Kristen Roupenian on short stories and viral success
When Kristen Roupenian had her short story “Cat Person” accepted for publication in The New Yorker at the end of 2017, the then 36-year-old quietly celebrated a career milestone that had eluded many of her more established peers. She looked forward to gaining some new readers and harboured hopes of attracting a book deal.
What she got instead was viral fame unprecedented for fiction authors, with an initial whirl of hype followed by a ruthless backlash. “Cat Person”, written from the naive perspective of an undergraduate student dating an older man she meets at work, appeared just as conversations about sex and power were reaching fever pitch in the wake of assault allegations arising against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Just as the #MeToo movement was taking hold, Roupenian’s story of an unbalanced romance that ends on a note of sharp and unexpected cruelty gained tweetable relevance beyond any hopes she might have had as a fresh fine arts graduate in writing from the University of Michigan.
It also got her that book deal, complete with a staggering advance of $US1.2 million. Her debut collection You Know You Want This was published this month, with “Cat Person” one of its 12 unnerving stories about doomed love, mental health spirals and serial killers. Fortunately, while the viral success of her New Yorker debut was a surprise, when the opportunity of a book inevitably followed, she was ready. Most of the collection’s stories had been written while Roupenian was in graduate school. “I felt very lucky,” she says from a London hotel room at the beginning of a long promotional tour that will take her across the world. “I can’t even imagine what my life would have been like if ‘Cat Person’ had been the first story I’d ever written and I was suddenly on the stage trying to write the rest under pressure of expectation to re-create it.”
Roupenian says the whirlwind of attention she received has left her in “deep shock and confusion”. She had no inkling that “Cat Person” would prove in any way controversial or provocative, although “it felt new in the history of the kinds of stories I’d been writing, and I was proud of it”. She says New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman remains baffled by the extreme reaction, too.
The story has young college student, Margot, developing a relationship with 30-something Robert through text messages, with hints there are small creepy deceptions playing out. Both Margot and the reader become suspicious that her new love interest may not be exactly who he says he is. When at one point Margot arrives at Robert’s house and feels pressured into sleeping with him, she is intimidated by their age gap, and mistakenly assumes he shares none of her shyness or nervousness. When she has sex with him out of a sense of guilt, or self-protection, female readers around the world felt an embarrassed recognition. Margot’s subsequent awkward attempts to extricate herself from any kind of relationship are met with Robert’s wrath.
Roupenian says the canary in the viral coalmine was her brother-in-law, a trusted friend with whom she shared the story after Treisman let her know it would be published. His reaction was completely different to what Roupenian expected. “I knew there was ambiguity in the story and I knew Robert was a shifting figure,” she says. “I wanted it to be genuinely unclear what his motivations were. But it seemed so clearly to me to be Margot’s story. And then my brother-in-law was like, ‘I don’t understand, he didn’t do anything wrong – was he supposed to read her mind?’ And that was the first sign that it was a story people could have strong and definite opinions about.”
Deconstructing the cause and effect of the story’s divisive reception became Roupenian’s “big intellectual project of the past year”. Reading hundreds of irate think pieces is “a strange way to encounter your own writing”. She attributes much of her own initial shock over the story’s success to the fact most people’s interpretations of “Cat Person” haven’t reflected her aims as a short story writer. In the #MeToo context the story reads as confessional and realist, a feminist statement on warped millennial relationship dynamics in the vein of Lena Dunham’s Girls, or perhaps the 28-year-old Irish writer Sally Rooney’s novels Normal People and Conversations with Friends. But Roupenian is in her late 30s, not her 20s, and she isn’t especially obsessed with the dating lives of college girls and their bearded crushes. When her story went viral, she was living with her girlfriend, Callie, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A lover of genre fiction, she initially conceived “Cat Person” as a horror story that homes in on the subtle perils of text messaging.
“I feel deeply and personally that sense of how strange it is, and how tempting it can be, to imagine a person based on just a handful of clues,” she says. “We need to pretend others are much more coherent and understandable than in our hearts we know that they are.” She says her larger intention with “Cat Person”, as with all of the stories in You Know You Want This, was to actively scare readers, to create a sense of “creeping dread”. She’s a fan of the visceral, she has a taste for blood, and for body horror in general – her interests are more Carmen Maria Machado than Rooney. She also has a passion for Canadian writer Alice Munro, referring to her as the “mistress of discomfort, although she doesn’t always get talked about that way”. A short story at its best, Roupenian says, “is a single punch to the heart”.
Anyone looking for “Cat Person” sequels won’t find them in You Know You Want This, but they will come across that same sinking sense of unease. “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone”, an allegorical fairytale complete with princes, princesses and magic spells, has a morbid narrative twist and profoundly unhappy ending. In “Look at Your Game, Girl” a 12-year-old befriends a stranger in the local park who she thinks might be the next Charles Manson. There are some doomed millennial love stories in the book, but they’re far bleaker in scope than “Cat Person”. “Bad Boy” is the tale of an unhappy couple who become sexually obsessed with a friend crashing on their couch, and in “The Matchbox Sign” a young man realises his anxious girlfriend is far more unstable than she seems. She feared these twisted fables wouldn’t be as easy a sell as “Cat Person”, especially as none had been published anywhere as prestigious as The New Yorker. “The temptation would be to turn the book into 11 stories about dating from the perspective of young women,” she says. “So I was grateful that editors recognised it was a weird, dark collection of essentially horror stories. They let it be what it was.”
Still, You Know You Want This contains a more recently written addition, included at her editor’s request. “The Good Guy” has themes adjacent to those of “Cat Person” but is, again, far scarier. Written from the perspective of an unhandsome man who grows increasingly resentful of the attractive female friends who sexually reject him, it will perhaps appease everybody who demanded justice for the overweight, unappealing Robert who failed to impress Margot in bed. “Ideally ‘The Good Guy’ could provide to men some of the uncomfortable satisfactions that ‘Cat Person’ provided to women,” Roupenian says. “Here is this person that you’d say you have nothing in common with, but then there’s this slow move into an uncomfortable familiarity or recognition. I don’t like this guy or endorse him, but can’t say some of the feelings he has aren’t feelings I’ve had.”
Not that Roupenian is interested in catering to the grumpy male readers “Cat Person” stirred up online, suspicious of the author’s motives and irritated that their favourite literary magazine was concerning itself with the sex lives of college students. “There were men specifically saying, ‘Oh, The New Yorker is publishing diary entries now.’ Which I think was less actual confusion and more a way of insulting a story that they found distasteful or annoying by reducing it to autobiography. It’s something that is really common, especially when it comes to writing by women.”
Roupenian knows she will likely never escape the story that made her an online sensation. She also wonders whether, if her literary success had happened more slowly, “I’d feel more pride over my achievement, a sense of more control over my own trajectory.” But beyond the lucrative book deal, she says the most pleasing aspect in the reaction to “Cat Person” was the way straight women in their teens and 20s identified Margot’s anxieties as analogous to their own and began to talk publicly about their dating experiences en masse, dissecting every aspect of “Cat Person” until it became more real-life cautionary tale than fiction. “And that part of it I feel really good about,” Roupenian says. “A story that can be transparent enough that it lets you engage with it as though the characters are real – that’s a thing that I want, that’s the stories that I read.”
A professor once told Roupenian that a writer’s responsibility is not to respond to events, but rather to be permeable to them, to let the things that are happening “sink in and shape you”. Although she wasn’t thinking at all about politics while writing “Cat Person”, she’s now able to see how it’s steeped in a particular cultural moment. “When I wrote ‘Cat Person’, in the spring of 2017, it was post-Trump, the news was so ugly, everyone was on edge about gender relations. There’s that sense of frustration and bleakness, and I can see in retrospect the fingerprints of what it felt like to be a woman in that particular moment all over that story. People responded to that.”
The spectacular way the story was shared and discussed in the mainstream beyond literary pages is another cause for optimism among short fiction authors. Short story collections rarely trouble bestseller lists. “When ‘Cat Person’ went viral it was so funny,” Roupenian says, “because of course the thing about short stories is that they’re the least viral form that no one – and I say this with love – reads. But what the ‘Cat Person’ phenomenon asks is why? Why aren’t they? In some ways they’re a perfect fit for the moment that we’re in and how we all tend to read now.”
As our attention spans wither in the face of clickbait and information overload, Roupenian thinks her form could yet gain greater relevance. She suspects she won’t be the last short story writer to unexpectedly tap into the zeitgeist, especially as the zeitgeist gets sadder and stranger – and weirder. “It’s less about writing new kinds of stories than it is the stories that have always been around finding the right audiences,” she says. “It feels like the internet could so easily facilitate that kind of matchmaking.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Cat power". Subscribe here.