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Writing in the #MeToo era: 'It was intimidating taking on something in fiction that was happening in real time'

We spoke to the author Kate Elizabeth Russell about what inspired her controversial but critically-acclaimed novel.

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“IT’S HARD TO imagine Vanessa being met with a lot of empathy. Maybe that’s cynical…”

Author Kate Elizabeth Russell knows that the protagonist of her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, is controversial. That it’s easy for some people to view her through a negative lens, and not to see the complications behind the contradictions in her actions.

The book is not an easy read, but it’s one that feels firmly rooted in today, a world where the #MeToo movement has helped to usher in major change, a world where Harvey Weinstein is in jail. Some publications have called it the most controversial novel of the year.

My Dark Vanessa is about a young girl – Vanessa – and her relationship with a teacher, Jacob Strane. Their relationship begins when she’s just 15, and so from the off the reader is on alert. Flashing back and forward between today and the year 2000, the book explores the impact of what happened between Vanessa and Strane, and in doing so shows how societal attitudes towards such relationships have changed.

Even in her 30s, Vanessa remains firm in her belief that she and Strane had a proper, equal relationship. The book explores what happens with another girl accuses Strane of abuse. Vanessa is forced to look at what happened afresh.

The book is about trauma, and the complications of abuse. Vanessa does not always do what readers want her to do. She is human, and she is damaged.

The novel has received attention in the book world since news emerged that Russell received a seven-figure advance for her debut. This, her publishers were obviously saying, is an important book.

When TheJournal.ie speaks to Russell, a 35-year-old American who grew up in Maine, it’s weeks before the conviction and jailing of Harvey Weinstein. Russell has at that point been contending with weeks of online controversy. It came after another young author claimed My Dark Vanessa was inspired by her own memoir.

Russell had to come out and say that, though she had read that memoir during her research, her debut was in part inspired by an incident her own life.

It wasn’t something that Russell had wanted to go public with.

It didn’t help that the questions about her book emerged around the same time that controversy broke out around the novel American Dirt, and questions about cultural appropriation. While the situation around My Dark Vanessa and American Dirt were very different, they both focused negative commentary on authors during big publicity campaigns.

Intense

Russell is remarkably calm and steady-minded when asked about what she has been dealing with. 

“It was intense and it got intense quickly, which happens on social media, I think especially on Twitter. I’m familiar with that and how those conversations play out so I tried to remove myself from it, and sort of let it play out,” she says.

“Because the bigger conversations that are going on in terms of whose stories are elevated in the publishing industry [the author of the memoir, Wendy Ortiz, questioned whether her race had led to her book not getting the same level of attention as Russell's in, opening a discussion about race in publishing], I deeply respect that conversation. I think it needs to be had. I think it’s important and specifically with stories of sexual abuse.”

Russell says she tried to take a step back from the conversation, when she found “things were said about my book that weren’t true”.

“It’s funny, at the beginning of this publishing process I tried to establish my boundaries regularly, what I wanted to share about the writing process and my own experience, so I knew going into it how I wanted to talk about it,” she says. She says she anticipated “there being certain kinds of questions and certain levels of interest in any baby writer’s life when they’re writing about sexual abuse”.

KERauthorphoto1 - (c) Elena Seibert Kate Elizabeth Russell Source: Elena Seibert

In an interview in 2018, she had already talked about the process of writing the book, and an experience she had as a teenager that informed the novel. But she didn’t intend divulging more than that.

“That information was out there and in a way I feel fortunate that I did come out of the gates being as open as I wanted to be, because that has allowed me to keep that boundary between myself and the novel I wrote,” she says now.

But she knows everyone is not as fortunate as her. “I worry about writers who might not be able to stick to those boundaries as well as I’ve been able to do, because I am really lucky,” she says. “I have a lot of support from my publishing team and I literally got a PhD in preparing for this, where I studied narratives of sex abuse and how they had been received critically. I worry about writers trying to work with similar material and being caught off guard by the way their books are received in the leadup to publicity.”

18 years

The book was a long time in the making – writing it took about 18 years on and off, says Russell, who started it as a teenager and worked on it during her creative writing degree and MFA in literature.

Though the characters were in her head since she was 16, her degree and MFA helped her to refine the idea. “My experience at the MFA programme was great in that it allowed me to take myself seriously as a writer,” says Russell.

It also involved taking constant feedback. For example, she was encouraged by tutors to try writing her book from another character’s perspective, but she found it never worked. 

When she thinks of some of the feedback she received, she says that “looking back it does seem misguided, and maybe informed by reductive sexist beliefs on abuse and victimhood… but at the same time maybe the drafts weren’t very good.” 

“It’s hard to parse that out,” she says. “I do know I would often come away from workshops feeling frustrated and misunderstood in terms of what I was working on, what I was trying to do.”

Her protagonist, Vanessa, “tended to be labelled as incomprehensible”. “That was something that got into my head and that I struggled with,” says Russell.

She says that Vanessa is “not delusional about the culture she’s living in – she’s so perceptive and she understands what’s going on, but she sees hypocrisies that are being overlooked by other people.”

“I think she has a potential to challenge readers… it’s so easy to brush her off as simply brainwashed or delusional. She’s smart. I think in some ways she sees this culture of enablement and silencing better than most victims.”

“That line of thinking influences her views towards coming forward and speaking out. I think she understands what reception she would most likely be met with, being criticised  or disbelieved.”

Writing process

Which brings us back to #MeToo. Though she wasn’t to know it would happen, the #MeToo movement occurred as Russell was in the latter stages of working on her book.

“It was intimidating because it lined up in such a surreal way where I was finishing up the novel in fall 2016, specifically finishing a present tense plotline, then MeToo took off,” says Russell. “It was intimidating when I thought of trying to take on something in fiction that was happening in real time. I had been working on this for so many years, I didn’t ever envision it to be timely and I was a little uncomfortable with the thought of my book maybe fitting into a certain label or [being seen as] a ‘MeToo’ novel.”

However, she soon came to the conclusion that this was not a bad thing. “I realised that the book was going to be read in this context regardless of my intentions,” says Russell. “And also, I chose to believe in myself and the book and in the idea that I had something to contribute, because I had been doing this work for so long.” 

She retains a positive attitude. “Maybe the way I’m trying to navigate this somewhat tricky terrain right now might show an aspiring writer – maybe especially an aspiring fiction writer – this is possible.  You can work with different subject matter that might inevitably entail inviting this line of questioning, but you can stay true to yourself and you can stick to those boundaries.”

She describes herself as “trying to be still being the best advocate for the book that I possibly can be”. 

“I just want to make sure I have the space to be a novelist, an artist, to have that space to create and invent and use my own experiences however I want.”

She’s currently working on book two, but being a “bit superstitious” about it, she doesn’t want to say too much. Is it different to My Dark Vanessa?

“This idea I’m working with is thematically similar in some ways but also pretty different in others,” is all she’ll say. “But it’s a funny thing, I’ve been working with this idea for a year and a lot of the ideas I’m working with have to do with creativity and achieving success through creativity and the struggles and questions that come with that, so certainly the past year has given me a lot of fodder.”

She says that she has always wanted Vanessa to “be a character who readers are free to react to however they want”, whether that’s empathy or frustration, or even questioning her. 

“I think all of those reactions are valid and important,” says Russell. ”I hope it’s a book that even readers who have differing opinions about Vanessa, and what she goes through, that they’re able to have this conversation about it.

Because I think that’s part of the power of fiction that way: that you are able to engage with a story that doesn’t belong to anyone because it is fictional, you are free to tear it apart and disagree about it and debate it.

My Dark Vanessa, published by Fourth Estate, is out now.

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