A couple of days ago, in my review of The Mirrored World, I announced an interview with Debra DEAN, the author of this rather unique book. AND, this is my very first author interview, I believe!
Debra is a teacher, and she is really extra busy these days with the tour for her book (be sure to check dates and places: she might be coming to your town!), so I’m extremely grateful she took time to answer the questions I sent her by email. We didn’t have time for a real conversation, so I added a few comments here and there. My questions and comments are in orange.
Do you have any favorite authors or favorite books? Is your writing style similar to theirs?
I have lots of favorites, so my answer changes, depending on when you catch me. But always in the mix are John Updike and John Cheever, Ann Patchett, Michael Cunningham, Ian McEwan – I’m drawn to stylists who are also deep feeling. In the sense that I love a well-crafted sentence, my writing is similar, though I would blush to put myself in their company.
Isn’t it the same for all of you bloggers? I keep discovering fantastic writers, and the ones I called my favorites last year may be beaten by more recent favorites! But what all my favorite authors have in common is always excellent writing skills. That explains why Ann Patchett is definitely high on my list!
How has writing affected your reading of other books?
Sometimes I read very consciously as a writer. Do you remember in The Wizard of Oz, when Toto pulls back the curtain and we see that the wizard is a little old man turning a lot of dials and levels to make that magic happen on the big screen? Reading like a writer is similar: you must look past the pyrotechnics to see how the effect is achieved. So sometimes I’ll pay attention to how an author is constructing the plot or how she is handling the point of view. But if it’s something I’m reading for pleasure, I usually like to just relax into the story and let it carry me along.
Nice image! But I imagine that may not be so easy to just dive into a book without thinking how he/she did that!
Do you remember the first thing you wrote? How old were you?
I don’t know if it was the first thing I wrote, but I remember writing a story in the first grade involving fairies and toadstools. Half the fun was illustrating it.
Hmm…, maybe one day we’ll have a book written AND illustrated by Debra Dean?
Were you always good at writing?
This sounds immodest, but yes, I was. It comes from being a compulsive reader. More than once, I was falsely accused by teachers of plagiarism because they assumed I couldn’t possibly have written the paper I turned in. Weirdly, this also happened in a French class where I had been in danger of getting a very poor grade because I couldn’t remember the tenses and declensions. Once the work shifted from memorization and speaking to writing, I was in my element.
Did you dream of being a published author one day? Did you think this would ever happen?
Most of the authors I read as a young person had been long dead – Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, and then the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen – so it never occurred to me that being an author was still a viable profession. I didn’t know of any living authors. This continued for the longest time – even in college, we read the classics. As much as I loved reading, I didn’t write with the idea of being published until I was in my thirties. And even then, my expectations for being published were fairly modest. I had been an actress and was well-acquainted with the struggles attendant on being an artist in this country.
How funny! Just like young people who dream they lived in the Middle Ages, because they want to be monks/nuns, and they think this species no longer exists!!
In an interview for Historical Tapestry, to try to explain why your two novels take place in Russia, you reported that your husband said you were Russian in a former life! What about your faith, if I may ask. I am Russian Orthodox myself, and that’s why I was so eager to see what a novelist can say about st Xenia: this is so very unusual to find Orthodox saints as main characters of novels. And I was impressed with the accuracy of all your details pertaining to the Orthodox faith and practices, prayers included, etc. Are you Orthodox yourself? If not, do you have some Orthodox friends? How did you research that aspect of your book?
Well, my husband was joking, at least a little. But I’m glad to hear that you, as an Orthodox person, find the depiction of Orthodoxy convincing. I’m not Orthodox myself, nor am I Russian, so it is all research and imagination. However, I do find myself very drawn to Orthodoxy. When I attended church services in Russia and when I visited the monks at the Nevsky monastery, I couldn’t stop weeping. There is some connection there that I can’t explain. On the other hand, I think Dasha, the narrator, exists precisely because Xenia remained something of a mystery for me. I couldn’t presume to tell the story from the point of view of a saint. So the story is equally about Dasha, who is trying to make sense of this person she loves but doesn’t completely understand.
Very interesting perspective!
How do you name your characters? Do you give any thought to the actual meaning of their names? (I’m thinking here of characters other than Xenia herself of course.)
In The Mirrored World, Xenia is only one of the historical figures. But with the characters I created and named, I tried to find names that were historically accurate but would not be too challenging for an American reader to pronounce and remember. If my story is set in America, with American characters, the process is less conscious: they have placeholder names that usually change after I get to know them, and for reasons that I can’t fully explain. This person just starts to seem like a Nadine or a Joshua.
What is a typical working day like for you? When and where do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal, with a set number of hours, or of words?
My writing schedule depends on the time of year. I’m a teacher, so during the school year, though I try to set aside three days a week for writing, it’s catch as catch can. During the summers, I’m on a more regular daily routine. I don’t have goals beyond just showing up fairly early in the day; once I get started, I’m usually happily absorbed for several hours.
What’s the best thing about being an author?
Everything that you experience in life – the good and even especially the bad – is potentially of use to you as a writer. Nothing is wasted. That may be the best thing, but one of the other things that I appreciate about writing is the fact that you can never completely master it; it remains an interesting challenge all one’s life.
Wow, this is such a rich view of the life of an author, thanks!
Do you have any advice for an aspiring writer?
Read. Read widely and read the best. Challenge yourself to read great writing. I find it rather discouraging that so many of my students who want to be writers don’t have any models beyond the Harry Potter and Twilight series. Those books are okay for what they are – light entertainment – but they are not great literature and they won’t help you grow as a writer.
I would like to shout this to everyone out there, potential writers and all!
What are you working on now? Where will your next novel be set?
The next book isn’t a novel; it’s a non-fiction account of three people, artists, who lived an extraordinary life together spanning World War II in Europe and then Greenwich Village in the Fifties and Sixties. I’m being a little evasive here – as excited as I am about this one and as much as I would like to tell you all about, it’s not a good idea for me to talk much about what I’m working on.
I understand totally, and this is enough to make me looking forward to reading it!
Thanks so much again Debra for giving of your precious time for this interview!
ANYTHING DEBRA DEAN SAID HERE
THAT RANG A BELL WITH YOU?