Professor celebrates release of novel on Russian holy fools

Debra Dean, professor in the Creative Writing program, is celebrating the release of her latest book, The Mirrored World.

The fiction novel was published August 28 by Harper Collins Publishers.

“The past few weeks were unsettling, waiting for my book to be released. It’s like the last weeks of a pregnancy,” Dean said. “I read an interview with the writer Anne Lamott recently. She said she feels at her worst right before a book release – narcissistic and insecure. That rang true for me. So I’m really happy to have it out in the world.”

Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg (1719-1803) is the beloved patron saint of the Russian city (canonized 1988). According to tradition, she went mad with grief when her husband, a soldier and singer in Catherine the Great’s choir, died. A widow at age 26, Xenia gave all her possessions to the poor and lived in the worst slums for the rest of her life, serving as a soothsayer and healer to those in need.

“I came upon Saint Xenia in a footnote while I was doing research for my previous novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad,” Dean said. “I was so intrigued by her story. Most holy fools were from the peasant class, but her origins are in the minor nobility. She went from one extreme to the other, from living a life of opulence to a life with nothing. The novel explores what could cause someone to make that choice. And what would it be like to have someone you love make such an extreme choice, one that seems to run against her own interests?”

The Mirrored World follows Xenia and her younger cousin, Dasha, through their younger years in the lower nobility and into the grief and madness that transforms Xenia into a savior for the poor and as a rebuke to the lavish excesses of the nobility.

“What really intrigued me was the idea of the ‘holy fool,’” Dean said. “If Xenia lived in contemporary times, she would likely be diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on medication. There’s an interesting grey area between madness and sainthood.

The Mirrored World is Dean’s second novel, preceded by The Madonnas of Leningrad (2006), a fiction piece revolving around the State Hermitage Museum during the 900-day-long Siege of Leningrad.

“I don’t have an explanation for it, I’m not of Russian descent, but the culture and history of the country stunned me,” Dean said. “I feel like I don’t choose the stories, instead, the stories choose me. Teachers often tell novice writers, write what you know. But I like to do the opposite, I like the challenge of doing research and exploring what I don’t know.”

A book launch reception for The Mirrored World will be hosted at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Thursday, Sept. 6, at 8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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