The Joyce Carol Oates Story That Shares DNA With 'Cat Person’
What the debut writer Kristen Roupenian learned from a masterful tale that dramatizes the horrors of being a young woman
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
In December 2017, The New Yorker published “Cat Person,” an enigmatically titled story that went viral as almost no other work of short fiction has managed to do. The tale of a flirtation lived mostly through text message, culminating in a one-night stand that veers from disappointing to frightening and degrading, uncannily portrayed the world of American dating—especially for younger women, and especially in the era of #MeToo. “Cat Person” captured the halting cadence of digital communication, the hazy negotiation of boundaries and consent, and the way sex between strangers can heighten isolation. It seemed to be the story everyone needed to read that year, ultimately generating more than 85,000 Facebook comments. It also produced an intense amount of interest in Kristen Roupenian, the virtually unknown writer of the piece.
This week, Roupenian debuts her collection, You Know You Want This, offering the public the first sustained look at her literary capacities. In a conversation for this series, she discussed the short story that helped inspire “Cat Person”: Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Both stories read as heightened fairy tales in which young protagonists seek out sex and romance in a world that poses supreme dangers to women. And both feature a male antagonist who at first seems friendly, attractive, and appealing—but whose mask slowly slips off, instilling horror in the reader. Reflecting on Oates’s masterful opening paragraph, Roupenian also discussed how the sudden fame of “Cat Person” derailed her life, with hordes of strangers suddenly striving to connect with her. The experience had eerie parallels to Oates’s story, in which a man notices a woman in a moment of unguarded vulnerability, and then feels she owes him her returned attention.
One of the stories in You Know You Want This is, in fact, a direct homage to Oates: A 12-year-old girl meets a handsome stranger whose interest in Charles Manson’s warped folk songs does not at first seem to be a red flag. Another sees a couple rekindle their love life when they realize their couch surfer can hear them having sex—a coy, voyeuristic premise that moves into a nightmarish examination of sexual power dynamics. The collection’s 12 stories mine the territory between intimacy and danger, and between fantasy and reality.
Kristen Roupenian’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Colorado Review, and other publications. She spoke to me by phone.
Kristen Roupenian: I first read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in 10th-grade English class. It was the first truly terrifying story I read within the context of school, and it made a huge impression on me. What I remember most is the intensity: this visceral sense of fear, but also confusion, as though the story was somehow moving too fast, going over my head, and I couldn’t quite get it all.
The appeal must have been, in part, because I was 15 years old—the same age as Connie, the protagonist. The story masterfully dramatizes the horrors of being a young woman coming into adolescence, all those underlying anxieties and fears. And the moral of the story is: If you have sex, you will be murdered.
You can’t be a teenager in the world—a teenage girl at least—without having the sense that sex and death are somehow intertwined. We all hear stories that reinforce how dangerous the world is for young women. In its way, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is the literary version of one of those cautionary tales. The story begins as short stories are famously supposed to, compressing its thematic concerns into the very first paragraph. “Her name was Connie,” it begins.
She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself, who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: She knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.
The first thing we get is a description of a girl who’s known for looking into mirrors. That already feels ominous, because we know from fairy tales that girls who look into mirrors often reach bad ends. But it’s also perfect, because this story is so much about questions of who’s looking, and who’s watching, and how that gaze can be protective or damaging.
After all, it’s not just that Connie’s mom often catches her peering into mirrors to see herself. Her whole world functions like a kind of mirror. I love the line “checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right,” just as a way to describe the way you can look into someone’s face to see their reaction to you—as a teenage girl, that insight rang so true. It’s also a wonderful detail, because it shows Connie’s narcissism. Even when she’s looking into other people’s faces, she sees mostly herself.
Connie has a theory for why her mom is on her case all the time: She’s jealous. But what Connie doesn’t know—and what a mom who has been young and pretty would know—is that to be young and pretty is also to be in danger. Connie is about to find that out. Because even though all she can see is her own beauty, there is a moment when another perspective breaks through. It happens later, as she’s walking from the local diner out to some boy’s car:
On the way Connie couldn’t help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music. She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face just a few feet from hers. It was a boy with shaggy black hair … He stared at her and then his lips widened into a grin.
Briefly, she lets go of her self-consciousness, really just experiencing the pure pleasure of being alive in her body. And that is the moment she first sees Arnold Friend, the dangerous stalker who will later show up at her house when she’s alone. She notices him noticing her, and it breaks the dream. Arnold’s attention is a frightening thing. It’s as if he’s saying: “I noticed you, it’s your fault, and now you owe me.”
There’s a story in my collection, “Look at Your Game, Girl,” that I wrote directly modeled on “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” In an early draft, it was even dedicated to Joyce Carol Oates. But though I knew that I was influenced by Oates’s story when I wrote “Look at Your Game, Girl,” it was not until this morning that I looked back and saw how much its influence is all over “Cat Person,” too.
There are some identical moments. There’s a moment of horror in Oates’s story where [Connie] realizes Arnold Friend is not a teenager like he’s pretending to be—that he, up close, looks more like a 30-year-old man. Yes, he’s wearing the right boots and wearing cool sunglasses and he knows the words to all the songs. He even, in a kind of supernatural way, knows the names of all her friends, and where her parents have gone that Sunday afternoon. All these things should signify safety, but they don’t. In this context, they signify danger.
That’s a huge theme in “Cat Person.” Not to give the game away, but that’s in part where the title comes from. There are all these signifiers that are supposed to be comforting: You like cats, you like the same music as me, you make good jokes. We want these things to signify safety, but we’re not sure that they do. Both stories are about the moment you realize that the thing you’d thought was a face is actually a mask—that moment of terror.
The similarities between the two stories were not part of a conscious process. The moment you think you know what you’re saying with a story, you’re doomed. You have to have the faith that all the things that you’ve read and thought and experienced will go into some inaccessible part of your brain, get tangled and mixed and churned up, and then come out the other side. I think most people don’t actually have much control over that aspect of writing. The best things about any story will surprise you, and though you’ll be able to track them down later, in retrospect, you never quite know where you’re headed at the time—at least I don’t.
I first read Oates’s story when I was 15, and I was 30 by the time I decided I wanted to try to write seriously. For a long time, I didn’t really want to do it. I feared I was somehow a lazy person, because all I wanted was to read for four hours a day without having to talk about it.
But then, at the last minute, something happened in my brain, which was a funny surprise to me: I started to want to write. Looking back, it was wonderful to suddenly want something so much—enough to know that I would orient my life around it, even though I had no expectation or guarantee that anyone would ever care. Other people’s reactions were less important than the fact that I’d found what I wanted to do.
For me, that was the transition between reader and writer. But then, there was the transition between being a writer and being a Writer, which took place when “Cat Person” was published. It happened both over the course of a weekend and also over a year, and it was hugely dislocating. It felt annihilating to have all these eyes suddenly swivel towards you. I would not say these eyes swiveled towards the story. The story is a story, and it exists outside of me. I created something and put it out into the world, and I’m happy for it to be a thing that’s in the world. But that’s not what being a Writer is, with a capital w. It also involves giving up some piece of yourself—with eyes trained on you, and people wanting to sort of reach out and touch you. That was new.
It wasn’t just the people who had thoughts and feelings about the story. I got tons of emails from people who said the story reminded them of their own experience, and some of those were caring and thoughtful. That part of the experience was hugely positive, and I was grateful. But other letters I received were sort of invasive and scary. They felt like someone exposing themselves to you on a subway. Like, Look at me—that demand for attention.
Since we’re talking about mirrors: If fiction was a mirror I’d got used to looking into, well, suddenly the mirror had eyes.
It helps to go back to the Oates story, actually. This is often, though not always, a gendered thing: this sense some people have that if you’ve had an effect on them, if you’ve caught their attention, then you must be trying to do that. You must be pulling their attention to you. That’s the dynamic between Connie and Arnold, right? He noticed her, and because he noticed her, she was asking for it. Of course, in many ways, that is very different from suddenly becoming a public figure, but it fuels this sense I have—in a way I haven’t since I was a teenager—that people are looking at me with a sense of expectations I don’t fully understand. Very suddenly, I don’t know how I look in the world to other people. There’s a bentness to everything, and it’s disorienting.
But I do think I’ll be able to get back to the old feeling. I was reading for 30 years before anyone cared, and I’ll go back and read again. I’ll read books by people who don’t give a fuck about what my writing is like or who I am. Slowly, I think, I’ll just sink back into remembering the truth, which is that my book is just one of millions of others on a shelf. I’m not as important as I sometimes like to trick myself into thinking. The truth is, you are always kind of anonymous. If you just wait long enough, everyone will forget, and you can go back to that place.