My Dark Vanessa: Why this Lolita for the #MeToo era is the season's biggest-selling debut
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, has just acquired Kate Russell’s novel My Dark Vanessa, EW can announce exclusively. The publisher made the deal for an eye-popping seven-figures in a competitive situation, making it the highest-selling debut of the season. The price is on par with such recent buzzy launches as Emma Cline’s The Girls and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest.
This story is still developing — fast — as the first offer from a film studio has been officially made, EW has learned, and foreign rights have already been sold in 22 countries. My Dark Vanessa is described as a story of psychosexual manipulation between a teenager and her English teacher, and the aftermath of their years-long affair. In her writing, Russell sought to juxtapose memory, trauma, and the aftermath of abuse with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl understanding for the first time the power her body can wield.
Russell recently received her PhD in creative writing, and is currently living below the poverty line. The novel was inspired by her own teenage experiences with older men. “I first read Lolita when I was 14, drawn in by the cover and the way I’d heard the term evoked to describe certain girls I admired and wanted to emulate,” Russell tells EW. “I think Lolita spoke to the desire I had to be taken seriously by the people who I thought held the keys to the worlds I wanted access to — of art and writing and music and culture…. I remember reading some early literary criticism on Lolita that described Humbert as transforming Dolores from ‘rough glass into sparkling crystal.’ I really internalized that message, becoming sexually involved with older men at 15, 16, 17.”
The author started writing the characters of My Dark Vanessa, remarkably, when she was 16. The main character was initially sketched out as Russell herself, but gradually she moved away from memoir. The English teacher, meanwhile, has always been a composite. “Initially, I did this out of loyalty to the men I was sexually involved with at the time — I knew what was at stake for them, didn’t want to betray them — but now I see it as an empowering decision for me both as a woman and a writer,” Russell says. “Fiction gave me the freedom to center my own emotional experience rather than focus on the details of what exactly an older, powerful man did or didn’t do to me.”
The book has evolved gradually, of course, but took on a whole new meaning as the #MeToo movement gained steam last year. It forced Russell to not only reevaluate her characters’ journeys — an accusation plot-line had been moved to the center — but also her own experiences. “I remember a point where I was scrolling through Twitter, seeing friends and strangers putting these stories of violence and abuse out in the world, harrowing, horrible things, and all we could do for each other was reply with heart emojis,” she says. “In a way, it just seemed to highlight our powerlessness. As the movement evolved, the way all this trauma was churned through the Internet Content Machine started to feel perverse.” She continues: “I ended up feeling rather alienated from #MeToo as a whole — despite it being directly connected to my novel, my life’s work — and I used that sense of alienation to fine-tune Vanessa’s character and shape the novel’s central conflict.”
There’s already an enormous amount of hype behind My Dark Vanessa, and we’ll have a long wait before getting our first look at it. So: More to come. For now, we’ll leave you with some early praise by none other than Stephen King. “I have the feeling you get at the end of some books, when you know the next one won’t be as good,” he says. “[It’s] a hard story to read and an even harder one to put down … a well-constructed package of dynamite.”