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, and her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award. The Seattle Times calls her second novel, The Mirrored World, “a resonant and compelling tale” and says “Dean’s writing is superb; she uses imagery natural to the story and an earlier time.” I love her writing, and I love the story of how she got into print. Enjoy! – Meg
“You know how it is,” the poet Rumi writes. “Sometimes we plan a trip to one place, but something takes us to another.” He is talking about the path of our intentions, and it is also an apt description of the journey toward my first book.
When I was in my late twenties, I went to see an astrologer who was also a psychic. She looked over my chart and said, “You could write books, but I don’t see this happening until you’re in your forties. Let’s see if we can speed that up.”
At the time, I was a theatre actress living in New York, not a big success but not failing exactly either. I had an agent who returned my calls. I got just enough work to keep qualifying for my union health insurance, so by the standards of an industry where the unemployment rate averages 92%, I was doing okay. By any other standard, not so much. Still, I had no aspirations to be a writer, so I promptly forgot the astrologer’s advice.
I followed my own increasingly uphill path, and continued to cast about for what else I might do besides act. I had spent ten years pretending to be other people, which isn’t considered a transferable job skill. In fact, I finally realized, the only other profession where this might be viewed as valuable experience is writing fiction.
In most ways it was a comically ill-advised career move because the pitfalls of writing as a vocation are nearly identical to those in acting: for the vast majority, the pay is lousy, there’s no job security, and it can be humiliating trying to explain to relatives and new acquaintances what you do and why. There is one difference, though – and this was key for me – you don’t have to be hired before you can work.
I went back to school, got my MFA, and started teaching composition at a community college to support my writing habit. As a so-called part-timer, I eked out fifteen thousand a year for a full course load and saved up enough money to buy my summers off. During those precious three months, I wrote stories populated by characters similar to me and people I knew, many of them actors, many of them hanging on by a pinkie. Some of these stories were published in literary magazines, each publication like a cup of water in the desert. Eventually, though, I grudgingly accepted what my advisers in graduate school had told me: if I wanted a book, I would have to write a novel.
I took a year off from teaching and set to work. I had an idea that I thought might make a good novel. I was wrong. Try as I might – and I have never tried harder in my life – it was a short story . . . okay, a long one, but decidedly not a novel. At the end of a year of struggle and misery, I admitted defeat and went back to teaching comp. I kept writing but gave up the hope that anything I wrote was going to change my life.
I started working on a piece inspired by a series I caught on PBS one night and set in the basement of the Hermitage Museum during the siege of Leningrad. It seemed like a good idea for a short story, but it kept getting longer. When it threatened to become a novel, I put it away, telling myself that I didn’t have the time to do the necessary research. In truth, what I lacked even more than time was courage. I couldn’t bear to fail again.
A few more years passed. And then I caught a lucky break. An agent agreed to take me on with only my short stories and no promise of a novel. (Later in the poem, Rumi says, “But sometimes, your plans work out! You feel fulfilled and in control. That’s because, if you were always failing, you might give up.”) Finally, finally, I was going to get that book. I sent her my best stories, and then on a whim threw in the fifty pages I had written about the Hermitage. “This should probably be a novel,” I confessed, “but if you think it might fit into the collection, maybe I could bludgeon it back into a story.”
Her response took me aback: “I know you don’t want to write a novel, but you have to write this.” She said that she was going to hold on to my story collection until I was finished and then market the two as a package.
My car was falling apart. I had really hoped she would sell the stories for enough money to buy a slightly newer clunker. But this was the kick I needed. I started writing The Madonnas of Leningrad because my short stories were being held hostage, but to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the act of writing again. The story unfolded in directions I had not anticipated, and I went along for the ride. I began to understand why the Greeks had believed in the muses: this was not an act of will, but one of faith. I did not know exactly where I was going, but I no longer needed to know.
Three summers later, I wrote the last words of the novel and sent them off to my agent. School was about to start up, and I figured I would pick it up again in the spring and revise. Unbeknownst to me, she sent the manuscript to a handful of editors that Friday, one of whom called her on Monday morning and asked how much she wanted to circumvent a bidding war. My agent said, “Change her life.” Fortunately, the editor had no idea what a small sum would have accomplished that.
So what’s the moral of this story beyond ‘be foolish and lucky’?
Joan Acocella, the arts critic for The New Yorker, claims that “What allows genius to flower is not neurosis but its opposite . . . ordinary Sunday school virtues such as tenacity and above all the ability to survive disappointment.” She goes on to talk about how the work of an artist evolves through disappointment and rejection. It strips away our facades, our glibness. If we can endure it, that pain makes us more sensitive to the world.
I make no claim to genius, but I do know this: I couldn’t have written The Madonnas of Leningrad had I been a successful wunderkind. Ultimately, it is a novel about surviving against the odds, and about the things that sustain us when our world falls apart.
At the end of Rumi’s poem – it is called “Desire and the Importance of Failing” – he observes, “Failure is the key to the kingdom within.”
When the time came to start the next novel, I repeated this pattern: write for a long time, fail miserably, cry for a week, pick myself up, start again. I wish I knew of an easier way, but when I am following the story, when the sentences are unwinding in front of me, there is bliss enough here to carry me over the rough when it comes. – Debra