‘I Was Obsessed With This Story’: Meet The Author Of My Dark Vanessa, The Most Anticipated Novel Of 2020

STELLAR talks to Kate Elizabeth Russell about her much lauded (yet controversial) debut.

The buzz around Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, has been building for months now. The story couldn’t be more of-the-moment, centring on the titular Vanessa Wye, who at 15 becomes entangled in an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. Years later, as powerful men begin to be exposed as abusers, Vanessa finds herself reckoning with the fact that her first relationship might not have been the love story she has always believed it was.

When STELLAR speaks to Russell, she is self-isolating at home in Wisconsin. That early buzz was supposed to culminate in a press tour celebrating the novel that she spent two decades writing, but of course, the current global crisis has put paid to that. “It’s disappointing, of course, but this situation is bigger than any one book, or bigger than books at all,” she says. “It’s easy to keep perspective that way.”

Russell first began writing what would become My Dark Vanessa at the age of 16, working at it over 20 years throughout college, a Master’s, and eventually, her PhD programme. “That perseverance I’m not sure I can really explain, beyond a sort of stubbornness,” she laughs. “I truly was obsessed with this story and the characters. I’d write other stuff too, but nothing else I wrote gave me the feeling that this story did, a sort of intense exhilaration. So I kept chasing that feeling.”

Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa caused controversy before it had even been released – back in January, author Wendy Ortiz suggested that the plot was “eerily similar” to her 2014 memoir Excavation, which describes how she was groomed by a teacher at the age of 13. Coming at the same time as the furore around Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt reached its peak, the accusations raised even more questions about who gets to tell certain stories.

Russell subsequently released a short statement on her website confirming that My Dark Vanessa was inspired by her own experiences as a teenager, and saying she did not believe that we “should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public”.

I have been afraid that opening up further about my past would invite inquiry that could be retraumatising, and my publisher tried to protect my boundaries by including a reminder to readers that the novel is fiction.

The online conversation around My Dark Vanessa echoes a plotline in the novel, the irony of which is not lost on Russell. Vanessa is asked to come forward about her relationship with Strane by a fellow student, and later, by a journalist chasing the story. She has no interest in becoming part of the conversation, despite increased pressure from both parties to speak out.

“[Sharing stories] is the way towards progress. But at the same time, I think there’s a difference between sharing a story in a space that feels safe and healthy and productive, which can be a conversation with parents or friends, or in a therapist’s office, like Vanessa does. That’s a legitimate path towards healing and closure,” Russell tells STELLAR.

“But I think over the past few years, certainly in the last decade, there’s been an increased importance placed on sharing your story publicly. And that’s where it gets tricky, because who’s benefiting? I think an immense amount of good can come from increased public awareness, but the expectation for women to share their trauma narratives in public can get dangerous. Not everyone is willing or able to do that.”

Russell had been working on this particular storyline when the first wave of allegations against Harvey Weinstein were published in October 2017. Her first instinct was to ignore the parallels, but she realised that the novel was going to be read in the context of #MeToo, regardless of how long she had been writing it.

“My fears were based on the way that I imagined people receiving my book, thinking that it might seem opportunistic somehow, or the idea of it being too timely, so it cheapens the work. But none of those fears I had were rooted in the book that I’d written. I knew I’d written a good book, and I really believed I had something meaningful to contribute, even as an unknown writer. I put in the work for so many years, and I had to believe in myself and this thing that I’d written.”

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and the book is published!!!!!!!!

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The reward is in readers’ embrace of Vanessa, a complicated, messy character who goes against everything we expect of a ‘victim’. Vanessa keeps in contact with Strane, promising to keep quiet about their relationship and even (as you will hear in the first chapter, shared below) calling him so she can pleasure herself to his descriptions of their early liaisons.

“I think so often we see victims, especially victims of sexual abuse, portrayed as very ‘good’, and if not good, then at least pitiful,” Russell reflects. “I feel like we don’t often see victims who are engaging with their own abuse in the ways Vanessa does, who don’t care about what you think of them. Who are just trying to live their life the best way they know how.

“I knew Vanessa was a difficult character. Reactions to her over the years were varied, when I had classmates and professors reading her. But the amount of messages that I have been getting from readers who say that this story is their story, that they are Vanessa, or something like this happened to them or their friends… That has been really humbling. I didn’t necessarily expect that.”

My Dark Vanessa is out now – listen to the first chapter below

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