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Interview with Debra Dean

Debra Dean is the bestselling author of four critically acclaimed books that have been published in twenty-one languages. Her debut,,The Madonnas of Leningrad was a New York Times Editors’ Choice novel, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It was long listed for the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award. Confessions of a Falling Woman, a collection of short fiction, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award.

Debra was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. The daughter of a builder and homemaker and artist, she was a bookworm but never imagined becoming a writer. “Growing up, I read Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jane Austen, and the Brontës. Until I left college, I rarely read anyone who hadn’t been dead for at least fifty years, so I had no model for writing books as something that people still did. I think subconsciously I figured you needed three names or at the very least a British accent”

At Whitman College, she double-majored in English and drama. “If you can imagine anyone being this naïve, I figured if the acting thing didn’t work out, I’d have the English major to fall back on.” After college, she moved to New York and spent two years at the Neighborhood Playhouse, a professional actors’ training program. She worked in the New York and regional theater for nearly a decade, and met her future husband when they were cast as brother and sister in A. R. Gurney’s play The Dining Room. “If I’d had a more successful career as an actor, I’d probably still be doing it, because I loved acting. I understudied in a couple of long-running plays, so I was able to keep my union health insurance, but the business is pretty dreadful. When I started thinking about getting out, I had no idea what else I might do. What I eventually came up with was writing, which in many ways was a comically ill-advised choice given that the pitfalls of writing as a career are nearly identical to those in acting. One key difference, though, is that you don’t have to be hired before you can write. Another big advantage is that you don’t need to get facelifts or even be presentable; most days, I can wear my ratty old jeans and T-shirts and not bother with the hair and makeup. ”

In 1990, she moved back to the northwest and got her MFA at the University of Oregon. She started teaching writing and publishing her short stories in literary journals. The Madonnas of Leningrad was begun as a short story, and when she realized that the short form wouldn’t contain the story, she put it back in the drawer for a few years. “In retrospect, I’m very grateful for my circuitous journey, that I wasn’t some wunderkind. I like to think I have more compassion now and a perspective that I didn’t have when I was younger.”

Debra and her husband, Clifford Paul Fetters, live in Miami, where she teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Florida International University. She is active on the national lecture circuit and has spoken at book festivals; at colleges and universities; at literary societies, civic and business organizations; and at art museums and public libraries across the country.

The focus of this interview is on her new book, Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War That Made Them One As the blog Reading Frenzy
states “This is a non-fictional account yet it’s fantastically fluent, following a comprehensive chronological timeline and reads more like a fictionalized story even with a lot of critical and crucial information. It will definitely raise some eyebrows, there will be some surprises and lovers of both fiction and non-fiction, memoirs and individualistic characters will love it.” Adam Hochschild, author of Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son, and King Leopold’s Ghost praised the book highly “It’s rare when an extraordinary artist wins a biographer of equal quality. As someone who admired Jan Yoors greatly and once spent a few days in his unusual household, I’m delighted to see this story told with grace, with careful research, and with such compassion for the women who were an invisible part of his work.” —

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