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2024-02-20 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine In her Debut, Vanessa Lawrence Crafts a Coming-of-Age Story for 30-Somethings

In her Debut, Vanessa Lawrence Crafts a Coming-of-Age Story for 30-Somethings

Career edit

“It still feels quite surreal to even be able to talk about this,” Vanessa Lawrence says of her first interview for her debut novel, Ellipses. It’s not just that the process of writing and publishing a book is a massive ordeal. (It is.) It’s also that this interview is something of a role reversal. For the past two decades, the writer has worked for magazines covering fashion, culture, and society, often asking other people about their work. Now, she’s on the other side of the phone.

Despite describing herself as an introvert, there’s no hint of reticence in our conversation. “I’m really proud of this book,” she says. “[It’s] not something I expected to have happen in my life.”

Ellipses follows Lily, a writer in her mid-30s who realizes her life has gone adrift. Impacted by shifts in digitization, her career feels increasingly dead end. Her relationship with her girlfriend, Alison, has hit a rough patch. And though she is young, she feels the looming presence of a ticking clock — a sense of urgency that if she doesn’t figure it out now, she’ll lose her chance. It’s at this crossroads that Billie, the glamorous CEO of a beauty empire, enters her life, offering an informal mentorship. And there begins a journey of confusion and obsession — Lily’s inability to figure out what Billie sees in her or what she wants from their exchange only fuels Lily’s obsession with the executive. Their relationship is at once encouraging and distracting.

Author Vanessa Lawrence
Photo by Flora Hanitijo

Lawrence herself has never had a mentor. But the professional tension between her protagonist and antagonist — women of different ages, different backgrounds, and at different stages in their careers — is something she’s come across throughout her adult life. “Women in different generations have super divergent views often about how they’re supposed to be in the world; what it means to be a successful woman,” she explains. “Ideas around women’s equality, representation, empowerment shifts so much from decade to decade and so a woman in her 50s has been raised with very different expectations compared to a woman in her 30s. In my experience, that does sometimes create this clashing, these gaps in communication. This inability to see eye to eye… I find that tension fascinating. Because, ultimately, both of these characters want the same thing. They just want to be successful in whatever industry or goals they’re pursuing. But they have such different ideas of how they’re going to achieve that.”

While its portrayal of working at a fashion magazine or covering glamorous parties is deliciously accurate, Lawrence’s broader exploration of a mid-30s crisis is what will click for many readers. A major element in millennial angst is questioning the paths we’re on, and how far we really want to pursue them. “I really see it as a coming-of-age story. At its heart, that’s what it is: a young woman who’s trying to understand how to have agency,” she says. “There is that coming of age later in life. It was something I’ve seen across friends and other people I’ve interacted with, this thing of a lot of young women in their 30s having this feeling of, ‘I’ve done everything I’m supposed to, I checked all those things that I was supposed to do. And yet I still don’t feel like I’m a fully whole adult.’”

Lawrence, a native New Yorker, studied history at Yale before launching into a two-decade career in magazines. Over the years she’s written for Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine. But by her mid-30s she began having ideas she didn’t feel comfortable exploring in a magazine setting. Fiction seemed a more appropriate avenue for her thoughts. She wrote a manuscript for a different novel before writing her first draft of Ellipses in 2020. In the fall of 2021, she quit her magazine gig and entered into an MFA writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Only one semester later, she sold Ellipses.

“The MFA was really like a creative reset period,” she says. “I really wanted to take the time to study the craft of fiction writing. It was just about expanding myself as a writer, and really looking at writing as a creative medium and not just through the lens of journalism.”

There are, of course, creative aspects to journalism, especially when writing for magazines. But, as Lawrence points out, journalism has limitations — writers are bound by facts, word counts, and the nature of the publications they work for. By pursuing fiction, Lawrence seems to have tapped into boundless creativity, as well as personal growth. All she had to do was get past the daunting possibilities of a blank page.

“[With journalism] I always had these long transcripts and research… you’re trying to distill that down to whatever limited word count you have,” she explains. “Whereas with a novel or short story, you’re layering from the ground up. My journalism work felt more like sculpture, like chiseling down. My fiction work feels more like painting — layering and layering.”

Ellipses by Vanessa Lawrence (Dutton) is available March 5, 2024.

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