Kate Elizabeth Russell, MY DARK VANESSA

Kate Elizabeth Russell, MY DARK VANESSA

Zibby Owens: I’m thrilled to be here today with Kate Elizabeth Russel who’s the debut author of My Dark Vanessa, a novel which will be published in twenty-plus languages. Originally from Maine, Kate earned an MFA from Indiana University and a PhD from the University of Kansas. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Quarterly West, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and other journals. She currently lives in Wisconsin.

Welcome, Kate. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kate Russell: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really happy to be here.

Zibby: I’m so excited to discuss My Dark Vanessa. I have not stopped thinking about this book. Can you please tell listeners what it’s about?

Kate: My Dark Vanessa, it tells the story of Vanessa Wye. At thirty-two years old, she learns that her high school English teacher, Jacob Strane, has been accused of sexual abuse by another former student. This accusation, it rattles her to her core because she had a relationship with this teacher starting when she was fifteen. In her eyes, it wasn’t abuse. It was love. She feels very, very sure of that. The novel, it then moves back and forth in time between the present day and this accusation and then back in her teenage years showing how the relationship started, how it continued, and then at the same time showing the long-last consequences on her adult life.

Zibby: How did you come up with this plot?

Kate: I worked on the book for a really long time, a really, really long time.

Zibby: Give me a ballpark.

Kate: I started writing it when I was a teenager. What drew me to this story then, though it took a very different form back then, but that was around the age I started to become aware of how teenage girls were sexualized in our culture. That was confusing, being a teenage girl myself. Writing fiction was my way of making sense of that. That was sort of the seed of it, how it started. Then over the years, draft after draft has evolved. I had a real breakthrough around my thirtieth birthday which coincided with starting a PhD program in creative writing. It was then that I figured out this present-day plot line of another student coming forward and accusing that teacher. Once I figured out that plot line, it gave me the answer to this question of, why tell this story now and what is propelling this story forward? It gave the whole narrative a sort of urgency. Then after that, Me Too started to happen, which is I guess a whole other conversation. That was one of the most surreal things about the writing process, was arriving at this plot line and then seeing something really similar play out in the real world at the same time.

Zibby: You’re like, yes! No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding.

Kate: It was more, I was just really freaked out at first because I wasn’t quite sure how to handle that. It took a while for me to figure out how to address it. Once I realized that my book would be read in this context of Me Too whether I wanted it to be or not and realizing how important this cultural moment was, I really tried to lean into it, not too hard. People are calling it a Me Too story. I think that that’s understandable, but I am also trying to show a story that isn’t the type that we necessarily have heard that often. Vanessa is a protagonist who, she doesn’t want to come forward. She doesn’t want to post her story on social media or talk to a journalist. Fiction is a way to gain access to a story like that.

Zibby: Vanessa also had a lot of sympathy towards Jacob Strane in the book. She didn’t view it as abuse. She didn’t think it was. She felt like he had a problem. She understood it. She was there to soften the blow in a way.

Kate: That’s an interesting way to put it. I really wanted to make her perceptive, especially as a teenager. Even though he’s manipulating her and grooming her and coercing her in ways that she doesn’t totally understand at that age, she also sees him pretty clearly. In some ways, I wanted to make her even more perceptive as a teenager than she is in her thirties. In her thirties, I think she has these blinders on out of necessity because on a certain level, she knows better at thirty-two. She knows on some level that she was abused, that this was wrong, that this has deeply harmed her life. At fifteen, her naivete gave her the ability to have a lot of empathy for him and able to romanticize him and this “problem” that he has.

Zibby: I feel like by the time she got into her thirties, you had more of a question mark of, does she have any mental illness of her own? Is this caused by what happened? I feel like you danced around — you showed us some of the symptoms, but maybe, question mark, question mark.

Kate: I tried to do that in some different ways, definitely with her — I wanted the book to be read and it be fairly clear she’s suffering from trauma in her thirties, but she’s suffering from it in these ways that are kind of grotesque, like her slovenly apartment and her struggling to do the basic necessities of life. Then also as a teenager, I wanted to show her being disorganized and having trouble concentrating and not being the best student, but also being really smart. I knew that readers would come into this book looking for an explanation of why this happened to her. What made her so susceptible to this man? I think there are easy, go-to answers for that. Were her parents not paying attention to her? Was this girl in question, not even necessarily Vanessa but just thinking of a kid who finds themselves in a situation like Vanessa does, was she already promiscuous? Was she already sexually experienced? and looking to these answers like, that’s the reason why. I didn’t want to give the reader any one thing that they could point to and be like, oh, well that’s why she was convinced by him or tricked by him. There are different things that you could pick up on in the book, but I didn’t want any of them to be like, that’s the answer and that’s why this happened.

Zibby: I don’t think it could ever be so simple anyway. That’s more true to life. I feel like I read this as not only in Vanessa’s shoes, but also from the point of view of her parents as a parent myself and thinking, what did her parents do wrong? Did you see them as enablers? which effectively they were. Was there anything they did raising her that made her, as you said, more susceptible? Was it just a confluence of a lot of different factors?

Kate: That was my thought, that it was just a lot of different factors. With her parents, I thought of the relationship with her and her parents as not great, but not bad, kind of just ordinary, especially as a teenager and feeling like you enjoy spending time with your parents to a certain extent, but on the other hand you kind of want them to go away and completely leave you alone. I do think that choices that are made in the book by her parents, maybe especially her mother, could be seen as enabling but I think could also be seen as just wanting to protect her daughter and knowing it’s an impossible situation. If you suspect your kid is being abused, then what do you do? You go to the police, but that would invite in another round of trauma inevitably. Even if justice is eventually served, you would be putting your kid through something. That was what was on my mind as a writer when I was crafting those scenes with her mother. It’s difficult. There’s room for disagreement there, which was important to me, to leave that room for disagreement for the reader because I think that’s what makes people want to talk about a book, is if there’s room for different interpretations of it.

Zibby: What are the other secrets to writing a book that everybody’s talking about? Since we’re on that topic, this book has gotten so much attention. It’s on every list of anticipated books. Are you even ready for the — I don’t even know the word. Are you ready for all the media attention? Let me say that again. Are you ready for all of the excitement and attention around the launch of this book?

Kate: I don’t know if I can be totally ready for it because it’s all new to me. It’s overwhelming but really exciting. Mostly, I’m so anxious and excited for the book to be out and in the hands of readers and for the book to do whatever it’s going to do and for readers to respond to it however they’re going to respond. I know that I’m tasked with helping bring the book into the world, but I’m really looking forward to when I feel like the book can really stand on its own and I can just kind of stand back and watch it. In terms of writing it, all of this is surprising to me, especially because I worked on it for so long. I always figured this subject matter is dark and difficult. Because of that, I never really anticipated it finding a really wide readership, but people want to talk about this subject matter right now. People want to engage with it. I think that is certainly part of what is fueling interest in it. I also tried to write the best book I possibly could.

Zibby: I was going to say, I wouldn’t sell yourself short. I think it’s the book itself. I think this book would be a phenomenal book regardless of what was going on in the cultural climate zeitgeist.

Kate: Trying to balance, right, trying not to sell yourself short, but at the same time knowing it is timely. It’s timely. I’m still, on some level, struggling to believe that this is all really happening.

Zibby: I’ll just keep reminding you, send you an occasional text. It’s on. It’s another day in this new world of yours. Kidding aside, what you were saying about how you craft something that people want to leave room for interpretation — you have a PhD in creative writing. Are there things that you learned or you got out of that program or just your lifetime that you think contribute to making a great book, that you in the back of your head said, oh, I have to make sure to include this element or I want this in my book in some way?

Kate: So much of it — I think this is a common thing that writers say. So much of it comes down to character, absolutely, when writing a book that you want to be considered literary. I feel like for me, I really have to lean into the characters as much as I can, even characters that you don’t necessarily want to. The amount of time I had to spend thinking about Strane and trying to get into his head even though the book is never from his perspective, I still tried to think about him as closely as I could. That wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do, but I knew that the book needed it. Spending a lot of time learning as much as I could about the characters even if what I learn doesn’t end up explicitly on the page, just me knowing the characters in ways that the reader never necessarily will, that was really important through the writing process. Also, being as invested in the plot as I possibly could, which doesn’t always come naturally to me, that was hard work of having big white boards and different colored markers and keeping track of all the subplots and making sure that I didn’t lose track of anything and trying to make sure that everything wasn’t necessarily resolved but at least would feel satisfying to the reader by the end of the book. I knew that was necessary, but that was maybe the hardest thing, was trying to make the plot really propulsive as much as I could. As a literary writer, that can be tough.

Zibby: You’ve been working on this for years, over a decade. I’m sure you worked on it in all different types of places and different times. In terms of your process and the visual you can create of you sitting and writing this book, are you a person who likes to go to coffee shops and write? Did you do it always at night? What was your process like in terms of the actual writing of it?

Kate: Definitely coffee shops and libraries. I write best when I get out of the house, especially if I’m struggling. I find getting out of the house, and being in a coffee shop especially, I feel more compelled to work or obligated to work if I’m in a coffee shop because I feel like people can see my computer screen, not that anyone’s looking at me. I just feel like if I’m messing around on social media, people will see, whereas it gives me more accountability, I guess, and also liking the background noise. Also, once I was really, really deep in the writing process, I would just set up on the couch and write all night. That was the best. That was the best feeling, the feeling of not wanting to sleep because the writing was going so well. I really miss that. I can’t wait to get back to that point when I’m writing again. Anyway, coffee shops are always my go-to place. And there’s food and drink there.

Zibby: Hey, why not? Have you ever written any short stories or worked on any other projects along the way while you were constructing this beautiful novel?

Kate: I was in my PhD program from 2013 to 2018. During that time, I took two years of coursework. Then I had my doctoral exams, which was three reading lists of, I think it was maybe two hundred books and articles that I had to read and have an exam on. Then I got to write the dissertation. Finally, I had three semesters of just writing the dissertation/novel. That was great, but the years leading up that, I always just wanted to work on it. I had to do the coursework. I had to study for exams. I always felt like I had all these other obligations. On top of all of that, I was teaching the whole time. I had a lot to juggle. It was like, I can’t wait. I can’t wait until I’m at the dissertation stage and then I can just totally devote myself to writing this. When I finally got to that point where writing the book was my job, I just threw myself into it and tried to take advantage of it as much as I could. I was like, when else am I going to be in the position where this is my job? Now suddenly I find myself, when my next book is going to be able to be written, in that situation too, which is such a gift. I don’t take it for granted even a little bit.

Zibby: Is your goal or was your goal to be a professor at all, or an academic?

Kate: When I was really young, yeah. Even when I was an undergrad, I still wanted that. I still thought of that as a goal. Then once I got into grad school and the realities of the academic job market, I was confronted with them, I didn’t see myself as competitive or qualified. Now I have a book. Maybe I would be. It’s having to rethink that. But now I’m like, is that really what I want to do? Still figuring it out, but I do miss teaching. Being a professor, there’s a lot of other stuff on top of teaching that you have to do. We’ll see.

Zibby: You mentioned earlier before we started recording that you follow your husband around for his academic life as well.

Kate: Which I’m so happy to. I’m in such a privileged position right now too that I can. I was always up for that. We view ourselves as very, very lucky in that case, that we can be really flexible and openminded about where we end up. I just hope that we end somewhere where we’re happy and that we like. We’ll see. We’ll see what the future holds.

Zibby: You are a far better wife than I am. I would not be like, anywhere you want to go. I pick the restaurants we go to. I can’t delegate anything.

Kate: I’m going to make my husband listen to this.

Zibby: You got major points in my book. You’re like a wife idol now of mine. Not to delve into your own past — I know the page in the beginning of the book says that this bears no resemblance. This is all fiction and everything, but you did attend a private day school in Maine, as Vanessa did. Well, she went to a boarding school. You went to a private day school in ninth and tenth grade. Then you left for personal reasons… Can you talk about what happened then or any similarities? Did you know someone this happened to? Is there anything in your own —

Kate: — I don’t want to talk about personal stuff, necessarily. Regarding the note at the beginning of the book, I wanted to be up front about the book being fiction because it would misrepresent the book, misrepresent myself to call it anything other than fiction. Also, I really think it does a disservice to the reader by letting the book be viewed as anything other than fiction. I want this book to be something that readers can engage with in a way that, like I said, leaves room for disagreement. A reader viewing Vanessa as frustrating and disappointing and doing the wrong thing, I think that’s totally valid. I think that type of reading response to nonfiction is trickier because then you’re dealing with someone’s actual life. Especially a story or a piece of nonfiction that deals with trauma, that’s an ethical gray area for me. People might disagree, but this book is fiction. At the same time, there are parallels between Vanessa and I, some of which are obvious. Even if you just read my bio, I grew up in Eastern Maine like Vanessa. I know the way that we read debut novels, maybe especially debut novels written by women, we tend to read them as autobiographical. I know that, and so I wanted to be clear about it being fiction, as clear as I possibly could.

Your question about witnessing this type of behavior on the part of the teacher, I was a student for twenty-five years of my life overall. As a young woman in an academic setting, I don’t think it’s possible to not be on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior, so absolutely I saw it. I was on the receiving end of it, but it takes a lot of different forms. It’s not always as dramatic as being seduced by your middle-aged English teacher in high school. It can be a professor who was always great, but then there’s that one interaction alone in his office and you don’t know how to make sense of it. It can be taking a workshop where the professor says, “Let’s all meet at the bar.” Then it’s a class, but you’re all drinking. It’s not on campus. The lines seem to be blurred. What I tried to do when I was writing the book is to not look at these things in terms of a hierarchy and say, this is worse, and then this isn’t quite as bad, and maybe this is okay, but rather to just think about how all of these instances of inappropriate behavior that are so common, how they’re all connected and how they all speak to the same problem. That’s why it was important for me to show Vanessa in college. That’s another academic setting that’s really similar to her boarding school, but she suddenly finds herself in a situation where it’s okay for professors to marry their students here. Whereas at her boarding school, that clearly wasn’t okay. It’s showing how difficult it is for someone who has been through this kind of trauma to navigate the social norms that feel like they’re shifting under her feet.

Zibby: I could listen to you talk forever. You talk in complete, well-crafted paragraphs. It’s really amazing.

Kate: Oh, my gosh, thank you.

Zibby: I’m just marveling at the structure of your spoken words, amazing, as I ramble on myself. I just wanted to read one quote of yours from the book. You said, “Strane says as a culture, we treat victimhood as an extension of childhood. So when a woman chooses victimhood, she is therefore freed from personal responsibility which then compels others to take care of her, which is why once a woman chooses victimhood, she will continue to choose it again and again.” Vanessa goes on to say, “I’m not a victim because I’ve never wanted to be. And if I don’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?” So what do you think about this?

Kate: With the quote from Strane, or Vanessa remembering Strane saying those things about victimhood, I think that it makes sense for him to see victimhood in that way, that it’s something that women choose and that they find comfort in. Strane goes on to say the world has a vested interest in keeping you helpless, you meaning young women, but so does he. He’s very invested in keeping her helpless. I imagined Strane seeing victimhood, even just the idea of it, as something potentially really appealing to Vanessa and something that would potentially give her a lot of strength. It made sense to me to have him be trying to undercut the very idea of it in this really manipulative way. The way that Vanessa thinks about it, when she says, “I don’t want to be a victim,” and “The difference between rape and sex is state of mind,” that’s how I was taught. That’s how I was taught to understand consent. It’s difficult to argue with because I think that’s the way that a lot of us were taught it. What I wanted to do in that moment was to show how flawed that thinking is and how incomplete and how easy it is for someone who has been victimized to parrot back these things that we’ve all been taught, but show how easily they can be twisted into excusing an abuser.

Zibby: Is part of your goal in the book helping people who might be going through this situation now or who have gone through it in the past or might encounter it and then have some background and framework to process it?

Kate: Yes and no. It wasn’t the goal when I was writing it. Always, the main goal was just getting the story down and engaging with the — this is going to sound wrong because the book is so difficult — the enjoyment I got from just writing it. The enjoyment I get from writing anything, that was what drove me.

Zibby: You’re allowed to enjoy your job. It’s okay.

Kate: The ideal reader I had in my head was not someone who’s necessarily experienced what Vanessa has, but someone who would find comfort in seeing a portrayal of a victim who is engaging with her own abuse in ways that we don’t usually see. That was really important to me, but that’s also pretty broad. It doesn’t have to be the exact circumstances. It’s just trying to honor the complexity of it.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?

Kate: It’s an easy, go-to answer, but I think perseverance is so important. It took me such a long time to get this book right. I was never afraid of tearing it apart and starting over. I was maybe a little too eager to start over to the point where I wrote so many different openings to this book, like probably a couple dozen different attempts. The setting would change. The point of view would change. I was never afraid of that work and never afraid to stick with it. That was really important. Also, viewing the process — even if you have to throw away hundreds of pages of work, the process is always teaching you something. If you keep at it, by the time you do the get the book where it needs to be, you’re going to be so experienced as a writer because of all those failed attempts. That’s my best piece of advice. Don’t be afraid of the failure because it’s helping you all along the way.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for writing this book which I will not stop thinking about. It was so good. Such a good book.

Kate: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks so much.

Kate: Thanks.

Kate Elizabeth Russell, MY DARK VANESSA