Posts Tagged With: the mirrored world

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.”

Categories: Author Interviews, Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

“The Mirrored World” by Debra Dean

It is a peasant belief that, as we are all equal in God’s eyes, He must surely confer on fools unseen, compensatory gifts.  And so our peasants attend fools with great reverence and scrutinize their gibbering for veiled wisdom and prophecy.  Even the more enlightened prefer them in their charity over the ordinary poor.  For this reason, the streets are thick with counterfeit fools who don chains and profit by feigning madness.  The credulous lump all these together and call them the blessed ones.  Because I have known Xenia as she was–bequeathed every wordly advantage of wit, modesty, and riches–I know she is not a pretender.

I received a review copy of “The Mirrored World” while at Book Expo America, and I had the opportunity to meet with the author.  This book is a perfect fit for me, as I am a bit obsessed with Russia.  The book is scheduled to be released this August.

“The Mirrored World” is a novel by Debra Dean, who also wrote “The Madonnas of Leningrad.”  It tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who lived in the 18th century and was famous for her charity to the poor.

The story is told from the point of view of Dasha, Xenia’s cousin.  The girls grow up in the same household and are introduced to Petersburg society at the same time.  Xenia falls in love with Col. Andrei Petrov and marries him, but then a tragedy strikes and she begins her descent into madness.

The “holy fool” is a theme that is often found in Russian literature, because they are believed to be God’s chosen children.  Even the tsar can’t speak against them, and it is believed that their words contain wisdom.  It was both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Xenia go from a respectable woman of society to a holy fool who lives among the beggars, but at the same time we see that her transformation brings her a sense of peace and happiness that Dasha envies.

Dasha makes a perfect narrator because she is able to grow up in society but then drift on its outskirts.  She is able to observe, but is still independent enough that she can have an impartial view of what’s going on, both politically and in her relationship with Xenia.  I particularly enjoyed Dasha’s choice of husband (Spoiler:  He’s a eunuch).

Debra Dean’s writing contains a great deal of historical detail.  I was impressed by her knowledge of Russian history and culture.  One such detail that stood out to me (and which I researched later out of curiosity) was that tea wasn’t widespread in Russia until the 1730s when Catherine the Great began regularly importing it.  This story takes place before that, and so tea is treated as something special for rare occasions.

I also enjoyed the way that Debra Dean highlighted the excesses and corruption found at the Petersburg court.  Events such as the forced marriage of a jester show a lack of concern for the feelings of the common people, and we even get hints of Catherine becoming a slutty monarch as she takes the throne (note:  this is also historically accurate).

While parts of the story are sad, I didn’t find it depressing.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Russian history and culture, or for fans of historical fiction in general.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

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