stalin: many of the oral histories of the women who survived the siege have really only come to light in the past few years. I met a woman in St. Petersburg whose grandmother survived the siege, though she lost three children to starvation. She told me that as a child, she asked her grandmother if she had eaten people, but the grandmother would say only that terrible things happened.
The book was not light and silly. Are you a serious person? I'm guessing you are rather introverted, probably the quiet person standing alone, making observations at parties…?
I met a group of booksellers last fall in San Francisco, and one of them remarked that I wasn’t at all who she had expected, given my book. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask how I was different, but I suspect people are a little surprised to find that I have a sense of humor. I was an actress, so I learned to be comfortable in the public arena. But I’m also very private; I need quiet time to recoup.
What topics interest you for future novels? Can you tell me what you are working on right now?
This is where I’m going to be private and introverted! I do have an idea for the next novel that I’m playing with, but it is still in the early, amorphous stages, and talking about it commits me in ways that aren’t good for the writing