Author Kate Elizabeth Russell spoke with InStyle about her debut novel and the controversy that has precipitated its release. 

By Isabel Jones
Updated Mar 10, 2020 @ 8:00 am
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My Dark Vanessa isn’t an easy book to read, and for author Kate Elizabeth Russell, it wasn’t an easy book to write, either.

The novel’s publication comes nearly two decades after Russell began writing (and researching, and workshopping) what would ultimately become protagonist Vanessa Wye’s story. She’s earned three writing degrees in the process (a PhD among them). Though she’s sunk almost half of her life into the novel, Russell never expected My Dark Vanessa would be the buzzy breakout debut it is today. “I always sort of assumed that this book would be too dark, just because of the subject matter, to find a wide reading audience,” Russell told InStyle over the phone.

The “dark” subject in question? A relationship between 15-year-old Vanessa and her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane (just “Strane,” to Vanessa). The novel shifts between a timeline that begins in 2000, when Vanessa is a sophomore at Browick boarding school in Maine, and 2017, at the crux of the #MeToo movement, as a growing list of accusers begin sharing their stories about Strane. Though reporters and fellow Browick alumni urge Vanessa to join the movement herself, she maintains that her relationship with Strane was different — she’s not a victim.

Russell knows Vanessa’s attitude toward her abuse isn’t always comfortable to read, but that’s kind of the point. “Vanessa is a character who engages with her own sexual abuse in ways that might seem at first really unfamiliar to the reader and really uncomfortable,” Russell said. “I mean, within that very first chapter [there’s] a scene of Vanessa having phone sex with her abuser. That's so jarring, and purposefully so, but I hope that by the end of the novel, even readers who might have been really taken aback by her behavior at the beginning of the novel will understand her a little bit more and understand that she still fits into [those labels] of victim and survivor — even if she rejects them. I hope that we can make some space for stories like hers and reactions like hers.”

Wendy C. Ortiz has a story, too. The author’s 2014 memoir, Excavation, focuses on a relationship between a teenaged Ortiz and her teacher — one that she, at the time, was reluctant to classify as abuse.

In January, Ortiz tweeted, “can’t wait until [March] when a white woman’s book of fiction that sounds very much like Excavation is lauded, stephen king’s stamp of approval is touted, etc.”

Later that month, Ortiz wrote an essay for Gay Mag about the disappointing reception of her memoir compared to Russell’s novel, which earned a 7-figure deal back in 2018. While Ortiz made plenty of noise industry-wide with her tweet and essay, and perhaps (however indirectly) laid the groundwork for Oprah’s Book Club’s decision to drop My Dark Vanessa as their March pick, her claims that Russell ripped off her memoir appear to be unfounded.

Following the swift backlash online, Russell deleted her Twitter account, and released a note on her website explaining that while the novel is a work of fiction, it was inspired in part by her own experiences as a teenager. “I do not believe that we should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public,” she wrote. “The decision whether or not to come forward should always be a personal choice. I have been afraid that opening up further about my past would invite inquiry that could be retraumatizing, and my publisher tried to protect my boundaries by including a reminder to readers that the novel is fiction.”

“It's an interesting thing and a difficult thing,” Russell told me of the accusations made by Ortiz. “The way that I sort of handled it when it came out on Twitter was just trying to remove myself from the conversation. It got really intense kind of quickly and it just wasn't helpful for anyone, especially myself, for me to be part of it. I think it's cleared up, which is in a way unsurprising because there's no truth to it.”

Still, Russell, who counts Excavation among the 100-plus works that influenced My Dark Vanessa, admits she understands the source of the issue. “There's an interesting kind of contradiction or conflict here because the thing about stories of sexual abuse is that they can feel so similar. I think when you come across a story of sexual abuse that feels really similar to one that you've written, it can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you.”

Credit: Elena Seibert/Harper Collins

“There's a lot of grief in that,” Russell continued, “because you're giving up on this idea that your experience was special. There's a lot of loss in that and so that's been on my mind a lot. Just trying to think of that with a lot of empathy is sort of my approach.”

Looking past the novel’s headline-grabbing drama and the obvious commercial allure of a title dubbed “Lolita for the #MeToo era,” My Dark Vanessa is a beautiful work of prose. It’s a carefully and masterfully crafted piece of fiction, an early-aughts time capsule, and a focused practice in perspective. Due to the early buzz and the infamy of being dropped by Oprah Winfrey, many will likely write the novel off as derivative or trauma porn before they crack the cover. To do so would be missing out on an impressive debut from an author who will no doubt continue to prove her talent.