LIANE HANSEN, host:
The new novel the Madonnas of Leningrad opens in 1941. The Nazis are about to lay siege to the Leningrad and the city's residents are taking refuge in the Hermitage Museum.
The paintings are being moved to safety but the frames remain. It is there we meet Marina, a young docent. The book then moves back and forth between World War II and the present day when Marina is about to attend her granddaughter's wedding. She has Alzheimer's disease and is lost in the memories of the past. The Madonnas of Leningrad is the first novel by Debra Dean, who was an actress in New York before she started to write, and she joins us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle, Washington. Welcome to the program, Debra.
Ms. DEBRA DEAN: Thank you very much.
HANSEN: What was the immediate inspiration for this book?
Ms. DEAN: I initially thought that I was going to write a short story about my grandmother who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and I was just fascinated by her experience with memory. She was losing her short term memory and forgetting words and repeating stories, but at the same time, paradoxically, her long term memory was becoming much more intense for her and she was telling stories that I had never heard before. And I rush to say she's not Russian. She's from the South, but I started writing that short story and then simultaneously I saw a three part special on PBS. I get to make my pitch here for public television. And it was on the Hermitage and particularly the period during the siege.
And there was a story about a curator who began to give tours of the empty museum to occasional visitors and he would take them and stand them in front of these empty frames and he would describe the paintings that had hung inside the frames. And people that were there said that he described them so well that they could see the paintings. And when I heard that, I just, I got a chill up my spine. I thought oh, this would be such a wonderful story.
HANSEN: When Marina is in the Hermitage and all of the refugees from the city are in there and she's going through the rooms and she starts rattling off the names of the paintings and a woman that's with her, Anya, says what are you doing, and she goes, well, I'm just remembering the paintings. And she says, oh, you are creating a memory palace. That's such a wonderful term. Is that one you made up?
Ms. DEAN: It's not. I found in the course of my research that this is a pneumonic device that was used pretty widely up until the advent of print. And it was invented by the Greeks as most wonderful things were. And you, it's a way to remember large pieces of text. And you go through a series of rooms. A palace works best, as Anya says, but any building that has lots of rooms, and you start by memorizing the actual place. And then you come back and you take bits of the text and you in your imagination place them in different parts of the rooms. And then you can return in your memory and walk through the rooms and recall the text.
So she goes through the actual palace, a real palace, and memorizes paintings rather than text.
HANSEN: Are you playing with the memories of the readers as well? Let me give you an example. At one point the elder Marina, she's getting ready to go to the wedding and she's trying to find a pair of earrings. And she can't remember the word for earrings but she does know that they're ruby and that there's filigree. Later on, I mean way toward the end of the novel, we find out that those earrings had actually been sold. So in other words, we have to remember back to the beginning of the book when the elder Marina was looking for them. And so there's a question that to a certain extent are you playing a little bit with the memories of your readers?
Ms. DEAN: Well I was trying to write from the inside of somebody in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and so the experience of reading the novel I hope in some way duplicates that experience. So there are things that are not in the novel because the character doesn't remember them, and there are switches back and forth between the two time periods that are a little bit jarring sometimes. And so you do have to kind of go on a ride. It's not a completely comfortable read in that sense.
HANSEN: Because sometimes you're not sure what's true memory.
Ms. DEAN: Yeah, what's true, what's not true. It's not always clear. There's a couple of incidences in the novel. There's a scene in the novel that where there's a statute that transforms itself into a god on the roof of the museum. And there's a scene there that can be interpreted in two or three different ways. And I wrote it specifically to be, for the reader to have equally plausible readings of it. And when Harper Collins bought it, my editor said, well, Debra what really happened?
And I said, oh, I can't tell you. And she said, oh, you can tell me, I'm your editor. Like she's not going to tell anybody else. And so I made the mistake of saying, well, here's what I think happened. And she was really disappointed by my answer. So I don't tell anybody any more.
HANSEN: About what really happened just, just . . .
Ms. DEAN: Yeah, I don't know what really happened either. I come at this as a reader.
HANSEN: Well, you know, you're writing, was she impregnated by a god? Was it all an illusion? You kind of create this, you know, we don't really know what happened to her on the roof and we're not quite sure if her husband, Demetri, who is a young soldier that she met in Leningrad in 1941, is the father of the son. Again, you create all these sort of unknowns.
Ms. DEAN: Well, and that's purposeful, and that goes back to the theme of the Madonnas, because she is acting as a Madonna figure, and I think that the truth of the impregnation, whether she was impregnated by a God or not, is in a way so secondary, and what really happened isn't nearly as important as the miracle of the life itself.
HANSEN: Did you learn new things from your grandmother once she had Alzheimer's disease and perhaps herself when she was living in her own past?
Ms. DEAN: I learned a lot of things. She was a woman that didn't talk a lot about the past until she got the Alzheimer's and that really loosened her tongue and she started telling all these stories about her childhood. Some of them I had never heard before and her kids had never heard before. And some of them would start off sounding very plausible, and then at one point they would segue into magical realism. And we were never really sure which ones were true and which ones weren't.
And then after my grandfather died, there was nobody to fact check with.
HANSEN: What memories do you think you're going to retain about writing the book?
Ms. DEAN: One of the things that was most fascinating to me was going to St. Petersburg after I wrote the book, as counter-intuitive as this sounds, I did not go before I finished the book, I couldn't afford it. And then once the book was sold, I got to go and see the city before I turned in the final manuscript, make sure I got it all right. And it was the most amazing déjà vu experience because I'd never been there but I'd been studying maps. I'd been looking at photographs and studying the museum. And I got to this city and I knew my way around. I recognized things. And not to sound too whoo, but people started showing up that reminded me of people in the novel. So it was just, I'll never forget that.
HANSEN: The Madonnas of Leningrad is Debra Dean's debut novel and it's published by William Morrow. Debra Dean joined us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle, Washington. Debra, thank you so much. Good luck with this.
Ms. DEAN: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: You can read an excerpt from the Madonnas of Leningrad at our website, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.