One night in 1995, I happened to catch a 3-part series on PBS about the Hermitage Museum. Part 2 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 left the empty frames hanging on the walls as a pledge that the art would return. When the bombing started, the staff members and their families —some 2000 people — moved into the bomb shelters underneath the empty museum and lived there through the first winter of the war.
On 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 prophetically, in parentheses afterwards: “or a novel, but for the research.”
I neither speak nor read Russian. Prior to seeing this program, I had never even heard of the Siege of Leningrad. I knew next to nothing about Russia’s role in World War II. In fact, I had never set foot in the country. I was supremely unqualified to write the novel. If I had fully believed that anyone would ever publish it, I might never have had the nerve to attempt it. But I was captivated by what little I knew.
In a conversation I had a few months ago with Isabel Allende, she compared research to foreplay. “Writing the novel won’t take that long,” she said. “It’s like intercourse . . . but research is the interesting part.” This turns out to be especially true when one is reading about Russia. I won’t claim that Russians have cornered the market on amazing stories, but there is something in the culture that embraces the outsized, whether that excess is of courage or cruelty or pleasure. Perhaps in a country so vast, human emotion and experience must be sized accordingly.
Nearly ten years after I first watched that PBS program, I finally finished writing The Madonnas of Leningrad and turned my thoughts to the next book. In my research, I had come across a footnote about a woman named Xenia who lived in the same city, but two hundred years earlier when it was called St. Petersburg. She was married to a singer in the Imperial choir of Empress Elizabeth. When she was twenty-six, he died suddenly, and she went mad with grief. She began to give away everything she owned and . . . No, I told myself. Stop right there. Not Russia again. Once was hubris enough. But it was too late. Already, I was sneaking peaks into history, studying what little was known of Xenia and finding out about Russian court life: the Italian castrati, the language of fans, and Empress Elizabeth’s affinity for cross-dressing balls. Then imagining the state of mind that leads someone away from all that and down the hard path to sainthood.
Perhaps I have developed an affinity for this faraway place precisely because it is both strange and yet deeply, soulfully familiar. Perhaps my muse is Russian. If one is lucky enough to get swept away, perhaps it is best not to examine too closely the whys, and just surrender gratefully to the work.
Her new novel, The Mirrored World, comes out August 28.
A native of Seattle, she lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. Follow her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/debradeanauthor
Early Praise for The Mirrored World:
"With evocative, rich prose and deep emotional resonance, Debra Dean delivers a compelling and captivating story that touches the soul. Truly a wonderful read." Garth Stein, bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
“Dean’s novel grows more profound and affecting with every page.” Booklist
“For those familiar with the story of St. Xenia, this is a gratifying take on a compelling woman. For others, Dean’s vivid prose and deft pacing make for a quick and entertaining read.” Publishers Weekly
“Transporting readers to St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, Dean brilliantly reconstructs and reimagines the life of St. Xenia, one of Russia’s most revered and mysterious holy figures, in a richly told and thought-provoking work of historical fiction that recounts the unlikely transformation of a young girl, a child of privilege, into a saint beloved by the poor.” Book Reporter You can read Marg's review of The Mirrored World here, and also enter into a giveaway of the book!