The Rumpus Interview with Debra Dean
In spring 2012, I flew to Miami to interview for a position on the creative writing faculty at Florida International University. Debra Dean was the fiction writer most recently hired by FIU. I loved her alliterative name, the articulate way she spoke about her work, and the book trailer for her bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad. I was delighted to learn that she was born and raised in Seattle, just as I was, and that she had lived and worked in New York for a decade as an actress before commencing a literary and academic career. Beyond my own fantasy life as a sleuth, I had secretly dreamed of a career in acting since I was cast in the lead role of Psalty the Singing Hymnbook for the all-school musical in third grade. Even before we met, I was bursting at the seams with questions for Debra Dean.
Soon after, I found her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, and these I read voraciously. One in particular stood out from the rest. Written in first person present tense, “A Brief History of Us” reads with the authentic intimacy of the best creative nonfiction—the genre I was hired to teach. I couldn’t help but wonder if Debra was writing about herself:
My own small part in our history began in 1957. I was the first child of a young couple who bore a striking resemblance to Jack and Jackie. She was slender and quiet, always poised in her matching heels and pillbox hat. He was a go-getter, as handsome as a quarterback, smiling into his future. . . I was supposed to be a boy, but since I was not, they changed my name and had another child fifteen months later, also a girl, and then there was a miscarriage that we don’t talk about.
Two years later, Debra autographed this book for me. Awash in good fortune, I call her my colleague now. I call her my friend.
The Rumpus: When I talk to fellow writers about how they came to live a literary life, many tell me they “always knew” they were writers as far back as they can remember. Others tell me a particular event in their lives brought about the need to write or the discovery of a latent writing self. Still others tell me they stumbled into writing while intent on doing something else altogether. I’m curious to know how your awareness of yourself as a writer began. Epiphany? Slow dawning? Baptism by fire?
Debra Dean: In first grade, probably in response to some kindness from my teacher, I decided that I wanted be a poet when I grew up. Pretty quickly, though, I determined that this wasn’t a legitimate profession. Peculiar as I was, and remain, I was trained to be practical. I’m still amazed at the radical temerity of my friends, you included, Julie, who choose poetry as their vocation. I envy your faith.
As for fiction, everyone I read—Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and then Emily Bronte and Jane Austen— had been dead forever. I figured that to be a writer I would need to have been born in the nineteenth century, be British, or have three names. So I turned my sights elsewhere . . . to acting. Practicality continues to be a challenge for me—it’s at odds with being an artist. I actually had a career on stage in New York—not a brilliant career or I’d still be doing it—but I got enough work to keep my agent and my union health insurance. I met my husband, Cliff, when we were cast in a play together. Between jobs I found various ways to exercise my creativity, including writing stories. When the times between jobs got longer, I started thinking about what else I might do with my life, and because it was the ’80s in New York, I took this up with a therapist. And what we came up with was writing. It was a comically ill-advised career move because all the things about a life in the theater that I was trying to get away from—the financial insecurity, the bemusement of my family, the ego blows—are duplicated almost perfectly in the writing biz. But Cliff encouraged me to do it anyway. He is even less practical than me, thank God.
Rumpus: It’s true what you say about “the writing biz” and the uncertainties that accompany it. In fact, I’ve started making the distinction in my own life and with my students between the particular challenges and rewards of “writing” and those of “authoring.” It seems that you have a long history as a writer, but leaving the theater to explore the writing biz suggests a move into the more public life of an author. How did you go about this process? What practical—and impractical—choices did you make along the way? And what advice would you give to a professional in another field who has a passion for writing and is looking to build a life as an author?
Dean: When I left the theatre and turned to writing, one of the big pulls was that, unlike the theatre, I didn’t have to wait to be hired before I could do my art. That was huge. But you still have to figure out how to support your habit; it’s rare and lucky when art pays the bills. Along the way, I’ve worked as a waitress, I’ve done phone surveys, and worked as a receptionist, and for the last twenty years I’ve taught. When I was an actor, the key was to find a job that kept your days free to audition. As a writer, the ideal job is the one that allows you time and mental space away from it. Teaching seemed to me like the obvious choice—those summers off, you know – but my experience may serve as a cautionary tale. Before I got my present job, I spent many years teaching writing part-time, so-called, at community colleges and universities. It’s academia’s version of migrant labor. I worked every waking minute, nights and weekends, in order to make enough money to buy those summers off, and even then we wouldn’t have made it except that my mother helped out with a yearly check and my father bought me a car when my old one died.
If you have some other profession that allows you your evenings or weekends, terrific, stick with that. Having a profession other than writing also has the potential side benefit of providing you with material, something to write about. I tell my students, if you’re interested in marine biology or llama farming, follow that string. Yes, it will probably take you a longer time to write that book, but it’s not a race. That’s another great thing about being a writer: you don’t age out.
Rumpus: I remember reading once that mathematicians and musicians tend to peak early in their careers, while writers and philosophers produce their best work as they grow older. I don’t know if this is true in any statistically verifiable way, but I choose to believe our best work is always ahead of us!
Now, with respect to your second career in the literary arts, I’m wondering how you made the transition from writing for yourself to writing for an audience. What was your first publication? How were you initiated into the publishing world?
Dean: Whatever one may say about the perils of workshops, they help writers internalize an awareness of audience. I spent two years in the MFA program at the University of Oregon with my peers as readers, and then as I was graduating a couple of my stories went out into the world. The feminist journal Calyx took “Confessions of a Falling Woman,” which was a fairytale first publication. They put out gorgeous, artistic editions, and I felt like I was joining a sisterhood of other writers who had debuted there: Barbara Kingsolver, Sharon Olds, Julia Alvarez, Natalie Goldberg. Around the same time, I won an AWP Intro Journals Award with a story called “The Queen Mother” and it was published in Mid-American Review. Another thrill. And I thought, OK, I’m on my way! Both of those stories were later included in my short story collection [Confessions of a Falling Woman], but it would be another fifteen years before that book saw the light of day. Thank goodness I didn’t know it at the time.
Rumpus: I’ve always loved short stories, and even as I insisted that I was a poet throughout my childhood, stories were what I longed for, to read and to write. But I think even from a very early age I had a sense of the novel as the pinnacle of achievement for any writer. The idea of a “writer”—or at least a “real writer”—and a “novelist” were synonymous in my mind for a long time. Did you feel this way when you began writing for publication, thinking about your future audience? At what point did it become clear to you that there was a novel in your future? That you were in fact a novelist? And at what point did it become clear to you that the novel in question would be The Madonnas of Leningrad, your bestselling debut of 2006?
Dean: Oh, no, I loved short stories, and they were all I wanted to write. I love the compression of them and the exactitude needed to get a whole world into such a small space. Garrett Hongo, the head of the MFA program at Oregon, tried to warn me that I would need a novel first in order to get the stories published, but I was stubborn. I think I was also afraid of the novel. I write line by line, proceeding at snail’s pace, rewriting as I go and paring the excess away. This is against all the best advice for writing long form prose, and I have tried over the years to break myself of the habit, but I can’t bear to leave anything ungainly on the page and half the fun for me is that tinkering. So the length of a novel was a daunting prospect.
Instead, I kept writing short stories and sending out my manuscript, and it kept coming back like a bad penny. It was rejected all over town, quite often in very complimentary terms, but rejected nonetheless. Agents would return it saying that they loved it but didn’t think they could sell it, or they would ask if I could change the collection into linked stories. And then I got a piece of great good fortune: Marly Rusoff was starting her own agency, and she agreed to take me on as one of her first clients. I sent her some more stories, and then I sent her fifty pages of something I had been playing with for a long time. I had started it as a short story, set during the Siege of Leningrad, but it couldn’t be contained by the form and kept mushrooming out. I acknowledged to Marly that it should probably be a novel, but if she thought it would fit into the collection I could probably bludgeon it back into a short story. The idea of it being in the collection is laughable to me now—it was so completely different from anything I’d written up to that point. She wrote back to me and said, “I know you don’t want to write a novel but you have to write this one,” and then she told me that she was going to hold my stories until I was done and then market the two together. In effect, she was holding my short stories hostage. It was the push I needed. Once I had started, I discovered the secret pleasure of writing a novel. It’s such an immersive, deep commitment. With short stories, you’re continually having to start again from scratch, but with a novel you only need one good idea every few years.
Rumpus: I love so much the idea of a narrative that will not be contained, that insists on growing beyond the short story form! In the case of The Madonnas of Leningrad, how did you come upon the good idea to set this novel during the Siege of Leningrad? Were you always interested in Russian history? In the visual arts? In the nature of memory and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease? What role did research play in your writing process? And because I am a memoirist and a confessional poet must ask, what role, if any, did autobiographical elements play in your work on this novel, or in the short stories that would become Confessions of a Falling Woman?
Dean: The trajectory of my writing has moved further and further away from autobiography. My first stories in Confessions of a Falling Woman worked familiar territory—places I had lived, people I knew, my life as an actor in New York—and many were prompted by or grounded in personal experience. For instance, my first roommate in New York was an amateur puppeteer. One night, he did the open mic stand-up at Catch a Rising Star and included a riff about his slovenly roommate. That was the seed for the story “What the Left Hand is Saying.” An intruder held Cliff at knifepoint in our kitchen in Brooklyn, and that incident opens “Dan in the Gray Flannel Rat Suit.” Even when the events in the stories are entirely fictional, they are not too far from things I knew or had observed close at hand.
The Madonnas of Leningrad marked a departure for me. It came seemingly out of nowhere. On PBS one night I happened to find a three-part series on the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Part two was about the museum during the siege of Leningrad. After Germany’s surprise attack and over the few weeks leading up to the siege, the museum staff packed up the contents of the museum—1.2 million items of art—and these were shipped out of the city to an undisclosed location so they’d be safe from Hitler if he broke through the lines. They emptied the museum, but they left the empty frames hanging on the walls as a pledge that the art would return. On this program, there was a remarkable story about a curator who 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 so well that they could almost see them. When I heard this, a chill ran up my spine. I don’t usually know until much later why a story has taken hold of me, but I know enough to pay attention when it does and to follow that string.
If you had told me twenty years ago that I would write a novel set in Russia, much less two, I simply wouldn’t have believed you. I had no familiarity with Russia or its history, but part of what drives me as a reader, and more and more as a writer, is curiosity, the desire to explore unfamiliar terrain and inhabit alternate lives. In The Madonnas of Leningrad, the Soviet Union was my terra incognita, and Alzheimer’s was the interior counterpart. I had to do a tremendous amount of research to make Leningrad in 1941 a real place. I say “had to,” but really, research is part of the fun. As a counterbalance, I set the present-day half of the novel on a loosely fictionalized version of San Juan Island, a place that I know well and that has a deep emotional vibration for me. As for the Alzheimer’s, there was little research required. That, too, was personal. My beloved grandmother had been diagnosed with the disease not too long before I began writing the story, and it was my desire to know what she was experiencing that prompted that part of the storyline.
My last novel, The Mirrored World, is set in the same city as Madonnas but in the eighteenth century, and it’s loosely based on the life of a holy fool called St. Xenia. On the face of it, there is nothing autobiographical in it at all. Well, I gave the narrator my habit of collecting and saving rocks and feathers. Otherwise it’s all research and imagination. But what I’ve come to realize is that what comes out of one’s imagination can be as revealing as memoir. Fiction is a record of the writer’s obsessions and dreams.
Rumpus: Many fiction writers have shared with me the way their work gradually departed from the autobiographical and moved into uncharted territory, geographically, logistically, even emotionally. But in your evolution as a writer I also notice a progression toward the biographical, as in the case of St. Xenia. As your colleague at Florida International University, I’ve not only had the pleasure of hearing you read from The Mirrored World at the annual FIU Writers Conference in 2012, but this past year I’ve heard you read from new work on two occasions. As I understand it, your new book project is not “biographical fiction” or “imaginative biography” so much as it is a full cross-genre plunge into the nonfiction pool of “literary biography.” What are you able—and willing—to share about your new manuscript? What new joys and challenges accompany the move from fiction to nonfiction, and more precisely, to biography?
Dean: The book I’m working on is full-on nonfiction. It’s the story of three people who through extraordinary circumstances end up in a polygamous marriage. He was a World War II operative in the French and Belgian Resistance. The two women were best friends from childhood. Each endured their own traumas during the war, and afterwards they chose to make a life together as artists in Greenwich Village. He designed these gorgeous tapestries, and the two women wove them. It’s a fascinating and complicated story and one that I could never have written as fiction. No one would believe it.
With the historical fictions, I was already doing so much research, and so much of the stories was anchored by historical truth that the move to nonfiction didn’t feel all that dramatic—just another half-step to the right. If anything, I’ve found nonfiction a little easier. You don’t have to make anything up. Of course, that’s the inherent difficulty as well: when you hit an information black hole, you don’t get to make it up. That hasn’t come up too often with this project though. I’m lucky to have tons of primary source material , reams of letters and diaries and memoirs, as well as well over a hundred hours of interviews with the second wife, who still lives in the Village with her son. So it’s more a question of sifting and choosing and shaping. I’m having so much fun. In a way it’s like being an actor again: I’m in service to someone else’s story.
Rumpus: Here’s the part of the interview where I’d like to take a subjunctive turn. What if someone were going to write your biography, Debra? Which writer, living or dead, would you entrust to shape your story into literary prose? Perhaps you’d choose multiple writers for a collaborative effort? And since you are both an actor and a writer, which actor would you entrust to perform your story when said biography is made into a stage play or a film?
Dean: That requires quite an imaginative leap because it’s hard for me to imagine that my biography would be of much interest to anyone, and because I’m a fairly private person, the notion doesn’t appeal to me. I have great admiration and sympathy for Marianne, the living subject of my next book. She has opened up to share very personal things with me, all the while knowing that I’m going to expose her. The only comfort I can offer is that I won’t make her look foolish.
One of the nice things about moving from acting to writing is that your work can be in the public eye without having to be in the public eye yourself. I guess that’s not completely true. If you’re lucky—and I have been—there are book tours and lectures. I don’t have stage fright, and I enjoy meeting people, so that’s easy and enjoyable, but it’s not a constant, and it’s not celebrity. Unless you’re Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, no one’s going to recognize you on the street, and you’re promoting your book, not yourself. In the last few years, though, social media has blurred that line. When the last book was coming out, my publishers encouraged me to raise my social media profile. I just can’t fathom tweeting, and I’d rather spend my time writing a book than a blog, but I rather grudgingly agreed to a Facebook page. I had a brief, intense romance with Facebook. It’s weirdly addictive, but anything that time-sucking is a danger for a writer who writes as slowly as I do. Now I post only occasionally and nothing very confessional. I think I’m carbon dating myself as I speak.
The Rumpus: Fair enough, Debra. And this is a great answer to a question I hadn’t even thought to ask—concerning your relationship to the larger world of self-promotion and social media that all authors are expected to negotiate these days. So let me come at my original question another way: What body of work, or book, or scene, or snippet of dialogue or description—go as big or as small as you like—do you wish you had written, or at least about which you would say, “There! That’s it! That’s what I’m trying to do when I come to the page”? And the corollary question is this: What literary accomplishment of your own are you most proud of? Is there a passage from your own body of work that you can point to and say, “Here is what it’s all for!”
Dean: Ha, I was so unsettled by the premise of a biography about me that I missed the point of your question, which was focused on other writers. One of the books I read early on that made me want to be a writer was Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, in part because it was such a resonant evocation of the haunting, gloomy, spirituality of the Northwest landscape, where you and I and Ms. Robinson all grew up. That book was a lodestar for me. Then in 2004, she published her second novel, Gilead. I read it on a trip to meet with the folks at HarperCollins after they had bought The Madonnas of Leningrad. On the flight home, a red-eye from New York to Seattle, I finished the book somewhere over the Plains states where the novel is set. I was grateful it was three in the morning and everyone else on the plane was sleeping because I was a weepy, snot-nosed mess. Robinson had conveyed all the ache and beauty of the examined life in this clean, luminous prose, and as pleased as I was with Madonnas, I could see how far out ahead she was with this novel. It was unlike anything I had even seen before. It had been twenty-four years between her first and second novel—well worth the wait, in my humble opinion—and a part of me thought maybe we should all take a page from her book, so to speak, and just stop writing until we have something else brilliant to say. But genius has the opposite effect on me; it inspires me to keep trying.
I haven’t written anything yet that makes me think, This is it! and I don’t imagine I ever will. I don’t know how it is with you, but when I finish something, even when I’m pleased with the results, it never quite matches the shimmering vision that was out ahead of me as I wrote. I always think, OK, this is good, but I’ll do it better next time. “And so we beat on, boats against the current. . .” It may not be the recipe for a life of contentment, but that imperfectability is what makes writing such an engaging endeavor, something you can do for the rest of your life and not get bored.
Featured image © David Hiller.