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How "My Dark Vanessa" Became One Of The Biggest Books Of The Year

Kate Elizabeth Russell on her new novel: “It had to be fiction. It had to be artifice. Because otherwise — how could I stand it?"

Posted on March 10, 2020, at 10:02 a.m. ET

Adam Ryan Morris for BuzzFeed News

Kate Elizabeth Russell grew up on a lake in the 1990s, in a rural Maine township, listening obsessively to Fiona Apple. She briefly attended a private high school but left for “personal reasons” before graduating, and then went on to attend a state college in Maine. As a teen, she had relationships with older men. As a twentysomething, she wrote about her teenage experiences online.

If you’ve read My Dark Vanessa, Russell’s debut novel, all of these characteristics will sound familiar: They almost perfectly match the titular character, Vanessa Wye. But Kate Russell is not Vanessa — on that point she wants to be incredibly clear. What happened to Vanessa did not happen to her. There is no real-life version of Jacob Strane, the 42-year-old English teacher who grooms 16-year-old Vanessa for a relationship that lasts into her early twenties and rattles her life well into her thirties.

Unlike Vanessa, Russell, 35, never learned to drive. Her father is still very much alive. She’s married — and has been, to a geographer, for three and a half years. And unlike Vanessa, who struggles as an adult to come to terms with the #MeToo movement — and surfacing allegations that Strane attempted to develop relationships with other teenage girls — Russell has been thinking about these questions, and how to weave them around the character of Vanessa, for the better part of two decades.

“Vanessa is so real to me,” Russell recently told me, curled up on the couch of her cozy Madison, Wisconsin, apartment. “And I’m so connected to her. But she’s completely separate from me — to the point that I joke to friends, oh, she created me, rather than the other way around. I picture her showing up at my door, or I’ll be out walking down the street, and I’ll see a girl who looks so much like her.”

The years she spent with the character made Russell “really protective of her, and of the story overall.” That’s why she’s flatly refused any sort of coy or clichéd marketing campaign and has been, in her words, “very, very, VERY careful” about offers for film and television adaptation. Russell is not Vanessa, but Vanessa is hers.

“I’ve always been a fiction writer,” Russell explained. “But I’m rooted in the personal. That’s where my stuff comes from. And I suspect many fiction writers are this way, but there’s a stigma around it. I’ve always been engaged with the line between genres of nonfiction and fiction, and always been thinking about what that shift gives us — to me, the writer, and to the reader. So much of what it offers is a shield. And a solace.”

I still don’t know exactly what the book is or how I feel about it, but when I was done, I wanted everyone to read it so we could talk about it.

My Dark Vanessa is what’s considered, in the industry, a “big book.” It was acquired by a big publisher (William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins) for a big advance; it’s getting a big marketing push; it’s positioned to be a big thing. Part of that is because it invokes and grapples with the very timely issues of #MeToo — a point driven home when, last month, the defense attorney for Harvey Weinstein attempted to remove a juror in the trial for reading the book. Then there are the conversations that accompany a debut with a seven-figure number attached — and about which stories about abuse get these kinds of deals.

But what makes My Dark Vanessa feel big beyond its initial publicity push are the questions the story itself raises — the way that it interrogates the boundary between memoir and fiction, between honesty and sex positivity, between consent and abuse. The format is straightforward, alternating between Vanessa’s high school and college years, where we trace her developing, troubling relationship with Strane, and the present, in which a 32-year-old Vanessa attempts to synthesize the ongoing revelations of #MeToo (including new accusations against Strane) with her own experiences.

Russell spent nearly two decades writing, editing, researching, and rewriting the novel over the course of earning a BFA, an MFA, and a PhD in creative writing. The end product is a page-turner about a young woman gradually realizing the extent and ramifications of her abuse. It does feel of the moment, but it feels even more like the product of the ’90s and ’00s — when Russell and so many other women were surrounded by profoundly contradictory ideas about what women’s empowerment looked like.

Russell’s rendering of that time and Vanessa’s attempt to find agency within it, as well as her relationship with Strane, is bewildering and infuriating. And the way in which the book straddles established publishing classifications — it’s neither literary nor pulp — only accentuates the discomfort. I still don’t know exactly what the book is or how I feel about it, but when I was done, I wanted everyone to read it so we could talk about it. That’s what a big book does. And as an academic who’s spent the last decade unpacking the conversations and discomfort around other memoirs and fictive accounts of sexual abuse, Russell has found herself fascinated by others’ responses to the text, but also by her own.

“The plot is fictional, but the emotions of it — that’s what feels so personal,” Russell explained. “That’s what I can’t divorce myself from.” She feels compelled to make clear that the book is both fiction and personal — and that’s not a contradiction in terms. “I have these moments of wondering, Is this just me, being stubborn?” she said. “This subject matter is not something that I just thought, Oh, this would make a good story. I do have a stake in this. But why do I feel so compelled to get that across?”

Adam Ryan Morris for BuzzFeed News

Items on Kate Elizabeth Russell’s desk.

When I first met Russell, she was mostly just relieved I was there — in Madison, in her apartment, with her things and her dog, a Catahoula Leopard Dog mix named Tallulah Barkhead. It was 5 degrees outside, and Russell was cocooned in a soft, sage green wool cardigan and shearling boots that might or might not have been Uggs. (“Clearly, I’ve just given up,” she said jokingly.) She’s an introvert and a self-professed homebody, and has found the publicity process that’s accompanied her book release discombobulating.

“For the last profile, they asked me to pick a place in New York that I’d always wanted to see,” she said. “But…I’d never been to New York, and it’s not really my thing.” (She picked a Georgian restaurant because there are so few in the United States, and she’d grown to love the food while accompanying her husband on research trips to the Ukraine and Georgia.)

Russell’s apartment is filled with light, books, and Russian maps of America. Above her desk, there are quotes handwritten on paper: two pieces of encouragement from friends, and another with the complete poem that served as the title of Fiona Apple’s second album. On the bookshelf, there’s a trove of books Russell read as she completed her PhD, focusing on the Lolita trope in ’90s and ’00s literature: Suzette Henke’s Shattered Subjects, Angela McRobbie’s The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, Cathy Caruth’s Trauma: Explorations in Memory. All of these books, plus dozens more films, plays, poems, and memoirs, are included in Russell’s “Reading List,” which is posted on her personal website. Some authors cloister themselves from the world when they write — and from all other stories that might overlap or interact with theirs. Others immerse themselves in those stories, which Russell did in part because her PhD demanded it.

This level of domestic comfort is a new development for Russell and her husband, Austin, who — up until her book sold in 2018 — were making ends meet on less than $30,000 a year. They both had six figures in student loans. When they moved to Madison from Lawrence, Kansas, after her husband landed a postdoc position at the University of Wisconsin, they realized their lifestyle could change, too. “We were like, ‘Let’s get a nice apartment,’” she told me, “and we were able to get it in a day. I was so mad: I saw how easy it was for people with money to do things.”

The apartment is new but still modest. The loans have been paid off, but it’s unclear whether Russell’s husband will land a tenure-track teaching job or where they’ll end up next. This sort of transitory life is the opposite of what Russell grew up with: in one place, on a small lake in a small town outside of Bangor, Maine, much like her character Vanessa. At the time, the township was just around 500 people, with everyone spread out. In the novel, Vanessa says that her family is the only one that stays on the lake over the winter.

“That’s an exaggeration,” Russell explained. “But as a teenager, growing up in a really rural environment, the isolation just felt so intense, and magnified, that I ended up writing it that way.” The public schools she attended as a child would draw from several townships in the area; often, she’d get on the bus before dawn and spend upward of an hour in each direction. “In the book, it’s like there’s no one else around,” Russell said. “And then my parents read it and were like, ‘We had neighbors!’ But that’s how I write: I’m trying to get the feeling across.”

“That’s how I write: I’m trying to get the feeling across.”

When Russell was in fifth grade, her music teacher started a unit on Phantom of the Opera, and Russell found herself immediately obsessed. She’d never seen the musical, but she would direct her classmates in reenactments during recess. (“You’re not supposed to say girls are bossy anymore,” Russell joked. “But I was.”) Russell’s father had been a DJ at a popular Bangor classic rock station since the 1970s. As a tween in the early ’90s, she didn’t have the internet at home, but when she went with her dad to work, she could poke around its early iteration — which is how she happened upon Phantom of the Opera fanfic for the first time. “I remember thinking, This is AMAZING,” Russell recalled, “and then I started writing my own, but not posting it online — just writing out of the pure joy of it.”

Russell’s dad regularly brought home music from the radio station, including Fiona Apple’s first album, Tidal. “I remember laying the booklet out on the kitchen table and being like, ‘Mom, she’s so pretty!’” Russell said. “And my mom’s like, ‘I dunno, she looks kinda sad.’” Apple became Russell’s new solitary obsession in her teenage years (she’d record hours of MTV2 on a blank VHS tape while she was at school, hoping to find a Fiona Apple video somewhere on it when she got home).

The video for “Criminal” was one of her first exposures to the sexualized teen iconography that would come to imbue the ’90s. “It was so artful and weird, so uncomfortable and so alluring,” Russell said. Apple also spoke frankly about being raped — which provided the backstory to the song “Sullen Girl.” “There’s a scene in the book where Vanessa goes into an internet rabbit hole and realizes, Oh, that’s the first time I heard someone talk about rape.”

But Apple also provided a lesson about how society processed women like her. When, in 1997, Apple won the award for Best New Artist at the VMAs, she famously accepted the award by declaring, “This world” — i.e., the music industry — “is bullshit.”

“I remember watching that and thinking, She’s doing exactly what she wants,” Russell recalled. “I looked up to her so much — and then I saw how people responded to her.” I remember that response, too: Suddenly Apple, the wunderkind, was ungrateful, a bitch, unhinged. “The things you internalize from that,” Russell sighed. “Like, if you speak your mind, you’re just going to get ridiculed and misunderstood.”

For college, Russell went to the University of Maine at Farmington, which she described as “the affordable public option for kids that couldn’t afford to go to private college.” Many of her classmates were, like her, the first in their family to go to college. She enrolled in creative-writing classes, where she submitted stories that would eventually coalesce into My Dark Vanessa and received reams of criticism, but almost always paired with the (sometimes backhanded) praise that “this was very readable.”

“I had the idea that I wanted to be a writer, but I knew that ‘just being a writer’ wasn’t an option,” Russell explained. “So I thought, What’s a job and lifestyle where I could make money, but be a writer? A professor! Then I could be a writer, and I could be in school forever. I’d watched the film adaptation of Wonder Boys so many times, so I had this idealized, romantic idea of what being a creative-writing professor was like.”

When she was an undergrad, Russell’s professors encouraged her to apply for MFA programs. “In hindsight, there was a lot of narcissism there,” she said. “Like, ‘Of course you want to go do the thing that I did. It’ll be great. It’ll work out for you.’ No mention of six figures of student debt. But I was so driven that I was like, This is what I want to do.” She went straight from undergrad to the MFA program at the University of Indiana, and like many other hopeful young writers entering similar programs in the 2000s, she thought that she’d finish her degree, sell a book, and get a job as a professor. But then, she said, “that very much didn’t happen.”

Adam Ryan Morris for BuzzFeed News

Kate Elizabeth Russell and her husband, Austin, at home in Madison, Wisconsin.

In 2010, Russell graduated from her MFA program — and right into the aftermath of the Great Recession. She spent three years working “shit jobs” that barely let her feed herself; she couldn’t even begin to chip away at her student loan debt. To an outsider, it makes zero sense that, with a newly clear-eyed understanding of the academic job market, she then chose to apply to PhD programs in creative writing. “I went into the program knowing I wasn’t on the tenure track,” Russell said. “But I knew that I would finish that program with a book.”

Russell’s PhD program in creative writing was nestled within the English Department at the University of Kansas, and she focused her official studies on memoirs about sexual violence and their reception. But most of her support — both in terms of helping her push her thinking and critiquing her writing — wasn’t necessarily from the program. Instead, she found it online, specifically in LiveJournal communities primarily composed of young women, starting in 2008, up until around 2013.

“We were all sort of coming into ourselves as feminists and political thinkers,” Russell recalled. “We had these ongoing conversations that were so community based, with all of us fucking up and calling each other out and getting pissed at each other, but then working through it.”

Unlike contemporary social media, it felt like a private space. “We all knew each other and were invested in each other,” Russell said. “And it felt much more genuine, and more in good faith. There was still virtue signaling that went on, but it wasn’t for public consumption. And no one was monetizing their identity based on what they were posting in the community.” She’d post sections of writing and receive a very different form of critique and encouragement than she received in traditional creative-writing seminars.

As part of Russell’s PhD course of study, she also began to work her way through every memoir of sexual abuse she could find — and, just as crucially, each book’s critical reception. She was especially fascinated by The Kiss, a memoir by Kathryn Harrison, which detailed the sexual relationship between Harrison and her father, who had been estranged from Harrison for much of her life. “It’s so clearly abuse,” Russell explained. “But at the same time, she doesn’t feel like she has access to that term, because of her own complicity in it.” At the time of its release in 1997, it was savaged by critics. “It’s such a difficult piece of writing, but so beautifully written,” Russell said. “And the reception was so terrible. People saying things like ‘Do you think she calls him ‘Daddy’ in bed?’”

Tiger, Tiger, a memoir by Margaux Fragoso that describes years of abuse by a pedophile who eventually dies by suicide, had a similarly negative reception. “She didn’t write herself as a victim, but as someone who is willing in the way that a kid can be willing, which is not willing at all,” Russell said. “And people were like, ‘What is the value of this? What is this except for a manual for pedophiles?’”

Russell wanted to figure out why readers were so attracted to these sorts of memoirs — and why, in turn, they were so maligned. On one hand, memoir is widely seen as more “righteous” than fiction, as Russell put it, because it’s true — but that also makes it easier to dismiss as somehow less artful. On the other hand, if you shield something that actually happened to you under the guise of fiction, then it’s interrogated in a different way: “Is this true?” people ask. “Can you prove it?”

At several points throughout our conversation, Russell mentioned — but did not want to delve deeper into the specifics of — “relationships with older men.” But despite her own experiences, there was never a point when she thought, Maybe this book should be a memoir, or even, Maybe this should be autofiction — the subgenre used to describe the self-referential novels of authors like Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner. She did attempt, for a brief period of time, to make her drafts more literary, adding long sections of exposition, before realizing just how belabored it felt and how it lost the momentum that other readers had praised.

“I just wasn’t good at it,” she explained. “I’m good at writing a scene. I’m good at dialogue and having characters move around on the page, and once I realized that I could just write a novel doing what I was good at — meaning, writing scenes — then it would be much easier, and a much better piece of writing.”

Adam Ryan Morris for BuzzFeed News

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s bookshelf.

During the five years Russell spent earning her PhD in Kansas, My Dark Vanessa shifted in several meaningful ways: The setting moved from public school to private school to boarding school; the first sexual interaction between Vanessa and Strane changed in character and timing; the number of significant friends in Vanessa’s school life dwindled from three to one. But the bigger shifts had less to do with setting, or the number of characters, and more to do with Russell’s overarching thinking about the dynamics at play between Vanessa and Strane, and what cultural influences would have been informing Vanessa’s own conception of what was happening between them.

“I read Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, which is more of a clinical text — and is out of date in some ways — but she argues for disentangling PTSD from military veterans and extending it to a lot of women in domestic life who’ve experienced trauma,” Russell said. “And I discovered girls’ studies, which was just this feverish oh my god moment, treating this subject matter in such a serious academic way.” It was there that she first encountered explanations of postfeminism — a term used to describe the attitude that the goals of feminism had been achieved, and women could instead focus on the “liberating” embrace of consumerism, sex, and “girl power.”

For many women who came of age in the ’90s and ’00s, learning about postfeminism is like finding a skeleton key to your life: Oh, that’s why there was an obsession with sex and purity rings, with Sex and the City and Britney Spears’ virginity. That’s why the Spice Girls were so popular — and why Fiona Apple was received in such a markedly mixed way. The concept outlines so many of the mixed messages women like Russell internalized as teens — knowledge that she then mapped onto Vanessa’s own late-’90s, early-2000s experience of the world.

Over the course of several drafts, she rewrote the first sexual encounter between Vanessa and Strane. The scene arrives a quarter of the way through the book, after Strane has spent weeks sidling up to her — physically and psychologically. He’s given her books, he’s praised her writing, he’s identified her vulnerabilities and her unstable sense of self, and he’s proffered his own secure sense of who she is: unique, dark, sexual, special.

Vanessa sees that this version of herself is beloved — and regardless of how alien or unfaithful it might be to her actual self, she begins to shape herself to fit it. She devours the copies of Lolita and The Bell Jar and the poems of Emily Dickinson that Strane gives her. “I start to realize the point isn’t really whether I like the books,” Vanessa narrates. “It’s more about him giving me different lenses to see myself through. The poems are clues to help me understand why he’s so interested, what it is exactly that he sees in me.”

“She’s first becoming aware of the male gaze,” Russell explained. “But also, as an aspiring poet, she has this English teacher hand-selecting books for her — it’s so easily romantic, but also academically legitimate in some way? It’s all so complex in her mind.”

Strane first tests her by putting his hand on her thigh, then kissing her — and eventually inviting her to spend a night at his house. The scene that follows is astonishing, abject, and, like so many other scenes in the book, impossible to stop reading. Strane performs oral sex on Vanessa, she has an orgasm, and Strane promises they won’t go any further. Vanessa “turns liquid-warm at the thought of sex being nothing more than him doing that to me.” But then Strane wakes her up in the middle of the night and compels her to have intercourse — all the while asking “Is this okay?” but only after he’s already swept her along in the action.

“I wanted her to have an experience that’s just pleasurable, where she orgasms, and uses this language that’s bordering on cliché to describe it,” Russell explained. “Because this is the first sex she’s ever had — and she’s working with these ideas of what having an orgasm is like that are based on things that she’s read or the movies that she’s seen.” But Russell also wanted to show, even if just for a moment, that the relationship could theoretically be “okay.” “So maybe he was abusing her, but when he’s giving her pleasure, how does that complicate the reaction?”

When I asked Russell if she thinks it’s appropriate to call the interaction a “sex scene,” she cocked her head for a second and said, “I do. Because that’s what it is to her.” That is how Vanessa conceives of it, both during and afterward — even though, in the moment, she thinks of her reaction to touching Strane’s penis as “like a dog hacking up garbage that’s been sitting in its stomach for days, that violent, full-body gag.”

“This is the tension that I had in mind throughout the whole writing process,” Russell said. “In the first chapter, you see her, in the present day, still relying on phone sex with him. It might come across jarring to readers because you see this character interacting with her abuser in a way that we’re not used to seeing. Her sexuality has been so defined by it.”

“Not all sex is either ‘good’ or ‘rape.’ Sometimes sex is just really bad. And sometimes that’s all you know.”

And then there’s the fact that a whole lot of sex — even between people who are the same age — is complicated in ways that mirror what happened, and continues to happen, between Strane and Vanessa. “Not all sex is either ‘good’ or ‘rape,’” Russell said. “Sometimes sex is just really bad. And sometimes that’s all you know. But that’s directly at odds with the overarching sex positivity that accompanied postfeminism.”

When I think about that scene, I mostly feel Vanessa’s full-body gag. I think of the moment when Strane penetrates Vanessa with his finger: “I’m stunned,” Vanessa thinks. “And my body plays dead.”

“So much of the emotions of being uncomfortable during sex, those are things that I experienced, even with boys my own age,” Russell told me. “Not the explicit details, but the feeling of being taken off guard, of not feeling like you could stop it. You’re just figuring out, Oh, okay, this is what’s happening now — and never having the space of time to think, like, Do I want this? Am I enjoying this?

“In the book, the power dynamic is so extreme. But I was trying to explore and unpack what sex meant to me, as a teen and a young adult, and trying to zoom way out, and lift the filter of sex positivity off my eyes, and realizing that sex can just be a bad thing. It can just be bad.”

Even in a society that’s increasingly frank about sex, a surprisingly small number of people — especially women — seem comfortable talking about that idea. “People think that to have a quote-unquote healthy sex life means to have a really active sex life,” Russell said, “and that you can’t be a happy, well-rounded person without that. There’s especially pressure if you’re a survivor of sexual violence, because if you don’t adopt a positive view toward sex, then you’re still broken, you’re still damaged.”

Russell had switched the setting of her book to a boarding school early in her PhD, when she began reading accounts of serial abusers that first began to emerge in the 2010s, including women sharing their experiences in personal essays online. Before any of the revelations around Weinstein and #MeToo, that’s how Russell had Strane’s abuse initially becoming public: A former student whom Strane had attempted to seduce writes an anonymous essay that then makes its way to Vanessa and usurps her life. But Russell kept returning to the question, Would the reader really understand why a student would wait so many years to come forward?

Then, in the fall of 2017, the allegations and news stories that would eventually coalesce into the #MeToo movement began to emerge. Russell was in the final year of her PhD, finishing up her dissertation and the final draft of the book — and, at least at first, she didn’t think that it had much bearing on her project: It was something in the celebrity world, and about the media, and Weinstein in particular. “But then it just kept happening,” she recalled, “and so much of it was playing out on social media, with people making posts and sharing their stories, and I thought, Holy shit, this really is what I’m writing.” It freaked her out.

“After a while, I realized this was the context in which this book was going to be read, no matter what,” Russell said. “And I could use this as a chance to trust the reader more: that they would understand, whether they agreed with it or not, that coming forward years after the fact is something that people do.” The Weinstein news became a part of the present-day narrative, and Vanessa learns of Strane’s abusive behavior toward other students the way so many women learned of others’ abuse: through a #MeToo post on Facebook.

Adam Ryan Morris for BuzzFeed News

Copies of My Dark Vanessa.

Still, Russell never imagined that My Dark Vanessa would actually become intertwined with Weinstein’s story in such an explicit way. “It was never, never fathomable to me that this book, that I’ve been working on for so very long, would even be in the same realm,” she said. After all, as the #MeToo movement continued to grow over the course of 2017 and 2018, Russell finished her dissertation, prepared her manuscript for submission, and began querying agents — and heard nothing.

She started with the agents of writers whose work she really admired and heard nothing. She expanded her querying circle to even more agents and still heard nothing. She continued to widen it, and widen it, and nothing. “The agent I ended up with, Hillary Jacobson, wasn’t even someone I queried,” Russell explained. “The manuscript got passed along to her, and the thing she’s best known for is [Tomi Adeyemi’s YA fantasy] Children of Blood and Bone,” a book Russell wouldn’t have necessarily grouped with her own.

Russell eventually attracted the attention of six different agents, but Jacobson was the only one who immediately saw the connection between her work and more ostensibly literary books like Julie Buntin’s Marlena. “She understands so much about the book,” Russell said, “but she was also contradicting all of these assumptions I had about the type of writer I was, and the type of agent I was going to end up with, and the type of agency I was going to end up with.”

When Jacobson submitted the manuscript to potential editors, there was a bidding war, but the imprint that won out — William Morrow — again didn’t seem like an obvious fit. Russell had long dreamed of getting signed to Riverhead, which is where she thought “literary” writers ended up. But as Russell explained, “Going through this experience just showed me how much I didn’t understand about how all of this works.”

“Going through this experience just showed me how much I didn’t understand about how all of this works.”

My Dark Vanessa has more in common with the novels that thrilled Russell as a young reader than it does with the products of most MFA workshops. “I loved books like White Oleander [by Janet Fitch] and She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb,” she told me. “Those are the novels that I loved, and those were even subconsciously the models for what I wanted to write. And those were novels that were super successful and got really wide readership."

Russell’s editor, Jessica Williams, immediately saw that My Dark Vanessa could be one of those books. “This novel basically swallowed me whole,” she told me. “It consumed me.” She also understood that My Dark Vanessa was a “deceptively complex novel” that could essentially be marketed to two different audiences: to mass market readers and to traditional literary audiences, who might expect a page-turner and be surprised to find a book that’s doing as much as it is. It could be a book club book, a Target book, an airport book, and a book reviewed in the New York Times. The cover, which features a moody black-and-white photo of a young woman with a butterfly over one eye — an image that could double as a high school student’s self-portrait for photography class — attempts to bridge that divide. Same for the prominently featured blurb from Stephen King.

Russell has had that particular bit of praise preserved in her email since 2017, long before she had an agent, or a publisher, or anything resembling a “big book.” Russell’s radio DJ father is such a local fixture in Bangor that when King (a Bangor resident) was writing It, back in the 1970s, he name-checked “DJ Bobby Russell” twice over the course of its thousand-plus pages. In 1995, King and his wife bought the radio station, and he effectively became Kate’s dad’s boss: not close friends, but close enough that her dad calls him “Steve.”

In 2007, after Russell finished her MFA, her father asked King if he’d look at one of her short stories about Vanessa. He responded with a line edit and a paragraph-long email: “The older man / younger woman situation is hardly new,” he wrote. “The narration is smooth, the pace is smooth, the dialogue is crisp and clean, probably the best thing about it.” He also said that she had the “makings of a terrific writer.”

It was a confidence boost that sat preserved in Russell’s archived email, evidence of the time that one of the most famous authors in the world had read her work. When, after she finished her PhD, agents weren’t responding to Russell’s manuscript, her dad wondered if it would help to “send it to Steve” again. King’s response, several weeks later, struck a markedly different tone than before: “Tell me what you’ve done with it, and who you’ve shown it to,” he wrote. “I’m frankly puzzled that you’re having trouble placing it, because it’s not just literary, it’s a very well-constructed package of dynamite.”

Adam Ryan Morris for BuzzFeed News

A poster for Stanley Kubrick's 1962 movie adaptation of Lolita on the wall in Kate Elizabeth Russell’s apartment.

The first time I heard about My Dark Vanessa, it wasn’t because of the novel’s subject matter — a story that, as the editor’s note proclaims on the thousands of galley copies that went out to readers in the months leading up to publication, she believes will be “era-defining.” It was because of how much money Russell had been paid for the book.

When people hear that an author — especially a first-time author — gets a big book deal, they often make certain assumptions. If you’re generous, the assumptions might be that the book is really good, so good that the bidding war escalated into the millions. The more jaded take is that the book is overhyped, the author is overpaid, and the seven-figure price tag is mostly indicative of an industry in ongoing crisis.

Over the past decade, seven-figure advances — once unheard of for debut authors — have become increasingly common, a phenomenon generally attributed to fiercer competition for a smaller number of potentially blockbuster projects. At the same time, mass audience publications like Entertainment Weekly have made the size of a book deal (like the size of movie budgets and weekend grosses) public knowledge. Or, at least, the size of some book deals.

“When you’re a debut writer, and no one really knows anything about you, and you don’t have any fellowships that show ‘this is an up-and-coming literary writer,’ people are like, ‘What else can we point to that generates interest?’” Russell said. “So they include the size of the deal with the write-up with the book. But there are big books that get sold and reported, and big books that get sold and not reported — or at least not the size of the deal.”

On Halloween night, in 2018, Russell sold My Dark Vanessa and a promised second book in one of those massive deals. Six weeks later, a write-up of the sale appeared in Entertainment Weekly under the headline “My Dark Vanessa: Why This Lolita for the #MeToo Era Is the Season’s Biggest-Selling Debut,” explaining that Russell would receive an “eye-popping seven-figures.” Since then, a massive prepublication campaign has positioned My Dark Vanessa as one of the biggest, and buzziest, books of 2020.

“No one should feel sorry for me or any other writer in this position,” Russell said. “But I do kind of envy the writers who don’t have this discourse around their book.” It’s easy to understand why: The book is judged less on its own ideas or merits, and more on whether or not it — and, by extension, the author, who in these scenarios is almost always a young, white woman — is worthy of seven figures. No matter that, as agent Anna Sproul-Latimer recently pointed out on Twitter, after taxes and commission, a seven-figure deal actually ends up being around $127,500 a year (and that might be stretched significantly further if, like Russell’s, the deal is for multiple books). A massive advance hovers over the book like a spell that can’t be broken.

“No one should feel sorry for me or any other writer in this position. But I do kind of envy the writers who don’t have this discourse around their book.”

Sometimes — especially if the book never sells well enough to “earn out” that big advance — that spell is more like a curse. When you put a big number next to a debut author’s name, they take on the weight of every other debut author with a big number next to their name, writing about disparate topics, in very different forms (from Emma Cline’s 2016 Charles Manson novel, The Girls, to Kristen Roupenian’s short story collection, which featured the viral essay “Cat Person,” last year). And when publicity began to ramp up for My Dark Vanessa, that’s what happened to Russell — only her book was shadowed by Jeanine Cummins’ controversial novel American Dirt, the result of another seven-figure deal with a massive marketing push behind it.

The problem with American Dirt wasn’t that it wasn’t selling; it debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It’s that it was written by an American author who, until recently, identified as white, and filled with what Esmeralda Bermudez called “the worst stereotypes, fixations, and inaccuracies” about its Mexican characters and setting — evidence of “what happens when Latinos are shut out of the book industry.” Author Wendy C. Ortiz — who published a memoir called Excavation in 2014, which describes her teenage relationship with a much older teacher — saw a similar dynamic at work with My Dark Vanessa. “In an industry that is continually taken to task for being extremely white and making decisions that reflect as much, here is a 7 figure book deal for a fiction book that is being marketed eerily similarly to my book,” she tweeted, “and has made many of my readers ask, ‘Why does this feel so familiar?’

Vulture reported last week that My Dark Vanessa had been slated to be an Oprah's Book Club pick until, soon after the January controversy around American Dirt, it was suddenly dropped. Publisher William Morrow said in a statement that they are “disappointed by the decision” but confident that readers will continue to respond to the novel. Russell told me, “I'm just excited to publish my first book.”

Readers of My Dark Vanessa and Excavation will recognize, as New York magazine’s Lila Shapiro put it, that “beyond the central premise of a woman reevaluating her teenage relationship with her teacher, the two works don’t have much in common.” (Ortiz later clarified that she did not intend to imply that Russell had plagiarized any part of Excavation.) The subject matter is familiar because the trope of the older male teacher and young female student, as King himself pointed out, is just that: a trope, nearly a genre, a thing that happens and that people feel enormously compelled to write and read about. But that doesn’t obviate Ortiz’s larger point: that her book, exploring her experience of that “trope,” was ignored by the mainstream publishing industry, while Russell’s was (eventually) embraced and richly rewarded.

Adam Ryan Morris for BuzzFeed News

Kate Elizabeth Russell with her dog, Tallulah Barkhead.

That industry is reactive, and conservative, and often decides on acceptances and advance figures through an opaque calculation that, more than anything, has to do with previous market behaviors. Add in the fact that those making the decisions are overwhelmingly white, and urban, and from elite backgrounds, and you end up with the sort of maxims that, stated or unstated, rule the industry: ideas like memoirs about sexual abuse don’t sell, or only white women buy books — and, by extension, the only way to market a book about sexual abuse is to have it be written by a white woman and to make it fiction.

Russell said she believes that talking about biases in publishing is “a really important conversation,” and finds the argument that “It shouldn’t matter who’s telling the stories; as long as it’s a good book, that’s all that matters” to be “so inadequate, it makes my skin crawl.”

And when Ortiz started tweeting (and, later, writing) about My Dark Vanessa, Russell recalled finding the online conversation that ensued “weirdly fascinating.” “This was what I was studying!” she told me. “So much of this is in the book.” Russell had spent years of her PhD work trying to figure out the critical and industrial rejection of this sort of memoir and studying the discourse around them: analyzing it, disassembling it, situating it. Now she’s a part of it.

“It's not just that the industry will more likely embrace the fictional narrative of abuse over the memoir,” Ortiz, who is currently working on an essay about the aftermath of publishing her essay, told me in an email. “There's the fact that the industry does not appear to be interested in a story in which the protagonist is a young girl of color who, in essence, saves herself.” So the question presents itself: When your story is one the industry is interested in, how much responsibility do you have for its actions moving forward? As Ortiz put it, “I wonder if Kate would have ever been in position to talk about [bias in publishing] if my essay hadn't come out.”


At the end of my afternoon with Russell, the winter light was just beginning to fade in the window. Tallulah Barkhead pawed at both of us, asking for a walk. The Bon Appétit test kitchen videos that had served as a muted backdrop for the entirety of our conversation streamed on, with Claire Saffitz re-creating one junk food after another. After four hours of talking, words had begun to fail both of us.

But I wanted to ask Russell about something that had unsettled me throughout the reading process: Every time the narrative switched to Vanessa’s adult perspective, I found myself desperate to return to the past. It took me a long time to realize that among all of the inexcusable things Strane did to Vanessa, one of the worst was to hollow her out entirely. She’s not unlikable, per se, so much as nothing, and no one.

“The 32-year-old Vanessa doesn’t even care if she’s likable or not,” Russell told me. “She isn’t trying to be nice. She’s not trying to mean. She’s just lost all that ambition and drive that she had as a teen. And when she graduates from college and loses her allure to Strane, all she has is a giant void. With characters, we always want them to be active, not passive, going on adventures — and she’s the opposite of all of that.”

Russell thinks Adult Vanessa makes many readers uncomfortable — at least judging by reviews on Goodreads — in part because she’s so relatable. “She isn’t a villain,” Russell points out. “She isn’t physically repulsive, or slovenly. She’s had the same job for eight years. She goes to work; she’s competent at her job; she doesn’t have a terrible relationship with her mom; she’s going to therapy. In a lot of ways, she does have it together. She’s just barely holding her head above water and is a mess under the surface. And I think a lot of people are like — or, at the very least, have had points in their lives when they were like — that. And that can be uncomfortable to encounter on the page.”

“Whatever, and however, anyone wants to respond to Vanessa, I think it’s valid,” Russell told me. “Any reaction is valid. There are some that I might agree with more than others, but this book is an offering to readers. Everything in it is an offering.

“I had to write it in a way that would make that possible,” she continued. “Which means it had to be fiction. It had to be artifice. Because otherwise — how could I stand it?” ●

CORRECTION

Kate Elizabeth Russell is not an only child. A previous version of this post misstated this.


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