“Are you sure you want me to tell you? I don’t want to ruin your life,” Kristen Roupenian teases, eyes wide, hands stretched flat on the white tablecloth as she leans forward.
I’m sitting opposite the breakout literary star in a leather booth in the middle of a nearly deserted dining room in midtown Manhattan. We are below street level, and the room is brightly lit. Greek music plays in the background. It’s the dreary part of winter, when every day blends in to the next, and at 2pm the lunch rush has already passed, if there ever was one.
With three courses ahead of us, I am not sure, but I take the bait.
The story: in the suburbs of Boston, a teenager and his little brother are in a park playing with gunpowder. He blows his hand off. Then he drives himself, “arm out the window, blood gushing” to hospital, where Roupenian was working in the emergency room as an assistant. “The doctor asked me to hold his arm up like this,” she’s gesturing with her own limbs, propping her elbow perpendicular against a wall that is lined with photographs of the Aegean Sea.
“The hand was like, totally gone?”
“Gone. No hand. The hand was gone,” she confirms, seeming satisfied, although when I tell her that I’m squeamish her tone swings to apologetic. “This is going to be a great article. ‘She’s so terrifying, the interviewer fainted! Buy her book!’ Sorry, that was a weird thing to do. It’s been a long week.”
You may have read this far and still not know who Roupenian is. Fifteen months ago, no one did. At that time we were in the thick of the #MeToo reckoning: every week, news stories emerged about influential men doing bad things, giving us high-profile villains in a script that drove a public, often heated, conversation about the dynamics of sex and power. Against this backdrop, The New Yorker on December 11 2017 published Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”.
The 7,000-word story chronicles a brief relationship between a college student, Margot, and a 34-year old man, Robert. They text for weeks before going on a proper date. It goes badly. Margot has sex with Robert even though she doesn’t want to. She later texts him saying she’s not interested. He stalks her in real life, and then calls her a whore over text message. The End.
What happened next was unusual, and many publishing executives say unprecedented. “Cat Person” set the internet aflame, gifting us with history’s first “viral” short story, a break from the usual run of 20-second video clips and memes. It became the most-read piece on The New Yorker’s website that year, second only to the magazine’s reporting on the crimes of Harvey Weinstein, despite the fact it was published only a few weeks before the end of 2017.
Roupenian’s penchant for horror made a story about the nuances of romance read like a thriller. Margot’s inner dialogue played out in excruciating detail; many readers joked it felt more like a documentary than fiction, tapping into our innermost anxieties. The sex scene is skin-crawling.
Her writing depicts dark, stomach-churning subject matter. Her new book of short stories features plot lines including a gruesome threesome that ends in murder; a woman who needs to be punched to enjoy sex; a man who has to pretend he is stabbing women with a knife to have sex at all (and those are the ones that could make it into the FT).
So I’m relieved to find that in person Roupenian, 38, is chipper and easy to talk to. Dressed plainly in a black sweater and ripped jeans, her short brown hair tucked into a cream beanie, she looks like someone who would be on the cover of a catalogue for an American liberal arts college, lying in the grass surrounded by classmates and books.
“You seem reasonably cheerful for someone who spent their weekend reading my book,” she jokes as we study the menu. “You came out blinking at the light.”
Her unassuming nature belies her success. Within a week of the publication of “Cat Person”, an industry-wide bidding war had emerged over Roupenian’s collection of stories. The eventual victor was publishing juggernaut Simon & Schuster, who reportedly paid her a $1.3m advance — the kind of figure usually reserved for celebrities. HBO is now developing a prestige television series based on her writing. She also has a second book coming as part of her deal, and then there is a screenplay that she sold to A24, the indie studio behind the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
It’s hard to feel sorry for anyone who has just received a seven-figure payment for their writing. Or someone who had the confidence to title her debut book: You Know You Want This.
But Roupenian is clearly a bit disoriented by this whole thing. My hopes for an extravagant meal are dashed early on. She warns the waiter she will “only be having half a glass” of wine — “I need to keep it together today,” she chides herself. When she’s nervous she can’t eat, and she’s nervous today. Tonight is her official launch party at the famed Strand Bookstore on Broadway.
“There’s a pit in my stomach,” she says. “It arrives a few hours before and doesn’t leave until it’s over.”
We’re at a Greek restaurant that she chose by googling restaurants near her hotel (she lives in Michigan). It’s on a nondescript block just south of Central Park; across the street is a gold-encrusted Trump condo building. The menu leaves little room for decision-making as a vegetarian, so I opt for the “spreads” and “village salad”, which turns out to be a Greek salad. She goes for avgolemono soup and spinach pie, at which point I realise that we’ve both ordered main courses that typically qualify as appetisers.
Roupenian wrote “Cat Person” in the April of 2017, a few months after Trump had become president. “I had a professor who said that the writer’s job isn’t to respond to current events, but to be permeable to them, to have a thin skin,” she says. “And I felt poisoned by the news at that time. Everybody’s teeth were on edge. And I ... feel like that shapes the grey menace, the atmosphere of threat [in the story]”.
I had a professor who said that the writer’s job isn’t to respond to current events, but to be permeable to them. And I felt poisoned by the news at that timeKristen Roupenian
While the real-life characters of #MeToo were often painted in black and white, Robert and Margot presented emblems of the murkier grey zones of relationships. Sex that was ostensibly consensual, but still felt really bad. Weinstein was easy to label as a villain, but what about Robert?
Roupenian terrifies readers with the horrors of real life. “I think it’s in my blood,” she tells me, as a waiter delivers a Mason jar of Greek yoghurt smeared with feta cheese and a basket of warm pita bread. “As a reader, I like being scared and uncomfortable and tense.”
Roupenian says her literary heroes are Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. Like Jackson, Roupenian loves ambiguity. She studiously withholds contextual details, leaving the reader in a purgatory of questioning whether your fears are imagined. The title of “Cat Person” derives from one such anxiety. Robert tells Margot he has cats, but she doesn’t see them in his house.
So naturally when I ask her whether Robert lied about the cats, Roupenian demurs. “I wouldn’t want to weigh in on a legitimate debate,” she says wryly.
We raise our glasses, even though I have already rudely been sipping wine, and I ask about her childhood. She grew up in Plymouth, a wealthy coastal town in Massachusetts. She was an “odd, bookish child” who loved reading horror novels. Her mother is a doctor and father a nurse, and she had always considered a career in medicine, hence the emergency room employment and a stint in Kenya with the Peace Corps.
We are silenced when a waiter elaborately pours broth over a bowl of shredded chicken, egg, lemon and vegetables. Three more Mason jars arrive for me: hummus, tyrokafteri (hot pepper and cheese), melitzanosalata (eggplant).
Roupenian enrolled in an English doctorate at Harvard, during which she wrote in her free time, but not enough. She says it was hard to justify going back to university again for an MFA, but “I just felt like I needed a little more time.” She spoons the lemony hot soup.
“Mission accomplished,” she says, grinning. She has made more than a million dollars for the writing she did during that extra time.
Getting “Cat Person” into The New Yorker was “truly one of the happiest moments of my entire life”, she says. “As an aspiring writer, it changed everything. I thought The New Yorker had just forgotten to send me a rejection letter.”
But going viral was its own horror story. “One of my biggest fears was always mobs ... So when it was happening all I could think was: this is going to end poorly. And in fact it did not end poorly. It ended in me selling my book for a lot of money. But it was also scary and overwhelming ... it’s probably something I will be sorting through for a really long time.”
She “went dark” after “Cat Person” blew up online. Meaning, she turned off her computer. It wasn’t easy to reach her because you had to go through several pages of a “very old” website to find her email address. Still, thousands of people cleared that hurdle. She got “so many” thoughtful, personal emails from women. She felt frozen and didn’t respond. But — she takes on a rare serious tone here — she read every one “with a full heart”.
She declined all interview requests. “I think it could have gone differently if people in my life tried to shove me out in front of the cameras, and there are pictures of me looking crazed,” she says, sounding viscerally relieved. “I can see a version of that. For the rest of my life if I get arrested for something minor, the headline will be: cat person jailed!”
I’m steadily sipping white wine, which is crisp and dry — think the indigenous Greek version of a Chardonnay. She is taking her time as promised. There is zero silence; the tone has reached one notch away from a sleepover, complete with ghost stories. At one point a woman in the adjacent booth turns around and audibly sighs when we’re giggling loudly about “goings on at sororities”.
I broach the subject of reviews of her book. I devoured it in one sitting, which I would not recommend. The 12 stories are gripping but at times physically wrenching. Most of them dive further into fantasy than “Cat Person”; the book reads more like traditional horror with monsters, mysterious diseases, violence and gore.
While critics had nearly universally praised “Cat Person”, her book has received a more mixed reception.
“Honestly, I sort of always want to be like: if you don’t like it’s fine!” says Roupenian. “You don’t have to buy it! It has a lot of weird shit in it.” She forks into her spanakopita. It looks buttery and flaky and perfect. I stab into the cucumbers doused in olive oil on my plate, regretting my choice.
Roupenian’s stories share one common thread: a preoccupation with the terror of female adolescence, and the subtle ways women learn to be afraid, internalising fear as part of our daily lives. “There are all these things bubbling up and shaping how you move through the world as a girl, and a woman. You see stories about kidnapping on the news. Is it safe to be getting in this car? Is it safe to be in this park?”
More than a year after “Cat Person” was published, the #MeToo movement has slowed from its frenetic pace, but not stopped. Some men who had lost their jobs, among them Pixar founder John Lasseter, have found prominent new employment. Others, such as the singer R Kelly and producer Harvey Weinstein, are awaiting trial. And still more women are speaking out: last month, several women accused indie musician Ryan Adams of abusive behaviour. His upcoming album has been scrapped and endorsements pulled.
Our glasses are almost drained by now, betraying her earlier promise, and we’re ready to tackle more uncontroversial topics, such as sexuality and dating. It’s pushing 4pm and the restaurant has begun to take on the feel of a dive bar at last call, which isn’t helped by the fact that we haven’t seen another human for at least 20 minutes.
It can be very lonely trying to explain what it’s like being a woman, and that’s a feature of all heterosexual relationshipsKristen Roupenian
“I’m queer. I date men and women,” she announces to little fanfare, after I ask her about a stray line from “Cat Person”. While miserable in bed with Robert, Margot imagines someday having a boyfriend who would understand and cringe along with her at Robert’s faults. But he will never exist, Margot later reasons.
“Sometimes I talk to men who mean so much to me and I don’t understand why we are not connecting,” she says.
“It can be very lonely trying to explain what it’s like being a woman, and that’s a feature of all heterosexual relationships.” She likens Margot’s projections of Robert to the “imaginative error” of online dating. Weeks of texting allowed Margot to “trick herself into believing she knew him”.
“The reality is that this is a stranger. The only way to know him is over time, slowly and imperfectly.” She takes her final sip, laughing at her own conviction.
Finally a waiter appears, asking if we want baklava. She declines because she needs to “stare blankly at a wall for a few hours” until her launch party. Fair. Hours of talking about gender and power and horror has left me feeling the same way. “It feels like 4am,” I accidentally say out loud more than once.
We aren’t drunk but we aren’t totally sober and I manage to trip on her as we walk out of the door. She’s thanking me profusely for “listening to her” (which I was being paid to do). On the street it’s windy, but the sky has cleared and the wine has warmed me up. The sounds of construction and taxi horns are jarring after hours in isolation.
We begin to walk in opposite directions when she turns back and wishes me “Good luck! I’m glad we stayed until 4am.”
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.