Debra Dean: The Mirrored World

Debra Dean’s bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award. Her new novel, The Mirrored World, is a breathtaking tale of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagance and artifice of the royal court in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

Debra was interviewed by Fabienne Josaphat for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Fabienne Josaphat: You must be asked this question a lot, but why historical fiction among all genres? How do you define it and what attracts you to fiction in a historical context?

Debra Dean: When the first review came out that referred to The Madonnas of Leningrad as historical fiction, I was mildly indignant. I equated the term with trashy bodice rippers. I don’t think of myself as a genre writer, but I’ve since made peace with the term and even come around to thinking of it as something of a badge of honor. There’s an extra level of difficulty in writing fiction that is set outside your own time and place. You first have to learn the period down to the small minutiae – a good lie depends on the getting the details right – and then you have to set aside all that you’ve just learned and tell the story. It’s why teachers so often counsel novice writers to write what they know.

FJ: The Mirrored World takes place in 18th Century Russia, and your first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, speaks of the life of a Russian emigre in modern America. What draws you to that specific heritage and history?

DD: There’s no logic to why both my novels are set in Russia. I’m not Russian; I don’t read or write the language; when I wrote the first one, The Madonnas of Leningrad, I had never even set foot in the country. I came across a curious bit of history, and it happened in Russia. Who knows? It may be that part of what drew me initially was the very strangeness and unfamiliarity of the culture. The new novel, The Mirrored World, was inspired by a footnote I came across while I was researching the first novel, so I suppose there’s some logic there: my gaze was on Russia for many years.

FJ: Why choose the story of Xenia? What attracted you to this particular figure?

DD: I think there’s a good argument to be made for the notion that our stories choose us and not the other way around. Initially, I was dead set against the idea of writing another novel set in Russia, but I was simultaneously intrigued by what little was known about Saint Xenia. She was born into the minor nobility and was married to a singer in Empress Elizabeth’s court. Legend has it that they were madly in love, but he died suddenly when she was twenty-six, and she went mad with grief. She gave away everything she owned and disappeared from St. Petersburg for eight years. When she reappeared, she was living on the streets of the worst slum of the city, dressed in the rags of her husband’s military uniform and answering to his name.

She was credited with miracles, healing and foretelling the future.

But the triggering curiosity for me was the question ‘what kind of person does this?’ I wasn’t raised in the Catholic or Orthodox faith, so saints have always seemed a bit mythical, like super heroes. If we were to meet a saint today, would we write her off as crazy? I won’t claim that I’ve laid bare the mystery of Xenia – I didn’t answer my own question with this novel – but the most interesting questions never get answered definitively.

FJ: In terms of research, how challenging was it to delve into her background, especially one that stems from 18th Century Russia?

DD: One of the challenges of setting a story in 18th century Russia is that up until the very end of the century, the country was largely illiterate. Outside of the court, people weren’t writing a lot of letters or recording the kinds of minutiae that novelists need to know: how people spent their days, what they ate, what they thought about. But half the fun of writing historical fiction is the scavenger hunt.

FJ: How did you decide where to weave in the fiction when Xenia herself was real? Was there any point in the writing where “Fact vs Fiction” left you stumped?

DD: There isn’t a shred of documented fact about Xenia. We know that she lived, but everything else is up for grabs. I was faithful to the hagiography – the stories repeatedly told about her – but that still left me with a lot of room for conjecture and invention.

FJ: I was interested in how Dasha became your narrator instead of Xenia. How was Dasha born in the author’s mind? Or was she indeed THE relative in question to whom Xenia left her house?

DD: That’s an excellent question. One of the commonalities between my two novels is that the protagonist’s mental state limits her abilities as a reliable narrator. In The Madonnas of Leningrad, Marina is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; in The Mirrored World, Xenia’s mental state – whether it is madness or spiritual enlightenment – is a central question of the novel. So I decided early on that the narration should fall to her cousin and friend, Dasha, whom I invented. Dasha represents the voice of reason, the sensible, timid foil to Xenia’s wildness. Really, the novel is about each of them equally. Together they illustrate an oft-debated question in the 18th century: what is the proper balance of reason and passion? It’s also a personal question for me because, like Dasha, I sometimes let caution and fear get the better of me. We all want to live passionately, but there are inherent risks.

FJ: The details in this novel are extremely rich, from clothing to food to music, but specifically the attention brought to religious rites and prayers. Tell us a bit about your research in that aspect.

DD: Well, thank you; it was actually relatively easy because Orthodox rites and liturgy have remained largely unchanged over the centuries. Of course, I’m not Orthodox and so there’s a chance that I’ve gotten it wrong – not the liturgy or doctrine so much as the outlook of the faithful. I think there’s always a significant gap between a religion in the abstract and the ways in which it is actually practiced on the ground.

FJ: We see an early influence of religion over residents of St. Petersburg and how it affects characters in the book. Tell us about the term “holy fool?”

DD: When I was St. Petersburg back in 2005, I remember being struck by how inextricably Orthodoxy is woven into the fabric of the culture. Stalin was out of his mind thinking he could eradicate it.

The “holy fool” predated Christianity in Russia. The closest Western equivalent would be the Native American shaman, and they probably have the same roots, coming down out of Siberia. These were people our present culture would probably write off as crazy, but in their time they were credited with powers of healing and prognostication. Even the tsars feared and respected them.

So when Orthodoxy came to Russia, the Church had to make an uncomfortable truce with these popular figures, and what they came up with was this: the holy fools were ascetics who went beyond giving up their material possessions; they also voluntarily renounced their reason, so that they might more fully experience the humility of Christ.

Because the holy fools were so respected, ordinary homeless people started pretending to be mad so they could get more handouts. Eventually, the streets of St. Petersburg were thick with crazies and crazy wannabes, and it became such a public embarrassment to Catherine the Great that she tried to solve the problem by outlawing almsgiving.

This ambiguity about who is or is not rational is compelling to me as a writer.

FJ: I always wonder, in the case of historical fiction especially, how writing a piece affects the writer. How has The Mirrored World affected you as an author (learning, changing the way you see life and history and experiences)? How have Xenia and also Dasha affected you?

DD: Ooh, another great question! When I write, I inevitably end up exploring issues and questions that feel personally urgent to me. When I lived in New York in the Eighties, it was talk therapy, but now I write. The difference is that there’s no therapist to tell me what it all means. But because of Dasha and Xenia, I’ve spent a lot more time over the last several years thinking about risk versus security, about where my happiness really lay, and trying to challenge myself to stick my toes a bit further over the edge.

FJ: I’m very curious about the title. Why “The Mirrored World?” Do you see the modern world as a reflection as this ancient world somehow? Or is it much different? How so?

DD: Titles are collaborative efforts between the author and the publisher, and my publisher wasn’t crazy about my first several choices. Understandably, they wanted something that would help sell the book. I wanted something that was true to the heart of the story. We finally found The Mirrored World. It’s not on the nose, but I’m very happy with it because it comments on the culture of the Russian court, which was obsessively artificial and self-conscious. It was literally and figuratively a hall of mirrors, and all about excess; they made the court of Versailles look almost austere by comparison. In stark contrast was Xenia who gave up the material world for the spiritual. Which one is more real?

FJ: What shall we expect next from Debra Dean? Another novel in the works? Or non-fiction?

DD: It’s generally a bad idea to talk about the story while you’re still writing it; you can end up talking it all out of your system. Which is exactly what I’ve been risking, cornering whoever will listen and blathering on and on. So I’m going to practice a tardy bit of discretion and just say that it’s non-fiction, a biography of sorts. And really, really, really cool.

A native of Seattle, Debra  lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. Follow her on Facebook.


  1. I adore your own writing fashion, good facts, thankyou with regard to submitting: Deborah


  1. […] John Dufresne (morning writing exercises); Lynne Barrett (revision); Campbell McGrath (poetry); Debra Dean (novel writing);  Julie Marie Wade (memoir); and the previously guest faculty members short story […]

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