MY DARK DEBUT Kate Elizabeth Russell worked on her first novel for 18 years — through high school, college, a master’s program, while earning a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Kansas and beyond. It took “about five months of constant querying” to find an agent, but then William Morrow quickly snapped up the manuscript for an impressive sum in 2018. Rights were sold in 27 countries. “My Dark Vanessa,” which explores a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old student and her teacher through a #MeToo lens, was hailed as one of the most anticipated books of 2020.
It appeared that the most difficult stretch of Russell’s road to publication was behind her. It wasn’t. In January 2020, a fellow author accused Russell of plagiarism. The allegation appears to be unfounded but Oprah’s Book Club — leery of the controversy surrounding the publication of “American Dirt” — dropped “My Dark Vanessa” as a selection. Then coronavirus hit. Russell’s March 10 publication date happened to coincide with the cancellation of the Texas Book Festival, classes at Harvard and elsewhere, and St. Patrick’s Day parades from Boston to Dublin. The worst was yet to come.
Nevertheless, “My Dark Vanessa” became an instant best seller, debuting at No. 6 on the hardcover fiction list and holding its own for three weeks. And Russell is surprisingly sanguine about the “surreal” and circuitous journey that has brought her to this place. She says, “There was no 20-city tour that was canceled. I don’t really enjoy being the center of attention, so we were just going to see how the book did and take it slowly.” It turns out, conducting author events via Instagram Live has been enjoyable for this self-proclaimed homebody: “You see the people watching, and they leave comments in real time. You get the sense of something happening in the moment. It feels comfortable to me, and I think a lot of other writers would probably say the same.”
Like many of us, Russell is having trouble concentrating right now, so she isn’t writing as much as she’d like. But she is reading “in spurts” when she isn’t checking for coronavirus updates. She says, “One book I’m about halfway through is a novel coming out in August. It’s called ‘Talking Animals,’ by Joni Murphy, imagining New York City populated by animals. The protagonist is an alpaca. It’s this amazing capitalist critique that feels very reassuring, depicting a world already turned upside down.”