A first-time novelist's long road from New York to St. Petersburg.
Which piece of The Madonnas of Leningrad did you have first, the Alzheimer's narrative, where Marina has long emigrated to the U.S. and is battling the disease, or the Hermitage material, where she is a young Russian docent in WWII St. Petersburg?
They developed simultaneously, side-by-side. But then in 1995 I saw a PBS special on the Hermitage, and I realized I had to buckle under and do a novel's worth of research.
1995—that's 10 years. The book is 240 pages.
Yes: —and I'm 48. I worked on it over the summers. Because I teach, that was the only time I could do it. I'm a middle-aged Cinderella.
You actually chucked a small, stable career as an actress in New York for the security of... writing!
It was a comically ill-advised choice—it's the same set of perils. When I left New York, my agent was still returning my calls! But I got my MFA about 15 years ago, and started teaching in Seattle, where I'm from. I was a committed short-story writer. So I have a collection of short stories—
Well, my agent, Marly Russoff, actually took me on with just the stories.
Wow! Very impressive—
Yes. She has my undying gratitude. But she did eventually tell me, like everyone else, that I had to write a novel, though not necessarily one that involved so much research.
Any Russians in your family?
No. When I started I knew next to nothing; I had never even heard of the siege of Leningrad.
So I had to catch up with the Blockadenitsky. But I didn't get to go until I finished the book and got the advance. It was too expensive.
The last chunk of the advance?
The first chunk.
You mean you finished the whole book, and then sold it?
I wrote it without any kind of expectation. I had another novel in a drawer that I wrote thinking that it was the only way I was ever going to get a decent teaching job, and the pressure of that just paralyzed me, and made it a miserable experiece. And so I really let go of the idea that a book was going to change my life, and that was the only way I was able to write it.
All those wonderful descriptions of Hermitage paintings—you hadn't seen them?