Interview with Debra Dean, author of “The Mirrored World”

Today is the release date of The Mirrored World, a novel which tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who became a holy fool and is revered for her charity to the poor.  I had the opportunity to meet Debra Dean at a book signing while at BEA, and I am delighted to be able to host an author interview with her today.

What inspired you to write “The Mirrored World”?

I was researching my first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, and I stumbled on the story of Xenia, this 18th century woman who gave up a life of relative ease to become a holy fool. I wondered, what kind of person becomes a saint? And just as importantly, what would it be like if you cared deeply for this person and you saw her turning onto such an extreme path?

What made you choose to write about Russia?

I can find no logical explanation for it, beyond the fact that Russia has amazing stories. I’m not Russian, I don’t speak or read Russian, and prior to completing The Madonnas of Leningrad, I had never even set foot in the country. My husband says I was Russian in a former life, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any.

Have your personal experiences impacted your writing in any way?

One of the things I love about writing fiction is that nothing in your life is wasted. Everything that happens to you – all of it, even the miserable stuff – can be put to use.

It’s hard to imagine a world more foreign to my life than the 18th century Russian setting of The Mirrored World, but there’s at least a little bit of me in all those characters. For instance, like Xenia and Dasha, I am a compulsive collector of feathers and pretty rocks and shells. We have feral peacocks in our neighborhood, and every time I find a feather, I feel like I’ve won a little prize.

What is the most challenging part of being a writer?

For me? Making the time, and then having the courage to show up when I do have the time.

What are some of your other interests?  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I have a lot of interests, but I’m afraid most of them get thrown under the bus in favor of whatever book I’m working on. That said, I still squirrel away a little time to practice yoga and to see friends and cook them the occasional dinner.

What are some of your favorite books?

The answer will change depending on what day you ask. Today, what comes to mind are Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson; James Salter’s Light Years; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Those are a little older. More recent books: I love Luis Urrea’s Hummingbird’s Daughter and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Oh, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I like reading slowly, so I gravitate to books that are image-rich and masterful in their use of language.


Debra Dean is the New York Times Bestselling author of “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and the award-winning short story collection “Confessions of a Falling Woman.”

5 thoughts on “Interview with Debra Dean, author of “The Mirrored World”

  1. Hi Grace
    Good interview. I actually read the Madonnas book for my book club at work a few months ago. I thought it was very interesting although I seem to remember wishing that it had had more detail about the siege which is something I’m really interested in.
    A bit like you I do enjoy reading literature set in Russia so I’ll have to check this out at some point. If my pile of books ever shrinks (not really likely!)
    Lynn 😀

    1. Thanks! I haven’t read the Madonnas; I don’t particularly want to, as my grandmother died of complications from Alzheimer’s. Reading it would most likely turn me into an emotional wreck for a few hours.

      I loved The Mirrored World; it was a neat exploration of an earlier period of Russian history than I normally study, and it was fascinating to see Xenia’s descent into madness and sainthood.

      The Siege of Leningrad is both interesting and horribly depressing. We went to the Blockade Museum when I studied in St. Petersburg, and it was one of the most memorable excursions of the entire trip. When we went into the building, everyone was joking around and laughing like normal college students. By the time we left, all of us were silent. It’s a rather heavy subject, and I’m surprised that it isn’t more widely studied in the States.

      1. It’s definitely ‘heavy’ but at the same time one of those periods in history that makes for compelling reading. I haven’t been to St Petersburg but it’s on my list!
        Lynn 😀

Comments make me happy! Please feel free to leave a reply.