Debra Dean is the bestselling author of three critically acclaimed books that have been published in twenty-two 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.