“Everything in my life is pre or post Cat Person”, says Kristen Roupenian. And why wouldn’t it be? When her short story ‘Cat Person’ was published in the New Yorker in December 2017, it became an instant sensation, which is not something you can say about many, any, short stories.
The tale of Margot and Robert, a terrible kiss, a bad date, and an even worse aftermath, has had 2.6 million hits so far and is the magazine’s most read short story of all time online. It was the 7000-word story that spawned almost as many think pieces; pub tables and Twitter feeds hummed with readers debating its sexual politics.
At the time, Roupenian was a “starving grad student, living on ramen”. She was nearing the end of a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan and had been vaguely talking to her agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, about publishing a collection of short stories. Ferrari-Adler told her that stories were a tough sell as a debut writer. “And then she said, ‘Of course if it gets into the New Yorker, that will be different.’ And we kind of laughed at how unlikely that was.”
‘I was sort of surprised by myself that I had written a story that fit in the New Yorker. Although one third of the story is a very awkward and explicit sex scene’
Still, Roupenian knew that of all the things she had ever written, Cat Person was the most typically “New Yorker” in style. “And I was sort of surprised by myself that I had written a story that fit in that space,” she smiles wickedly. “Although one third of the story is a very awkward and explicit sex scene”.
What sent it viral, she thinks, was not just that it spoke to millions of young women about their experiences; not even that it appeared in the weeks following the first outpouring of #MeToo stories, but its perceived ambiguity – around dating etiquette, gender roles, consent. “Things only get another level of big when you can fight about them”, she says.
Looking back at it now, she realises she wrote the literary equivalent of the blue dress/ white dress viral debate. “That was the thing I connected to. It didn’t occur to me that I had written a story that naturally fit into the internet age”.
— Michael Luo (@michaelluo) December 19, 2017
In the immediate aftermath of publication, Roupenian went to ground, closed her computer, turned off her phone. “It was just too much. It was very clear to me that I couldn’t engage, and I didn’t want to, and that if I tried, my face would just melt off.”
Soon, the offers came in. She signed a two-book deal with Scout Press for a rumoured $1.3million. She sold a screenplay, Bodies Bodies Bodies – a “meta” slasher movie set in a cabin in the woods – to A24, the company who produced Lady Bird. Cat Person was optioned for a feature film. It all happened in one “weird, wonderful month.”
The first book of that deal has now been published and Roupenian, 37, is in the UK to talk about it. We meet in her Mayfair hotel; she is small, enthusiastic and eating a grapefruit for breakfast. You Know You Want This is a collection of short stories, which run the gamut from the unsettling to the horrifying.
‘I was aware that people are gonna think I’m a kind of writer that I just manifestly know I’m not. In my head I have always been a horror writer’
There is a children’s birthday party that goes gruesomely wrong and a hen party that takes a turn for the weird. There are fairytales, one about a princess who refuses all suitors in favour of a cracked mirror, a dented bucket and an old thigh bone, “long and yellow with bits of tendon still clinging to it”; another about a woman who conjures the man of her dreams with a spell then gradually destroys him.
For readers of Cat Person, with its meticulously mundane, painful observations about dating and sex, it might come as something of a shock. Roupenian knew that would happen. “I was aware that people are gonna think I’m a kind of writer that I just manifestly know I’m not,” she says. “In my head I have always been a horror writer who occasionally edges into realism, but still in a very horror-inflected way.”
The opening story sets out her stall in uncompromising fashion. ‘Bad Boy’ is a sucker punch of a tale about a couple who co-opt a dumped friend into their sex games, which increase in intensity until a shocking, grisly end.
“You can lead with something that’s more like Cat Person and then move people into this darker space, but I felt slightly slimy. I don’t want to lead you in, thinking you’re going to get stories about dating, and then later, you get these stories about murder and monsters.”
The collection was pretty much ready to go when Cat Person landed, she says. The oldest story in the collection, ‘The Night Runner’, is around six years old. It is about an American teacher who goes to Kenya and is terrorised by his pupils and was inspired by her own experiences teaching Public Health in Kenya with the Peace Corps after she graduated.
The three stories she wrote after Cat Person are the most obviously similar to it. ‘The Good Guy’ is about a young man’s obsession with his female best friend which turns him from friendly nerd into ladykiller, while ‘Biter’ is a twisted take on #MeToo and workplace assault, and ‘Death Wish’ portrays a violently nasty date.
“One of the ideas I had for the collection was thinking about all the stories that we carry around in our heads. And that includes stories that your friends tell you about bad dates, but also true crime and fairy tales. They’re all horror stories, they just have different stakes,” says Roupenian.
If there is a common theme to You Know You Want This, it is desire. “And co-opted desire, desire being forced on you, or taken from you, or being told that your desire is one thing when it’s actually another,” says Roupenian. “Then someone on the internet said it sounds like a Taylor Swift song.”
The collection has now been bought up by HBO for an anthology series, which will be, she says, “a Black Mirror for sex and dating”.
Growing up near Boston, Roupenian was an “omnivorous” reader, but was most drawn to horror. Shirley Jackson is her all-time favourite. “There’s a witchy don’t-give-a-fuck-ness to those stories that delights me every time.”
She wrote at school and in her early 20s, but could never quite bring herself to commit to the idea of being a writer. “Because for really long time reading was where I went to escape myself. And then when I would write it was my self front and centre again. So it was tortured.”
After her two years in Kenya, she worked as a nanny and in a bookshop and attempted to write a novel. “I wanted writing to save me from my really garbage, hard life of being a nanny and living in a terrible apartment with terrible room-mates,” she says. “I remember being 25 or 26 and looking at people who are about my age and thinking, ‘how come they’re the editor of this cool website and I’m not?’ Well, because that website doesn’t pay anything but you still have to live in New York. So there are secret forces that you are not aware of.”
Eventually, she started a PhD in contemporary African literature at Harvard. Midway through, in her thirties and in a remarkably fruitful piece of procrastination, she wrote a novel. “I had been away from it for so long, nobody cared any more. My mum and the one teacher who thought I was good at writing had given up on me. It was just me.” She wrote a thriller, the kind of book that she would like to read. “In retrospect it was not very good”, but the spell had lifted: she knew that she wanted to be a writer.
She had to ask for an extension to finish her PhD, which she did out of pure stubbornness, and then she enrolled on the master’s. When Cat Person was published she was in the final year and feeling a creeping desperation. “I felt: ‘Kristen, time is up, you should not be in school any more. You’ve had a great 12-year run, but you gotta figure something else out’.”
Cat Person has given her material security and, more importantly, the time to write. “Having been living a relatively precarious student existence for so long, I spent a lot of this year just trying to wrap my head around finally being able to think, ‘oh, what if I had a retirement account?’
“It matters to the texture of your life. It’s like having tinnitus, a constant level of ambient stress that you’re so used to, you don’t even notice. And then when it’s gone – oh, my God. The calm that I feel about knowing that I can pay for my health insurance is huge and profound. I have the time to write and the freedom to do it for a really substantial amount of time now. I can calm down and be happy. That anxiety saps you.”
She found the scrutiny that came with Cat Person disorientating, and as she wrote in the New Yorker last month, “annihilating”. It was a “trial by fire”, she says. While she said the story was inspired by a bad date in her mid-30s, she was still surprised that she was taken for Margot. “When I write fiction, it’s the most personal thing that I do and the rawest and most realist way that my self gets onto the page. And simultaneously it feels very clear to me that I made everything up. Both things are somehow true.”
‘There’s a kind of kneejerk idea that if a woman has grabbed our attention, she must be doing something to manipulate it’
She sometimes thinks about what it would have been like if she was younger, and a more autobiographical writer. “Imagining that version of myself, I feel very protective, and slightly angry about the fact that some writer at the National Review wrote an open letter to Margot about having too many sexual partners. That is gruesome, really grotesque.”
“By the time he was 35, the only way Ted could get hard and remain so for the duration of sexual intercourse was to pretend that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it.” https://t.co/m0gubnRYJi
— Kristen Roupenian (@KRoupenian) January 3, 2019
Now, she tries not not to engage with reviews or reactions to her work, though she has spotted a theme despite herself. “A certain strand of reaction, both to Cat Person and to the book, is ‘Oh, she shocking just to shock.’ Like I’m doing it for attention. That seems gendered to me. I don’t think we think of male writers in particular doing things for attention in the way. There’s a kind of kneejerk idea that if a woman has grabbed our attention, she must be doing something to manipulate it.”
She thinks her readers are mainly women, and not just because her family split down gender lines. “My mom and my sister read my stuff and my dad and my brother applaud me from afar.”
She still lives in Michigan, though her life is different now. “The rhythm and the pace of my life is changing. And I don’t love it.” She has her first girlfriend, Callie, whom she met on her master’s and who is a “brilliant, brilliant writer. But luckily a very different kind of writer than I am.”
These days, she tries to write every day but has no strict routine. Instead she gets up, makes a coffee and sits with a book and her laptop. “And I say, you can read your book or you can write. But if all you want to do is read a book for two hours and not look at your phone, that’s fine.
“It’s just enough discipline. And that felt really freeing and helped me break out of the mode that I had always been in when it came to writing, which was: procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate, force yourself to it, hate yourself.”
She is not sure what the second book of her deal will be except that it will be a novel. “It’s a real trick to not let your analytical brain take over when you’re writing a story, because that will kill it. You have to imagine yourself into a place where maybe no one will ever read anything that you write.” In the post-Cat Person reality, that seems unlikely.
‘You Know You Want This’ by Kristen Roupenian is out now (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
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