When a short story makes a splash these days, you can see the ripples in real time.
Massachusetts native Kristen Roupenian had fewer than 200 followers on Twitter before her work of fiction, “Cat Person,” was published in The New Yorker last week.
The piece dominated attention on social media in a way that fiction rarely does. On Sunday, Roupenian’s follower count climbed rapidly as her more eager readers finished the story and set out to find its creator. The writer, whose parents worked in Plymouth, went to Falmouth Academy in Falmouth, and later graduated from Barnard College.
“Cat Person” focuses on two characters, Margot and Robert, who begin to construct a relationship through texting and eventually go on something resembling a date.
The verisimilitude of their encounter started conversations about dating, power and consent. (There has also been a backlash and a backlash to the backlash.)
Roupenian, 36, is on a writing fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she recently completed a master’s degree. She has only committed to writing in the past five years and is finalizing a story collection and working on a novel.
On Sunday, stunned by the response to her story, she agreed to be interviewed by email. What follows has been condensed and edited.
Q: You told The New Yorker that the story was inspired by a nasty encounter online. How long did it take you to write?
A: I wrote the story immediately after the encounter — within a week — and finished a first draft in a matter of days. Once the basic story was complete, I held onto it and tinkered with it for a month or so, gave it to a few trusted readers and then sent it to my agent.
That said, the themes of the story (sex, gender, power, consent) are ones that I’ve been thinking about, and trying to write about, for years … It’s not autobiographical; though many of the details and emotional notes come from life, they were accumulated over decades, not drawn from a single bad date.
Q: You’ve wanted to be a writer for a long time, but you said you’ve only really committed in the last five years. Was there a catalyst?
A: Ha, yeah. I was at a bar with my friend. I was close to finishing my Ph.D., and I’d made it through almost the entire process of entering the Foreign Service. I’d had a few beers, and I was talking passionately about how, by becoming a diplomat, I was going to live my second-best-possible life. It wasn’t my No. 1, absolute dream, but it was pretty great … and trying to be a writer was too risky. And she was like: “Uh, that seems like a terrible reason to join the Foreign Service. I think you’ll regret this choice on your deathbed. You should write your novel.”
So I did. And then there was a government hiring freeze, so I didn’t get to join the Foreign Service anyway, and that novel didn’t work out either, but by then I was hooked.
Q: A lot of writers have difficulty working text messaging (and cellphones) into stories. Was that a challenge for you?
A: I worried about being boring — text messages are hard to work into stories because it’s not easy to build a scene around someone sitting alone and staring at a phone. I dealt with that by introducing secondary characters for Margot to talk to about the texts — the stepdad, Tamara — which both helped keep the scenes from becoming static and felt true to life.
Q: What about Robert and Margot’s exchange is unique to modern technology?
A: I think conducting the early stages of flirtation via text allows us to control even more of what we present to ourselves to other people, and gives us a lot of space to imagine what kind of person exists on the other side of conversation. And the things we imagine might not always turn out to be accurate. But the gender dynamics, the uncertainty, the fear — that all predates tech, for sure.
Q: Every so often Margot gets a flash of actual insight into Robert’s mindset. But her empathy ropes her into continuing the date. Can empathy be a double-edged sword?
A: That’s exactly right. Margot’s empathetic imagination is working on overdrive here, and throughout the story. Her skills at reading other people make her socially adept, but because imaginative empathy is still, fundamentally, imagination, she is also easily misled.
She thinks she can see inside Robert; she believes she knows more about him than she does, and that keeps the date catapulting forward when it might otherwise have come to an end. The people I know who tend to be drawn to the most troubled men are these incredibly empathetic, imaginative young women, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a piece of it: how good they are at creating a compelling backstory for men who have done nothing to earn it.
Q: Much of the conversation about the story has revolved around the sex. A pivotal paragraph starts, “Yeah, right, she thought, and then he was on top of her again.” Can you talk about writing that?
A: It’s an uncomfortable moment. It was uncomfortable to write, and my sense is it’s uncomfortable to read. (It’s definitely an uncomfortable scene to know that your mom has read!) But it’s an aspect of the story that people are responding to, so I’m glad I kept my gaze steady on it and didn’t look away.
Q: What is Margot wishing for when she imagines the boy with whom she could share the story of this encounter? Why does she decide “no such boy existed, and never would”?
A: Well, it’s an irony of heterosexual relationships, right, that you’re searching for a partner who has experienced the world so much differently than you have, and whose romantic and sexual history is so different from your own? That’s a pain a lot of women I know have felt acutely, especially in this past year, when all of these terrible shared experiences are becoming part of the public conversation. Women try to talk about these experiences with their partners, and they find themselves failing. It’s an isolating feeling for both people involved.
But for Margot, it’s true, too, that one of the reasons she can’t ever imagine sharing this particular experience with a partner is that she herself doesn’t understand it, so how can she explain it? That’s true in a way that goes beyond gender, of course, and is maybe just a fundamental human impulse: I wish I had someone who could explain my story to me!
Q: The story’s last exchange gives the clearest view yet of who Robert is. Did you always know how it was going to end? Verbatim?
Q: Do you hate cats?
A: Nah. Cats are great. They’re a little creepy, but I like things that are creepy. I have a dog who hates cats, though, so I don’t get to hang out with them much.