‘Cat Person’ author’s bad date story and her date with fame
Last December, writer Kristen Roupenian was sitting at Cultivate, a coffee shop in Michigan, with her girlfriend of a few months.
It had been a big year for the Plymouth native, who’d finished her master of fine arts at the University of Michigan in April. Her short story “Cat Person” had been accepted by The New Yorker (the dream of many aspiring fiction writers) and was now up on the magazine’s website.
Just then Roupenian’s girlfriend, writer Callie Collins, checked her phone. Something strange was happening.
“She used to work in publishing so she has more of a finger on the literary pulse than I do, and she looked up and was like, ‘Something is going on with your story.’ ’’
What was happening was that Roupenian’s story — which chronicled a terrible date and its aftermath — had gone viral. Thousands of tweets popped up. Then memes. And soon after came a two-book deal, the hotly awaited first one set for release next month.
So what happened? Literary fiction isn’t known for going viral.
Journalists and essayists cranked out think pieces, some of them linking “Cat Person’’ to the #MeToo movement. People were debating — and relating to — the perspective of Margot, a 20-year-old student who meets Robert, a 34-year-old man who manages to patronize and pursue her at once. Margot winds up on an awkward date with this cat person and has sex with him, not because she wants to, but because she feels “that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious.” The relationship ends with a string of upsetting texts.
Even though it was already December, the story jumped to number two on The New Yorker’s list of the most-read stories of 2017. (Ronan Farrow’s Harvey Weinstein investigation was number one.)
“I remember looking and being like, ‘Oh my God.’ And then it just kept going,” recalled Jenni Ferrari-Adler, Roupenian’s literary agent, who’d signed her as a client months earlier after meeting her through a Michigan professor.
“Cat Person” was one of two stories Roupenian submitted for representation. Ferrari-Adler thought it was excellent but admits, “I had no idea that it would be a phenomenon.”
During those first days after the story’s publication, Roupenian was deluged with requests for interviews, including one from her hometown newspaper, the Globe. Instead she opted largely to decline, apart from brief sessions with The New Yorker and The New York Times.
“I really did hide,” Roupenian said. “I mean, not physically, but I didn’t really talk to anybody.”
By Christmas, Roupenian had a seven-figure deal with Scout Press for a short-story collection and a novel, now in progress.
The collection, “You Know You Want This,” due out Jan. 15, includes “Cat Person” and other tales about sex, love, and human connection — or the lack thereof. Some involve magic and horror.
On Dec. 11 — the first anniversary of the print appearance of “Cat Person” — Roupenian considered her wild year in publishing and what the success of her story means for her debut.
“I still feel like I’m still processing it,” she said, during a Skype interview from her couch in Ann Arbor, where she lives with Collins. “It was just overwhelming — having that many people say your name and have an opinion about you.’’
Now 37, Roupenian has settled in Michigan but considers herself a Massachusetts person.
She attended Plymouth schools and Falmouth Academy. In 1998, USA Weekend named her a finalist in its student fiction contest. After that came an English and psychology undergrad at Barnard College and then the Peace Corps, where she taught public health and HIV education in Kenya from 2003 to 2005.
Eventually Roupenian returned to Boston, where she worked as a nanny and then at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I worked in the endocrine unit. I was a research assistant — a very bad one,” she said.
She applied to grad school and was accepted to Harvard, where she got a doctorate in English.
Her mother, Carol Roupenian, who still lives in Plymouth (Roupenian has a sister in New York, and her brother and father live in Alaska), said Kristen had thought about a career in the State Department. It took time for her to commit to pursuing writing as a profession.
By the end of her grad program, though, her goals changed. She finished a draft of a novel and says something in her “finally unblocked.” An agent sent that book out to publishers, but it was rejected. Roupenian then moved to Michigan for her MFA for more time to write.
There, professor and writer and poet Laura Kasischke said Roupenian earned a reputation as a hard worker and a prolific writer of fiction that was good, if often creepy.
Kasischke was Roupenian’s adviser on her thesis project, which blended horror and psychological character study.
“She’d be scary to sit around a campfire with, I think,” Kasischke said.
(Likely so. It was reported in March that film company A24 bought a slasher-film script by Roupenian, “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.”)
Anxious-making is a thread that runs through “You Know You Want This.” Roupenian said there was talk of leading the collection with “Cat Person” because it’s what made her famous, but she didn’t want to mislead anyone about what the book would be.
Instead, the first story is “Bad Boy,” about a couple that takes in a friend going through a breakup. He becomes their submissive and then bad things happen. The end of the story shocks.
“I do think the first story stands there as a kind of gateway to be like, ‘Either you’re in or you’re out. This is what we’re doing,’ ” Roupenian said.
Other stories include “The Matchbox Sign,” which follows a couple dealing with a mysterious ailment, and “Sardines,” about a child’s birthday party wish.
Many have asked Roupenian whether “Cat Person” is based on her own experience because it feels so authentic. Her answer is that there are fragments of autobiography in all of her stories, but that “Cat Person” isn’t based on any one date from her past. One story that she does connect to her real life is a fairy tale, “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone,” which she wrote while living in Boston. It begins: “Once there was a princess who needed to get married.” The princess is indifferent to her suitors and eventually comes face-to-face with a difficult truth about herself.
“I was in a relationship for seven years,” Roupenian explained. “[I was] engaged — to a man — and the relationship was starting not to work out — where it was just becoming clear that we weren’t compatible. . . . I remember that there was all this stuff that I was trying to talk about in therapy. And then I wrote that story. . . . It truly felt like it came from a region of my brain that is, like, deep down in the limbic system.”
“Cat Person” appears about halfway through the book. Roupenian did not write it to address #MeToo, but understands how readers associated it with the movement.
“Cat Person’’ gave women “a way of talking about really graphic and personal experiences and saying this rings true to them. It gave people the chance to talk to each other with sort of the veil of fiction between them. A lot of women used that story to say, ‘This is a fiction story but similar things have happened to me.’ ”
Carol Roupenian agrees “Cat Person” might be one of the scarier stories in the collection. She’s finally understanding what her daughter meant when she said she wanted to write horror.
“I guess I was expecting more along the lines of Stephen King. I think what she’s writing is more varied. It’s not like a genre, it’s real life horror.”
Kristen Roupenian hopes fans of “Cat Person” will appreciate her style. She said she knows that’s why so many people are paying attention — and she’s grateful, even if it is a bit scary.
“I sort of feel like I’m jumping into a whirlpool and I’m just gonna end up on the other side — one way or the other.”