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.