My Dark Vanessa: A #MeToo story 20 years in the making
Kate Elizabeth Russell received a seven-figure advance for novel than began as teenage daydream
Kate Elizabeth Russell: ‘When I got to the point where I finished the book, it aligned with this cultural moment of #MeToo, and the reading public and the publishing industry were eager to engage with this subject matter.’ Photograph: Elena Seibert
At 15 years old, Kate Elizabeth Russell began working on a novel, with the unbridled imagination and zest that youngsters have, about a teenager having a romance with a much older man.
When she was about 13, Russell had met the rockstar Jakob Dylan via a series of happy coincidences – her father working for the local radio station being one – and soon became obsessed with him. She read in Rolling Stone that his favourite book was Lolita, and so she soon discovered the text for herself. Taken with the story, the idea for her own novel was born a year later.
Some 20 years later, an awful lot has changed, both for Russell and wider society.
Somewhere along the line, Russell began to realise that her story – of a teenager who has an affair with her English teacher – was not a love story. Rather, it was a tale about rape. The end result is a compelling, tense and potent story of a woman facing up to an uncomfortable, devastating truth.
“It was a gradual thing,” Russell says of arriving at that realisation. “It’s hard to say what my idea of a love story was when I was young. I would have allowed for a lot of darkness and obsession and violence – I mean, look at the Brontë novels.
“[My] story was always framed in my mind as passion but I read some texts that dealt with incest or paedophilia, and seeing the similarities forced me to take a look at what I was writing, and that was really painful; seeing it in real terms.”
Russell’s novel, now called My Dark Vanessa, has gone through countless iterations, but has finally been published. After completing a draft during a Master of Fine Arts degree, and another as part of a PhD, Russell found an agent in 2018. Not just any agent: Hillary Jacobson, who is famed for securing stunning advances for her charges. Not long after, Russell signed a book deal with a reported seven-figure advance.
“It was absolutely life changing in the most practical sense,” Russell says. “My husband and I were struggling financially in the way people who choose to go into academia and grad school seem to struggle. I’m not ashamed to say I could pay off my six-figure student loans.”
Russell is also getting used to being feted as the next big thing in publishing, and the author of one of 2020’s hottest titles.
“It’s still surreal, but I’m getting a little more used to it,” she says. “It’s funny, while the book is going out into the world, I keep having moments of nostalgia for the writing process.”
Still, the whirlwind of attention has taken Russell by surprise. After working on the book for the best part of 18 years, she had always assumed that she was working on a literary book that would be read by a handful of people. Dealing with a dark and difficult subject matter, she accepted that her readership would never be sizeable. Yet a quirk of timing pretty much put paid to all of that.
“When I got to the point where I finished the book, it aligned with this cultural moment of #MeToo, and the reading public and the publishing industry were eager to engage with this subject matter,” Russell recalls.
Russell added a newer, present-day strand to the book. While Vanessa, now a 30-something hotel worker, recalls her relationship with Jacob Strane, another former pupil comes forward to accuse him of also having underage sex with her, decades previously. Vanessa and Strane, as it happens, are still in contact with each other. Vanessa, who still views her relationship with Strane as a romantic one, now has to navigate and process things in an entirely new light.
Referring to the new strand, Russell notes: “The present-day plotline means we can see this relationship through the lens of #MeToo. And when you think about it, #MeToo is a way to look back with new perspective and fresh eyes on past experiences.”
As the accusations about Harvey Weinstein surfaced, Russell was immersed in writing, getting ready to defend her novel as part of her PhD programme.
“I still remember thinking, this is really relevant,” she notes. “At the same time, I’d been paying attention for a few years to a story that first broke in 2013, about a sort of increase in sexual abuse stories coming out from boarding schools in Boston [via the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe].
“When #MeToo became a higher movement I began to get freaked out,” Russell recalls. “It already had the plot line of another student coming forward, but there was this single voice crying out. There wasn’t the context of a larger movement. It got to the point where I knew if my book made it out into the world it would be read within the context of this movement. I’ve spent so long with this story though, and studied these themes and tropes that I feel I know this inside and out.”
All the while, the character of Vanessa remained largely unchanged.
“I tried to approach it by centring Vanessa through the whole book in those early scenes when she is 15 and figuring this out,” Russell explains. “She has her own desires – they’re not formed yet, they’re sort of emerging. I try to think of her as, if she had never met Strane, she could have ended up a different woman with a different type of sexuality. I never wanted her to come across as the Lolita archetype or the teen temptress. She would have had no idea how to even do that. There’s a scene in the book where she goes to the grocery store with her mother and does an experiment to stare at every man she sees. I wanted the reader to be like, ‘oh my god, please don’t do that’, but that reaction is coming from a place of knowing how easily that could go wrong for her.”
Whatever about the significance of #MeToo, Russell began writing the book in the 1990s, at a specific cultural crossroads. Britney Spears was being touted as a virginal teenage dream, and Bill Clinton was lying about an affair with a 22-year-old intern (the book is set in 2000 and 2017).
“[Vanessa] is being given these messages, ‘you’re sexy’, ‘you’re too young’, and then Strane is telling her, ‘you’re perfect’,” Russell explains.
This is Vanessa’s story, not mine. Portraying this as anything other than fiction would be misrepresenting it and misrepresenting me
In between her MFA and PhD, Russell began reading about critical trauma theory with a vague notion to becoming a therapist in later life. The online reading in turn led her to a series of memoirs about traumatic sexual relationships, among them Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Tiger, Tiger, by the late Margaux Fragoso. Finally, she found the theoretical framework within which My Dark Vanessa sits.
“I learned about the symptoms of PTSD and complex PTSD from prolonged repeated trauma,” Russell says. “There are certain symptoms that had already been written into Vanessa, but to see those characteristics in a new way gave the writing a new sense of purpose.”
As often happens with women writers, many wanted to know if My Dark Vanessa was a work of autofiction. That Russell might have been writing from her own experiences was a notion intensified by an editor’s note in preview copies, saying that she had been “inspired by her own teenage experiences with older men”.
Certainly, some of the details ring true. Like Vanessa, Russell had worked for a while as a hotel receptionist. She had also attended a private school, and grew up on an isolated lake in Maine.
“[My schooling] didn’t influence the decision to set the story at a boarding school,” Russell says. “On a craft level, I was struggling with how this type of relationship would work if Vanessa was coming home to her parents after school every day. It was also fun to create a school in a completely fictionalised environment.”
Does it annoy her that readers and critics want to know whether the book’s other details have sprung from her personal life?
“The questions don’t annoy me – I think I take them in the spirit of curiosity,” she says. “But this is Vanessa’s story, not mine. Portraying this as anything other than fiction would be misrepresenting it and misrepresenting me. I read so many pieces of similar writing that were so influential for me. I don’t know if those writers have had those experiences, and I don’t need to know.”
In her acknowledgements, Russell thanks “the self-proclaimed nymphs, the [Lolitas] I’ve met over the years who carry within them similar histories of abuse that looked like love”.
On which, Russell noted: “For people for whom that description fits, I’m just hoping that my book offers some solace. It’s all I could hope for. It’s for readers who I wasn’t explicitly imagining, but nevertheless might read this book and relate to it and take it in their hearts. More than anything I want people to talk about the book. To unpack the story a little but maybe also use the book as a way into more personal or difficult conversations they might want to have themselves.”
Vanessa has been living in Russell’s head for the best part of two decades, and is now ready to go out into the world. She is ready to start working on her next work of fiction. It’s a much different beast this time around, and Russell is almost nostalgic for the time when she could write and create at her own pace, and without the world watching.
“I don’t have those long, unstructured stretches of time to sit and get the words out, and my guess is that won’t come for a while,” she says. “I’m trying to get to the point where these new characters are in my thoughts, and I go to them when I have any kind of idle time. But even sitting around and thinking about new stories is exciting. It makes me feel like myself again.”
My Dark Vanessa is published by HarperCollins.