Vanessa Lawrence's Book Ellipses Explores Finding Identity Beyond Your Career

A different kind of fashion story.

Emma Chao; TZR; Getty Images

While many of the more well-known career-focused novels — particularly those related to the fashion media industry — tell the story of a fledgling talent surviving the torment and abuse of an authority figure (we see you, The Devil Wears Prada), Vanessa Lawrence is presenting a new narrative. In her debut novel Ellipses, released today, the author explores mentorship, a toxic one at that, specifically between a 30-something magazine writer at the cusp of her career and an older, successful beauty titan in her 50s. What starts out as a seemingly beneficial dynamic in which the younger Lily can glean wisdom from the seasoned Billie, quickly morphs into something more complicated.

While one might be quick to assume the plot is simple: threatened executive inundates fresh-faced newbie with destructive advice, inevitably forcing the latter to break away from her trenches and forge her own path. But, this is not the case in Ellipses. In fact, Lawrence explains that she was intentional in not painting anyone as the clear villain or hero. Her focus was more on encouraging thought and conversation around the dynamic between two very different women.

“Really, the starting point for Ellipses for me was I wanted to focus on an intergenerational relationship between two women,” Lawrence says to TZR. “I'm just always fascinated by the ways in which women of different generations interact. They have been raised with such different ideas of who they can be, of who they need to be, of how they can pursue their respective goals, because ideas around women's equality and women's empowerment shift so much from decade to decade and even year to year.”

While Ellipsis is not autobiographical, this interest in exploring women’s feelings of purpose and identity through work likely stems from Lawrence’s 20-year career in fashion media, which included posts at Women’s Wear Daily and W Magazine. In fact, her second novel Sheer (which is still in the works, but chronicles the rise and fall of a beauty mogul) holds similarities to Ellipses in that both have characters whose “selfhood is very much tied to the kind of work that they do.” Perhaps this is making way for a new type of female-led workplace tale that extends beyond office romances and surviving a tyrant boss. Because, so often, the journey of women professionals is so much more nuanced and complex — not to mention interesting.

Ahead, we chat more with Vanessa Lawrence on her debut novel, future projects, and her personal thoughts on career mentorship.

How much of Ellipses is pulled from real-life experiences? Did you have a mentor at any point in your career?

I've actually never had a mentor. I, at various points in my career, wished that I had one. It would've been so nice to have someone to sort of bounce [things] off of. I've worked for incredible, smart, talented women and learned so much from them, but I've never had that consistent mentorship presence. So, in some ways, I gave Lily, the protagonist of this book, the mentor that I never had. But, of course, it's a complicated relationship.

Why do you think you never had a mentor throughout your career?

I honestly can't say. It was certainly not an intentional thing. I think it's just what happens. I actually don't really know that many women friends of mine of my age and generation who I could say, specifically, have had mentors. Maybe that's common for a lot of other people. But I have friends in multiple industries, and I don't think any of them would say that they've had mentors consistently either. I honestly don’t know.

Some offices, I think, have formal mentorship programs, right? So obviously, that would foster those relationships in a more explicit way. Of course, the mentorship relationship in this book between Lily and Billie, it isn't formal. It's something that happens organically after their first meeting. So I've never had any experience with even a formalized idea of like, ‘Oh, this is your mentor. This is the person who will advise you.’

Do you think mentorship is something people should explore at some point in their career?

I think it's a really personal decision. For me, I just try to seek feedback and advice from as wide a range of people as possible. Some of those people are just friends. They're people who are my age. Maybe they're friends from school or friends from work or childhood, and we've had such different experiences in our adult life. I really value the ability to seek advice from those people. I don't consider those relationships to be mentorships. I consider them friendships. But that's my personal approach. I think sometimes the mentorship idea can become quite loaded. It puts a lot of pressure on both parties. But it also is, in theory, a really beautiful idea that somebody with wisdom might pass that wisdom on to someone else and help them achieve their goals.

Let’s talk about the dynamic between Lily and Billie a bit more. What specifically did you want to portray in that relationship?

There's a lot of nuance in their relationship. I definitely did not want this to be a villain/victim situation. That is not what this relationship is. I wanted there to be nuance and I wanted there to be ambiguity in their relationship because I really want readers to come to this book and read this book and project their own experiences and their own backgrounds and world views onto these characters and onto this relationship. Depending on a reader's personal bias, they might identify more with Billie versus Lily, and I really wanted to leave room in this relationship for readers to have that experience.

At what point do you think a mentorship becomes toxic? When does that dynamic become unhealthy?

To me, between Lily and Billie, the toxicity is actually kind of a two-way street. That was very important to me, as I was saying earlier, that there's no villain/victim in this book. I wanted there to be that fluidity. In a traditional model for a mentorship, you have a very experienced person, and they're supposed to be passing advice and guidance onto someone less experienced and helping that person on their path. That's sort of the goal. In this relationship, Billie's motives are increasingly opaque as the book goes on. It's not entirely clear if she's fully invested in Lily's success, and Lily, instead of focusing on her own path and on doing things her own way, becomes increasingly consumed by Billie's version of things and Billie's ideas. So to me, they are both subverting a traditional mentorship model to a point of toxicity. They're both contributing to that.

Did you learn anything about yourself in writing this book, or did this help you process any of your own experiences?

On a personal level, Ellipses is ultimately a coming of age story. Of course, the fashion media part is going to stand out to a lot of people, but that's really a setting. It's not the subject of the book. The subject of the book is this young woman coming of age and trying to feel like she has agency in her life. At the book's outset, she doesn't feel that way for a variety of reasons. So, I would say my personal revelation in writing this book is that coming of age can happen at any point in life.

I think when I was younger, I really felt like I had to drive toward a very fixed idea of who I was going to be and that if I didn't succeed in that idea, then it would be a failure. And writing this book, I'm also just growing older because I'm now 42. It's been incredible to realize you can come of age at multiple points in your life. It is not the exclusive realm of adolescence or your early 20s. You could come of age in your 50s or your 60s, etc. At any point in life, I think when you are transitioning from one stage to another, that is a coming of age story. I personally find that very liberating because it means that you don't have to be this fixed thing. You can be more malleable. Your life can be more malleable than it might seem.

Tell me about your second novel, Sheer. How does it differ from Ellipses?

Sheer is still in obviously at an earlier stage, so I'm hesitant to talk too much about it in terms of inspiration and detail just because, in the editorial process, so much can change, perhaps more than I might wish. It's just the process of writing a novel. You think you've nailed something, and then you realize you are very much wrong.

What's interesting to me about Sheer and what has been a real delight about working on it is it does have overlapping themes with Ellipses. Both books have characters who are very defined personally by the kind of work that they do. Their selfhood is very much tied to the kind of work that they do. Both books have intergenerational relationships between women and looking at those dynamics. Both books are just dealing with power dynamics between women more generally. All of those themes, I would say, kind of work across both books. But the POV of Sheer is quite different from Ellipsis, which is a close third-person narrative, and Sheer is a first-person narrative. So that has been a very different challenge and a really exciting one to pursue.

What do you hope readers take away from Ellipses?

My personal revelation is not something that necessarily every reader is going to come away with, and I would hesitate to have only one message because every reader is going to come in with their own experience and background and take away different things from this book. So much of the beauty of putting a book out into the world, a novel specifically, is that people are going to extract different things depending on where they are in their lives and how they relate or don't to different characters.

For me, I hope that readers have conversations about this book. I think that would be a lovely thing. I didn't write this book to answer questions. I wrote them to explore them. There are so many different threads and themes in this book, I couldn't possibly answer those, and I wouldn't want to anyways. I really see this book as starting a conversation about different things. Hopefully, somebody reads it, maybe their friend reads it, maybe they talk about it. That, to me, would be a really beautiful takeaway if it gets people having conversations.