This Is Not a Love Story

At 16, Kate Elizabeth Russell saw her book about a student’s affair with a teacher as a romance. She sees it differently now.

Photo: Dina Litovsky
Photo: Dina Litovsky

Kate Elizabeth Russell traces the beginning of her obsession with Lolita to an encounter with the musician Jakob Dylan. It was 1997, and the novelist was 13 years old, precocious and bored, living on an isolated lake some 15 miles east of Bangor, Maine. Dylan, then in his late 20s, was coming to town with his band, the Wallflowers, and he wanted to meet Stephen King, the local royalty. Russell’s father happened to be a DJ for King’s radio station, and he arranged a dinner. Russell and her cousin got to tag along. She remembers trembling through the meal, struggling to contain her excitement as she watched the charismatic front man tear apart a bread roll with his hands. Later, she read everything she could find about him. In a Rolling Stone profile, he declared his favorite book was Lolita. She couldn’t check the book out from her local library — every copy had been lost or stolen — but she discovered the text on a rudimentary website and felt a thrill when she realized it was about a sexual relationship between a girl around her own age and a much older man. “I didn’t know that was an option,” she recalled thinking at the time.

One of the strangest aspects of the cultural legacy of Lolita, the story of a man in his late 30s who kidnaps and repeatedly rapes a 12-year-old girl, is the fact that so many people through the decades have read it as a love story. Russell was not an exception. The paperback edition she eventually bought was splashed with a quote from Vanity Fair calling the novel “the only convincing love story of our century.” She would sometimes point to that quote when she got into arguments with friends who dismissed the book as highbrow pornography for pedophiles. Around a year after she read it, she began to work on her own novel about the relationship between a young girl and a much older man. Hers was a love story too, she told me over lunch in Manhattan a few weeks ago. At least, that’s how she saw it back then and for many years after.

The book, My Dark Vanessa, which will be published next month, some 20 years after Russell began writing it, has been the toast of the publishing world since late 2018, when William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, bought it for seven figures — making it one of the most expensive debut novels of that year. Provocative and absorbing, it has been hailed as “Lolita for the #MeToo era” (Entertainment Weekly), and it shares with Vladimir Nabokov’s tale a disturbing allure. In the opening chapter, set in 2017 amid the rising tide of public revelations about sexual harassment and abuse, the narrator, Vanessa, sees on Facebook that another woman has accused her high-school English teacher, Jacob Strane, of sexual assault. Years earlier, when Vanessa was just 15 and he was 42, she and Strane began a sexual relationship. But Vanessa doesn’t join the chorus of voices demanding his firing. Instead, stoned and lying in bed that night, she calls the teacher and asks him to recount one of their sexual encounters while she masturbates. Like Russell when she first read Lolita, Vanessa allows herself to imagine that this kind of relationship could be love.

Over the years, through endless drafts and iterations, Russell mined many details of the story from her life. Like Russell, Vanessa grew up on an isolated lake in Maine; like Russell, Vanessa attended a private high school for two years before withdrawing. Maybe you’re wondering now if the other thing is true too: Did Russell, like Vanessa, have an affair with her high-school teacher? In an author’s note, Russell urges readers against jumping to the conclusion that the novel relates her “secret history.” She knew that some people, like her old M.F.A.-workshop classmates, would assume the book was a work of autofiction — a titillating notion heightened by the editor’s note prefacing review copies, which states that Russell’s story had been “inspired by her own teenage experiences with older men.”

But she didn’t anticipate the trap she would fall into by refusing to be explicit about her personal life. In the weeks leading up to the book’s debut, she would go from seeing her name on almost every list of the most eagerly awaited books of 2020 to finding herself at the center of a scandal, one of several that have shaken the publishing world less than two months into the new year. It unfolded on Twitter, where Russell was accused of stealing her story from another woman’s memoir; some went so far as to demand that she prove she had been abused herself.

Russell denied the accusations of plagiarism but insisted on maintaining the boundary she had drawn around her own experiences. She deleted her Twitter account and waited out the storm at her home in Madison, Wisconsin, doing puzzles with her husband in order to avoid looking at her phone. When I reached her there, she pointed out the eerie similarities between the controversy and her novel. The book (which shifts between the years 2000 and 2017) derives much of its dramatic tension from the adult Vanessa’s unwillingness to open up about what happened to her as a teenager. Russell kept thinking about one section in particular, in which a journalist urges Vanessa to go public with her affair, threatening to publish the story whether or not she agrees to an interview. Vanessa refuses. She remembers a photograph of herself at 17, “looking like a Lolita” as she lifted her skirt and stared directly at the camera. She thinks, I wonder how much victimhood they’d be willing to grant a girl like me.

When I first met Russell, in the middle of January, she had yet to be accused of anything. We were in the backyard of a Georgian restaurant in Greenwich Village, sheltered by a glass canopy from the pounding rain and surrounded by tropical greenery, fake boulders, and out-of-date Christmas decorations. “To go to New York and to have an editor who has an office in a big building is all pretty much purely fantasy,” she said, as she fidgeted with the oversize buttons on her fuzzy pink cardigan, her dark, wavy hair partly obscuring one eye. “I keep reminding myself that it’s literally a dream come true.” Neither of Russell’s parents attended college, and she was broke for most of her 20s and early 30s as she worked on drafts of the novel in college, in M.F.A. workshops, and in a Ph.D. program. She had never been to New York until her publisher invited her here. Now, at 35, sipping an electric-green tarragon soda that looked to her like something Willy Wonka might have concocted, Russell was overwhelmed, she said, and a little nervous. Saddled with the responsibilities that come with the launch of a highly publicized title, she was feeling nostalgic for the anonymity of those years. The pleasure of losing herself in her work had always been a crucial part of her writing process. “I start with an idea, a feeling, and lean into it as hard as I can to the point where I disappear,” she said. “Then it really becomes fiction.”

The idea that shaped My Dark Vanessa had saturated Russell’s adolescence. Long before she encountered Lolita, Russell had been steeped in narratives that glamorized relationships between powerful men and much younger women. Looking back on that era, she recalled the Rolling Stone cover with “teen dream” Britney Spears in her childhood bedroom, a Teletubby snuggled under her arm, her cardigan parted to reveal a silky black bra. On TV, politicians were castigating the president for lying about an affair with a 22-year-old intern, but no one seemed to think of him as an abuser — not even the intern, who maintained for years afterward that she’d been in love and who has only recently said she’s “beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.” Watching it all play out, Russell was riveted. “If you swept away the politics,” she said, “what was left was what I perceived then to be an intense, romantic affair.” One of her favorite stories was The Phantom of the Opera, in which a decrepit old man kidnaps a young woman (her age has ranged between 15 and 20, depending on the version) and drags her to his lair beneath the Palais Garnier. Russell found it thrilling. In seventh grade, after her teacher assigned the students to write a three-page story, she turned in 80 pages of Phantom fanfiction — one of her earliest literary efforts.

As she sees it now, her interest in these relationships was inextricable from her dream of leaving small-town Maine and becoming an artist. “I saw older men as a way to access art and culture and books — things I didn’t necessarily feel like I had access to otherwise,” she said. When I asked if she’d say more about these men, Russell looked away and shook her head. Measured and serious, she’d occasionally allow the conversation to lapse into long silences before answering my questions, her heavy-lidded eyes and high-arched eyebrows granting her an air of inscrutability. She didn’t want to go into details, she said, though she didn’t mind recalling the intoxicating emotions that accompanied those relationships. “I remember feeling really powerful and treasured and put on a pedestal,” she said. “Like someone is risking so much just to talk to me. That was a lot of what made me start writing. That’s what I wanted to put on the page.”

When Russell arrived at the University of Maine at Farmington for college, she had already written some 200 pages of a draft of what would become My Dark Vanessa. At that stage, Russell still thought of it as a love story. Patricia O’Donnell, her creative-writing professor, recalled the aspiring author as remarkably talented, focused, and guarded. “She would leave her peacoat on and buttoned up all the way in class, and she would put her hands in her pockets, and her hair was hiding her face,” she said. “But she was open with me as her professor that she’d had an experience in high school that was very traumatic. She wouldn’t have used that word, but she had been through this fire of an experience, and now she had an ambition. Other students didn’t seem to have that same drive.”

One of her friends in the program, Katie O’Donnell (no relation to the professor), remembered Russell flirting with older men at local bars. “It was always like the college guys were too immature for her,” she said. “She was always chasing something else.” O’Donnell would read Russell’s accounts of these evenings on LiveJournal the next day and marvel at how she had turned them into something like literature. “I’d be writing an entry,” she said, “and just be like spewing out whatever, and see that Kate has created this beautiful scene.” Russell drafted early passages of the novel on the platform, and her friends watched the book develop over countless posts. The author was already gaining a following; at a Spring Fling event where a group of students wrote the names of famous writers on their T-shirts, the name on O’Donnell’s shirt was KATE RUSSELL.

Russell went straight from college into the M.F.A. program at Indiana University. It was a frustrating time. She couldn’t answer the two basic questions every student of fiction was asked: Why tell this story, and why tell it now? She was still trying to frame the narrative as a romance, which people in her workshops always found bewildering. “Why would someone do this?,” she remembered a classmate wondering about Vanessa. “She must be a slut.” People found the protagonist unlikable, even repulsive, and some urged Russell to abandon the project. (Later, in her Ph.D. program, one professor wrote her a note that simply said, “Stop turning this in.”) After some of her workshops, she’d feel so discouraged that she would put the manuscript away and not pick it up again for months. But she could never shake Vanessa. A friend from her M.F.A. program recalled Russell talking about the character as though she were a real person. “I have memories of Vanessa back then the way I have memories of an old lost acquaintance,” the friend recounted. “Someone who comes to mind occasionally, and you feel a tinge of worry — How is she doing?, I wonder. I hope she’s okay.

After receiving her M.F.A, Russell moved to Portland, Maine, where she worked odd jobs — at the front desk of a hotel, as an assistant to two politicians — and fell into a bad relationship with a man her age. This gloomy stretch of her adulthood furnished much of the inspiration for the sections of My Dark Vanessa that are set in the present. Adrift and stuck in her life and work, she began reading posts on Tumblr about critical trauma theory, which led her to a series of memoirs about traumatic sexual relationships, among them Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Tiger, Tiger, by Margaux Fragoso. It was during this period, as she was delving into accounts of “actual, unequivocal pedophilia,” that it dawned on her: The relationship between Vanessa and Strane could not be a love story. It was abuse, even if her character didn’t want to call it that. When I asked if this epiphany had changed how she viewed her own experiences with older men, she shrugged. “It was a lot harder for Vanessa to deal with this than it was for me. I was just like, Now I finally know how to write this.

By the time the Me Too movement began, the book was nearly finished. The parts that describe a woman calling out an abuser on social media were already in place. Russell was writing ten hours a day, trying to finish the manuscript in time to present it as her dissertation, and in her brief breaks from work, she would scroll through Twitter. “Holy shit,” she remembered thinking, “this is what I’m writing.” Now she could answer the questions that had stumped her as an M.F.A. student: Why this story, and why now? “Me Too seemed like it came out of nowhere, but I had been paying attention,” she said. “That’s how I ended up at this point where I was writing this plotline and choosing to believe I had something worthwhile to say, even if I was an unknown writer working on this endless book.”

Russell began querying agents in spring 2018. She was rejected more than 60 times before her manuscript landed in the hands of Hillary Jacobson, an agent who had been developing a track record of securing stunning advances. Jacobson could see the book had “that extremely rare and sought-after combination of literary writing with a commercial plot.” She added, “Never in my entire life, with any book or manuscript, had I felt that transported and transformed by a reading experience.” Jessica Williams, the editor who bought it, had a similar reaction. “I have read countless manuscripts exploring Me Too,” she said, “but none of them have affected me like Kate’s.” By the end of the year, Russell had joined an elite group. Each season, the Big Five houses throw the full weight of their buying and marketing power behind a few chosen titles, sending the authors on book tours around the world, featuring them in “buzz panels” at conventions, and fêting them at industry bashes. This swell of attention is what made Russell the subject of a furious Twitter controversy weeks before the novel’s publication.

On January 19, a writer named Wendy C. Ortiz tweeted, “[C]an’t wait until February when a white woman’s book of fiction that sounds very much like Excavation is lauded.” Ortiz is the author of a 2014 memoir, Excavation, about her five-year relationship with her eighth-grade English teacher and the long shadow it cast over her life. Although she hadn’t read My Dark Vanessa, she could see from the marketing materials surrounding its launch that the story had certain thematic similarities to her book. That Ortiz, who is Latinx, refrained from naming the author or the book in her tweet, and never directly accused Russell of plagiarism, didn’t seem to matter. Russell was assailed for copying Ortiz’s work and profiting from a woman of color’s suffering. Several prominent authors stepped into the fray. “I’m sorry that this other book is co-opting your story without acknowledgment,” Roxane Gay wrote in a tweet to Ortiz. “It’s wrong.”

Russell was appalled by the suggestion of plagiarism — she called the accusation “categorically untrue” — but she had read Ortiz’s memoir. In a list of “influences and interests” she’d posted months earlier, she cited it as one of nearly a hundred works (films, essays, books) she had consulted in her research. Wounded, she tweeted that she’d begun working on her book many years ago. “These stories of abuse often have v similar elements,” she pointed out. Then she deleted her Twitter account.

I read Excavation, and Russell didn’t plagiarize it. Beyond the central premise of a woman reevaluating her teenage relationship with a teacher, the two works don’t have much in common. But Ortiz’s tweet was like a match dropped onto a haystack soaked in gasoline. Many people in the book world, including Ortiz, had recently been rallying against American Dirt, a novel about Mexican migrants written by a white woman who, like Russell, had received a seven-figure deal. The author, Jeanine Cummins, had been accused of ripping off the work of her Latinx colleagues and perpetuating racist stereotypes, and writers of color across the country were outraged by what they saw as yet another example of the publishing industry’s long tradition of prizing white authors and disregarding others. In the chaotic way of Twitter discourse, the two stories were quickly conflated — never mind the fact that few commenters had read both My Dark Vanessa and Excavation, or that none could have known whether Russell had based her work on her own life. (Gay later reviewed My Dark Vanessa for Goodreads; she described it as “well written” and called the online conversation “aggravating.”)

The controversy has been good for book sales: Excavation sold out on Amazon. But Ortiz told me she was disturbed by the way it unfolded. “People are taking it as me against Kate,” she said. “But it’s bigger than that.” Every mainstream publisher who’d received her manuscript for Excavation passed on the submission before it found a home with an indie press. This fact, combined with the industry’s embrace of My Dark Vanessa, struck her as evidence of systemic racism. “It is easier for white authors to get in the door because the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white,” she said.

Ortiz is unquestionably right about the implicit bias at work in the publishing industry. But several agents I spoke with pointed out that there are other reasons My Dark Vanessa may have appealed to publishers who turned down Excavation. For one, Russell’s book arrived during the Me Too moment. For another, the two books offer vastly different reading experiences. Excavation is powerful, but it is not suspenseful; its structure is experimental and loose. My Dark Vanessa, meanwhile, possesses that essential feature of nearly all successful commercial fiction — it is compulsively readable, threaded with enough tension to keep a reader entranced until the end. In an essay for Gay’s online magazine, Ortiz noted she had no interest in reading a “fictionalized, sensationalized” version of an experience she had lived. Few editors in New York’s publishing world would likely share those qualms. One agent told me she’d always found it difficult to sell stories about sexual abuse. “Editors are just as squeamish as potential readers, if not more so,” she said. “There are some who will immediately take the book out of the running because they personally are not wishing to deal with that subject.” It helps if the work is fiction, she added. “There’s an extra layer of safety. It’s very hard to engage with someone else’s anguish.” Russell, too, said she required the shield that fiction provided: “I needed that distance to be in control as a writer.”

When these controversies play out on Twitter, they tend to reward clear-cut narratives. Some might have embraced Russell if she’d come out and said, “Yes, I was abused,” but the author had long ago made up her mind never to go there in the promotion of her book. “If I were to say something in this current environment, would it help, or would it make the situation worse?,” she asked over the phone from her home in Madison. “What would I gain as a human being? It’s not anything I need, and I don’t think it’s anything the reader needs.” Even if her book were an account of abuse, she bristled at the idea of summing up her own experiences that way for the public. “If I start categorizing a relationship, if I say, ‘That was abusive,’ that swallows up everything,” she said. “I just don’t want to relinquish everything.”

A few years ago, Russell reread Lolita. This time, she noticed something she’d missed as a teenager: Even as Nabokov puts ecstatic declarations of love in the mouth of his protagonist, he occasionally reveals through the smallest details what he really thinks about his characters, which is that Humbert Humbert is a monster and Lolita a suffering child. Over lunch, Russell brought up the infamous scene in which Humbert first has sex with Lolita and declares it was “she who seduced me.” Afterward, Humbert fantasizes about painting a lavish mural to depict what happened in the hotel room: “There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studies — a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat … There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.”

“You read the passage,” Russell said, “and it’s just gorgeous prose, gorgeous prose, gorgeous prose, and then the last image is of a wincing child. It’s so easy to skim over. You just see it as beautiful imagery. Who knows if Nabokov was trying to make some social commentary about how we all are complicit and we all ignore this, but certainly that’s the way I read it.”

Nabokov was famously reticent about his authorial intentions — “I do not give a damn for public morals,” he once said — but there were many interviews in which he made his position clear. When a writer for The Paris Review said he found Humbert to be “touching,” Nabokov corrected him: “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching.’ ” Véra Nabokov, the author’s wife, went further. Lolita “cries every night,” she told an interviewer. “The critics are deaf to her sobs.” Still, we never learn how the child, Dolores Haze, viewed what happened to her. In the end, only Humbert’s perspective is captured on the page.

My Dark Vanessa can be read as a mirror image of Lolita. Both Vanessa and Humbert are unreliable narrators; both use the language of love to mask the trauma lurking beneath the surface of their stories. It’s obvious why Humbert would prefer to describe his rape of Lolita as romantic. Russell considers why Vanessa would entertain the same fantasy. Early in his seduction, Strane gives Vanessa a copy of Lolita. As Russell once did, she buys into the lie that it was Lolita who seduced Humbert. She sees it as the unfurling of a previously unthinkable possibility. “I have power,” Vanessa thinks. “Power to make it happen. Power over him. I was an idiot for not realizing this sooner.” The power she feels is an illusion — a product of the same culture that cast Nabokov’s wincing child in the role of a sexy temptress. “A lot of the messiness in Vanessa’s psyche comes from a culture that celebrates abuse as something from which great art can be made,” Russell said.

Even now, it can be jarring for Russell to revisit My Dark Vanessa and remember that she hasn’t written a love story but a narrative of trauma. Twenty years after she started writing the book, the insidious fantasy still lingers. “When did it go away?,” she wondered. “Oh God. It’s a process.”

*This article appears in the February 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

My Dark Vanessa Is Not a Love Story