kristen roupenian: what the ‘cat person’ author did next
When ‘Cat Person’ became the New Yorker’s second most-read story in 2017, after Ronan Farrow’s Harvey Weinstein exposé, it changed Kristen Roupenian’s life forever. A year on, she reflects on its success discusses her new collection, 'You Know You It'.
Kristen Roupenian’s life changed over the duration of a week at the end of 2017. On a Monday, her short story Cat Person was published in the New Yorker -- that in itself, a milestone for Roupenian, then an unknown writer. By Friday it had gone viral, shared across social media and by the end of that week Roupenian had a book deal, a screenwriting deal and more money than she’d ever had in her life. Cat Person became the New Yorker’s second most-read story that year after Ronan Farrow’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse allegations. The popularity of the Weinstein story and Cat Person, which tells the tale of a disastrous and fleeting relationship between 20-year-old Margot and 34-year-old Robert, mark both as cultural milestones in the #MeToo movement.
“There was a real hunger in that moment for a way to have conversations about larger issues and grey areas that the story provided a form for,” reflects the 37-year-old Kristen, speaking over Skype from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “There was one wave of people liking the story itself, but then there was another wave of people wanting to have a conversation in a broader way.” Kristen believes that the story struck a nerve because, as fiction, Cat Person gave readers a safe place to discuss issues of consent and uneven power dynamics between men and women. “There was a streak that was in the minority, but still scar, of vitriol and anger from men, but generally the conversations around Cat Person felt thoughtful,” she says. “I think that the space of fiction allowed people to think outside their own preconceptions.”
"A lot of my stories in one way or another involve me looking at a version of my younger self with slightly more mature eyes and feeling both compassionate and terrified when I think of how I stumbled through the world."
Kristen compares the weekend when Cat Person went viral to a weather pattern. “It descends on one spot and if you try to control it, like if you tried to control the weather, you’re on track to lose your mind.” Kristen kept a low profile during that time (“the stages of realising your story is going viral is confusion, shock, excitement and then terror”), instead standing back and watching the world dissect her story. “And then it went really fast. Three days later it was like, 'Remember when we were all talking about Cat Person?’ It was the speed and the scale of it [online] in comparison to my own experience of it -- like this is my whole life -- that was so disorientating.”
While the dust around Cat Person began to settle, Kristen put together her debut collection, You Know You Want This. Plot-wise, the content of the stories differs wildly to Cat Person. One, The Mirror, The Bucket, and The Old Thigh Bone, is a fairy-tale about a princess who falls in love with her own reflection, while another, Death Wish, is an erotic nightmare. Body-horror is a recurring trope.
The collection reads like an anthology mini-series, which it will soon enough become -- You Know You Want This is currently being adapted for TV by the writers of The Leftovers. It is through style and theme that the stories connect -- each explores power, guilt and the consequences of violence from a different angle.
You Know You Want This is such an engrossing and often horrifying read that the discrepancy between reading the book in the morning and then speaking to the smiley, enthusiastic Kristen in the afternoon, is disconcerting. She grins wildly when I tell her that one of the stories, Look at Your Game, Girl, about an 11-year-old girl being groomed by a strange man in the park, based in part on the Manson murders, gave me nightmares. “A lot of my stories in one way or another involve me looking at a version of my younger self with slightly more mature eyes and feeling both compassionate and terrified when I think of how I stumbled through the world,” she explains, running her hands through short hair.
“In the world we live in, the consequences of the wounded male ego are often much more violent and scary than the consequences of a woman’s ego on a man.”
Cat Person was based on a bad dating encounter from years ago. “I had met someone online that had very quickly, and not in any way that resembles the plot of the story, turned bad. Suddenly I was fighting with a stranger like, ‘How could they do this to me?’ Then I had this moment of realisation that I’d made this person up. I had this idea of what that person was like and what our relationship was going to be like and told myself all these stories and I had a moment of being like, ‘You’re an idiot!’”
As exemplified in Cat Person, a motif that runs through the collection is of wounded male egos, reminiscent of the much cited Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” In one story, aptly titled The Good Guy, Kristen crawls under the skin of Ted, the epitome of a Nice Guy, who uses his beta male status to get close to and emotionally manipulate women.
“In the world we live in, the consequences of the wounded male ego are often much more violent and scary than the consequences of a woman’s ego on a man,” sighs Kristen. “But more generally, I’m interested in that space where you see someone in a certain way that is so deeply entangled with the way you see yourself, so you act in ways you wouldn’t have otherwise acted. That difficulty we have in seeing other people apart from ourselves. I think gender is a really important aspect to that conversation. How do we hurt each other and what are the consequences of having been hurt?”
The sparse descriptions, yet rich psychology of the stories, Kristen attributes to her love of horror: “from as long as I can remember I was obsessed with finding the scariest stories, the scariest movies, and wanting it always,” she smiles. Kristen sees all her stories as having aspects of the horror genre to them, some more subtle than others. “Even Cat Person has that feeling of discomfort and dread,” she explains. “The shape of the story is like you’re watching a girl walk into a house and you’re like, ‘Don’t go in!’ You have that feeling of identification but also of wanting to drag her back. Horror has such a clear metric of success: are you scared and uncomfortable but not so scared and uncomfortable that you’re going to close the book?”
Kristen also shares horror’s desire to get under the skin of monsters. There are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys in her stories, and men, women and children are all equally presented as fucked up. “Something I’m never interested in as a writer is writing a story that is like, ‘You, the reader, is a good person, but that person over there is a dick,’” she says. “I want to try to figure out if the dark things in you, the reader, might match the dark things in my characters. It’s a fine line to walk. Can you have too much empathy for someone who is bad that might blind you to who they actually are?” She grins at her own challenge. “I’m still figuring it out.”
You Know You Want This is released Thursday 7 February.