When The New Yorker published “Cat Person” in 2017, the short story about modern dating immediately went viral. It sparked countless opinion pieces, retweets, and conversations, becoming the most downloaded work of fiction on The New Yorker’s site that year. Many readers felt an instant emotional link to the narrative, which describes a brief relationship between Margot, a 20-year-old college student, and Robert, an older man she meets while working at an art house cinema. It ends with rejection following a bad sexual experience.
Author Kristen Roupenian, MFA’17, wrote the story during a fellowship at U-M’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program after she earned her master’s in creative writing. As such, Roupenian, who still lives in Ann Arbor, pictured Margot and Robert’s date occurring at downtown Ann Arbor bars. “I imagined them getting turned away from The Last Word,” she says, “and then walking to 8Ball.”
Roupenian has published her first book, “You Know You Want This” (Simon & Schuster, 2018), a collection that features “Cat Person,” among other short stories. Excitement is high due to the popularity of that story, which Roupenian admitted at a January 2018 book event was so overwhelming that she “shut her computer and walked away from the attention.” In contrast, she is currently embracing the public’s enthusiasm for her stories, particularly the one that led to her seven-figure, two-book publishing deal.
“Cat Person,” like much of Roupenian’s work, stems from the writer’s fascination with horror books and films, though her well-shared short story only hints at a danger that never plays outs. As a child, she delighted in finding her mother’s bookshelf lined with Stephen King novels, which she read throughout her teens. Roupenian, in fact, dedicated the book to her mother, who, she writes, “taught me to love what scares me.”
Reflecting on the collection, Roupenian says, “I write best in that space that’s vulnerable, intimate, and dark. A lot of the stories have a similar tone of tension, sometimes escalating to fear. Often in a thriller, the protagonists are pursuing something out of curiosity, because they want to know more. Whenever you have a protagonist in that position, there is that shared space for the reader.”
Roupenian notes that in “Cat Person,” Margot and Robert reveal “the tropes of horror.” When Margot feels curious, but wary, as she enters Robert’s home, Roupenian is channeling horror films, including that classic admonition to women: “Don’t go into the house.” Roupenian writes in the short story, “She had the brief wild idea that maybe this was not a room at all but a trap meant to lure her into the false belief that Robert was a normal person, when in fact all the other rooms in the house were empty, or full of horrors: corpses or kidnap victims or chains.”
Alison Callahan, an executive editor at Scout Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, found Roupenian’s eerie storytelling to be irresistible. “I challenge you to read these stories without squirming or shuddering,” she says. “Not from repulsion, from absolute recognition. She crawls into your head and shines a bright, white spotlight on the thoughts you think nobody else could possibly have.”
Each story in Roupenian’s book is about a protagonist’s proximity to danger, whether skirting the edge or tipping into terror. A story titled “Biter” depicts a woman who yearns to bite an attractive man in her office. In “Look at Your Game, Girl,” a 13-year-old finds herself both repulsed and attracted to someone she meets at her local playground. The story is set in the 1990s, when Roupenian herself was that age. “The book is about the uses and abuses of empathy and being called ‘heartless’ or feeling as though there’s something wrong with your emotional affect,” she says.
Roupenian had been experimenting with this style of storytelling for years. Upon entering U-M, she had several short story drafts under her belt. “I got incredibly good feedback,” she says of her MFA courses. “A majority of the stories got at least one read or revision in workshop.”
English professor Laura Kasischke, Roupenian’s MFA adviser at U-M, says of her former student’s work, “Kristen is writing fiction that will last. ‘Cat Person’ went viral because there is a beautifully smooth surface that you can’t help sliding along from beginning to end. You want everyone you know to read it and talk to you about it because there is so much more to that story.”
Before U-M, Roupenian completed a PhD at Harvard in contemporary African literature and in the final year of her dissertation managed to write a full-length novel, though it fell short of securing a publisher. “Tragically, but also probably rightly,” she says, adding that she is now working on a novel. She hopes it will live up to her favorite works of haunting fiction, whose stories “consume” her. “I know my writing is going well when I feel as absorbed writing as I feel reading.”
Lonnie Firestone, ’02, holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Glamour, Vanity Fair, Tablet, and American Theatre. She hosts an art podcast called “Places, Everyone,” and lives in Brooklyn, New York.