What's in a Page: Kate Elizabeth Russell looks back on her novel My Dark Vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell released her debut novel two days before COVID-19 caused a nationwide shutdown. The pandemic has caused a host of complications for the publishing industry, but as complications go, that timing was, basically the worst. Now, My Dark Vanessa is releasing in paperback, offering the chance for readers who may have been a little preoccupied in March 2020 — seriously, did anyone get any reading done that month? — to discover it anew.
The book alternates between two timelines: the year 2000, when a teenaged Vanessa Wye is seduced into a sexual relationship with her high school teacher, and 2017, as she grapples with her memories and the ways in which it wreaks havoc on her adult life. Despite its many similarities to the boon of post-#MeToo-era pop culture, Russell began work on Vanessa nearly two decades ago. Here, she answers EW's burning questions about the beginnings of her quest to be an author and revisits the work on the eve of its republication.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is the first thing — ever — that you remember writing?
KATE ELIZABETH RUSSELL: I feel like I started writing fiction in the womb, so I'm not sure I can remember the very first thing, but my first vivid writing memory came after seeing the Winona Ryder Little Women for the first time. I became fixated on emulating Jo's writing process because it all seemed so romantic: stay up all night, eat oranges, wear a fetching little sleeping cap, write on unlined paper bound together with twine. I wanted that life.
What is the last book that made you cry?
Hmmm, good question. It's been a while since a book really gutted me, but the last piece of writing to make me weep was Blake Butler's tribute to his late wife, poet Molly Brodak, in The Volta. It's been about a month since I read that essay and I've thought about it every day.
Which book is at the top of your current To-Read list?
Boy Parts by Eliza Clark, Something Wild by Hanna Halperin, and Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters.
Where do you write?
Right now, in a home office. It's a sunroom, has eight windows and lots of space for me to pace around. It's a dream. But I miss writing in coffee shops. That's the number one thing I'm looking forward to once things are safe again. Sometimes when I'm writing at home, I'll play these "cafe ambiance" youtube videos to try to recapture the feeling, but it doesn't really work.
Which book made you a forever reader?
It was definitely Judy Blume who did it, either with Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself or Just as Long as We're Together.
What is a snack you couldn't write without?
Sour gummies, dried mango, and diet soda. My desk is always littered with cans.
If you could change one thing about your book what would it be?
The publication year! Putting out a book in 2020 was not ideal.
What is your favorite part of My Dark Vanessa?
How much of it stayed intact through the very long writing process. Details, sentences, or even entire scenes that I first wrote fifteen years ago made their way into the final version of the novel — I feel so proud of my younger self when I remember this.
What was the hardest plot point or character to write?
The hardest character was probably Strane [the teacher], because characterizing him was a real balancing act. Through Vanessa's eyes, he's tormented and tragic, but the reader recognizes his manipulations and coercive control. It was a tricky line to walk.
Write a movie poster tag line for My Dark Vanessa:
"Because if it isn't a love story, then what is it?"