Sheltering: Kate Elizabeth Russell on the Little Things Getting Her Through Isolation
Episode 3: The Author of My Dark Vanessa Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman talks to Kate Elizabeth Russell about her recent novel, My Dark Vanessa. Kate shares the things that are helping to get through this time of isolation: Fiona Apple, the game Animal Crossing, and eating “like she’s at a sleepover.” Kate’s local bookstore of choice is A Room of One’s Own in Madison, Wisconsin—please order her book through their website if you can!
From the episode
Transcription generously provided by Eliza M. Smith
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m so happy to be sitting across from Kate Elizabeth Russell virtually today. Welcome! Kate, tell us how you’re doing and introduce yourself.
Kate Elizabeth Russell: Sure. My name’s Kate Elizabeth Russell. I’m the author of My Dark Vanessa, which I should probably—here’s a [holds up copy of book], that’s an ARC. I’m doing OK. It’s a really weird time to be bringing a book out into the world, but making the most of it and trying to take advantage of these opportunities to be virtually connected, virtually connect with readers, and just being really grateful that people are reading the book and talking about it.
Maris: Yeah, and it’s true. It’s cool that I get to Zoom with you now. I missed your event when you were in New York City at Greenlight, so I’m so happy to be able to talk to you now. Tell me about, how far did you get on your tour before things started shutting down?
Kate: Just the launch event. So, I’m really grateful that I got to have that event! That was on the tenth. I think it was on the eleventh that this was declared a pandemic. So, it’s sort of surreal in that regard. But, didn’t have a huge number of events planned anyway, and I’m such a homebody. It’s disappointing, but also, it’s—I feel like I’m somewhat in my element being able to do stuff for the book from home, if that makes any sense. Trying to focus on the positive, I guess.
Maris: That’s very good. And you live in Wisconsin?
Kate: Yes, in Madison.
Maris: Oh, wonderful. Tell us a little bit about your book, please.
Kate: Sure. So, the pitch that I give to sort of sum up the book, and especially how it starts, is it opens in 2017 when the narrator, Vanessa Wye, is 32, and she learns that the high school teacher who she had what she believes to be a consensual relationship with as a 15-year-old has been accused of sexual abuse by another former student. And this accusation, it really turns her whole world upside down. The novel moves back and forth in time between 2017 and then back to the early 2000s to show how this relationship started, and how it continued, and then also showing the fallout from this accusation from the other former student.
Maris: And you’ve been working on this novel for quite a while.
Kate: Yes, 18 years. I really started working on it when I was 16; that was when I started working on it really seriously. It wasn’t constant—it was sort of off and on over the years—but I studied creative writing as an undergraduate and then went straight from undergrad to an MFA program, took a few years off and then did a PhD in creative writing, and so through all of those creative writing programs, I was working on the book, trying different approaches, different forms, different points of view, until finally settling on a close first-person, present-tense point of view, and that’s when the story really came together, during my PhD program.
Maris: And it’s just, what a coincidence—or maybe not—that the MeToo movement has kicked into gear so much since the past couple of years.
Kate: Yeah, like you said, it was a coincidence but also not. Because in October 2017, when those stories about Harvey Weinstein first came out, I was sort of in the home stretch of that writing process, because I had to defend my dissertation that spring, so I had to finish it by January 2018. So in October 2017 I was working on finishing up this present-day plotline. I’d had another student coming forward and accusing the teacher of sexual abuse, and it was really surreal to watch the MeToo movement sort of take over the cultural moment as I was finishing that plotline, because the parallels were obvious.
But at the same time, it took me a while to sort of wrap my head around it, because I saw the parallel but at the same time, MeToo at first seemed like, oh this is about celebrity, or it’s about the media. And the characters in my book are fairly—you know, they have this extraordinary kind of relationship that’s at the center of the book—but the characters are kind of ordinary people living ordinary lives. So, it wasn’t until me too started affecting all of us that I saw the potential for how my book fit into the movement. But yeah, a lot of it did feel sort of coincidental. But at the same time, I’d been paying attention to the increase in stories like these, of survivors coming forward after many, many years, and speaking out.
Maris: Yeah, and I do love how it flips from 2000 to 2017, because I do think that so many women have had a reckoning in the past couple of years, in which we re-experience relationships from a different perspective and start questioning whether those relationships were sound.
Kate: Right. Yeah, yeah. I wanted to get at this conflict that I think can happen when you look back on a relationship, that you felt one way about when it was happening, but then looking back on it with a new perspective, and especially if that perspective is being informed by something like the MeToo movement, that pressure that you can feel to sort of sum up that relationship as, OK now that’s bad, now I see that it was bad or it was harmful in this way. But then what? You still remember who you were at the time, and how you felt at that time, and do you reconcile your past self with your current realizations or knowledge? It’s difficult. It’s really, really difficult. Which is why I wrote a 400-page novel unpacking this.
Maris: One of the things that I found helpful, which your character Vanessa also finds helpful, is listening to Fiona Apple, then and now.
Kate: Yes. Absolutely.
Maris: Are you looking forward to her new album? It should be out soon.
Kate: Yes, I’m so looking forward to it. But at the same time, I feel—I’m such a fan, I’m like a little obsessive of a fan, but she seems so hesitant to put it out in the world, right, because putting it out in the world requires you to engage with the world, and she seems like such a homebody herself, that I’m like, only put it out if you absolutely want to! You seem really happy, and you have a great life with your dog and your house. So yeah, really looking forward to hearing it, but only if she really wants to put it out.
Maris: Very, very fair. Well said. Tell me about what you’re doing now. How are you staying busy?
Kate: Well, I have a fair amount of things scheduled for the book, just different Instagram Lives and doing different interviews, which is really, really cool. But other than that, I’m playing a lot of Animal Crossing right now—
Maris: Is it soothing? I’ve heard it’s soothing.
Kate: It’s so soothing. You get to feel like you’re outside, and you’re in this sort of idyllic little community; it makes you feel like a better future is possible—like Animal Crossing. I feel like the past couple of weeks, because my husband and I, when we came back from New York, we were like, we need to self-isolate anyway, so we’ve been sort of doing this ever since March 11, and we’ve just been trying to get into these sustainable routines of being at home in our apartment together. And we feel pretty good about it now, so I’m going to try to start working on creative stuff again. I’ve been making a lot of posts on Instagram focused on—I have a playlist based on the novel—and I’ve been sort of writing these mini essays in Instagram posts, showing these connections between specific songs in the book, and that’s been really cool.
Maris: What’s your handle on Instagram?
Kate: @KateElizabethRussell. Boring, but effective. And yeah, trying to gear myself up to start working on Book Two. That would be great. We’ll see if I’m able to actually maintain that level of creativity, but you’ve got to do something.
Maris: You’ve got to do something. Tell me what you’ve been eating.
Kate: What I’ve been eating. A lot of frozen Trader Joe’s meals, just like going through our freezer, a lot of that. Also, just trying to indulge in whatever comfort food is making me feel good. One of my friends described her diet right now as being like she’s at a sleepover. At least at first, right? We’re all just trying to be really kind to ourselves. So, I’m like, pints of ice cream and stuff like that.
Maris: That’s great. That’s great. And so, tell me about Madison. What’s your local bookstore?
Kate: A Room of One’s Own is my go-to local bookstore. Just a few blocks away here. I love it. It’s such a great space. I was supposed to have a reading there—hopefully I’ll still be able to, if my husband and I end up being here next year, which it looks like we will be. So hopefully that will be able to be rescheduled.
Maris: Was there a question you were hoping to be asked on your book tour from an audience member, that I can ask you now?
Kate: That’s such a good question. I don’t know; I can’t think of any specific question. Do you have a question, if you were at a book event, that you’d want to ask about my book?
Maris: Way to turn it around!
Kate: Media training trick, right?
Maris: I guess I would wonder if you’re hearing from other women, women who might have had a similar experience.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah, I have. And a lot of that, it comes online, which makes sense. You know, on the one hand it’s sort of a learning process, learning how to respond, especially when there can be a lot of messages coming in, and I’m humbled and grateful for each one. But at the same time, I experienced that also when I was teaching. I taught all the way through my MFA program and my PhD program, and when I was teaching, especially creative writing workshops, I would assign pieces for students to read that were sort of like emotionally intense, of course, and then I’d be asking them to write—especially in nonfiction workshops, right?
You’re asking students, like, write about personal things and turn them into me! So that inevitably creates this environment that’s vulnerable. And so, students would come to me and sort of confide really personal things in me. It’s always a matter of being open to that and acknowledging it and listening, while at the same time sort of knowing your place as a writer, as a teacher, that you’re not, you know, you have limitations, and how you can connect in a meaningful and responsible way. It’s interesting, but above all else, I’m just humbled by every message that I get. It feels really special.
Maris: That’s really great. Thank you for writing a book that is so absorbing, especially right now.
Kate: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I mean, it’s a dark—it’s not like light escapism, but at the same time, not all escapism has to be light.
Maris: Nope, not at all. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Kate: Thank you, this was great. This was wonderful.
Maris: Such a pleasure to meet you.