“Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian was an absolute blockbuster of a short story when it was published in The New Yorker in late 2017. Now, Roupenian is back with a buzzy collection of stories that touch on the strange power dynamics of various kinds of relationships. We had the opportunity to interview Roupenian about You Know You Want This. Read on as she discusses “Cat Person” going viral, the connection between sex and violence, and how bachelorette parties are like funerals.
Bookish: “Cat Person” entered a broad national conversation when it appeared in The New Yorker. What was it like to see your work in the spotlight?
Kristen Roupenian: It was incredible, of course, but also disorienting. I imagine I feel kind of like the way the parent of a child savant might—proud of my creation, but also slightly befuddled and intimidated by it. I watch it from afar and marvel: How could I have played a part in making that happen? I have no idea, but I’m very glad I did.
Bookish: Initially, some readers mistook “Cat Person” as a personal essay rather than a short story. How did it feel to have readers believe your fiction was, in fact, a work of nonfiction?
KR: It’s funny—I’m 37, and when I was writing the story, my biggest fear was that the main POV character, Margot, who is 20, might not seem authentic. So, when I realized people were reading the story in that way, my first instinct was to be proud. More broadly, whether it’s a personal essay or a work of fiction, writing that allows people to connect and identify with your subject is an art. Only non-writers think that you can just publish your diaries and expect people to respond to them. A sense of transparent immediacy—helping your readers feel that they’re just hanging out in a corner of someone’s brain, watching a life unfold—is actually an incredibly difficult effect to achieve, regardless of the genre you’re writing in.
Of course, I hope that at least some people will read carefully enough that they can identify the ways that Margot’s particular consciousness is shaping the way we are being told the story. She’s not entirely transparent: She’s a character, and she has flaws and blind spots and imperfections, just like everyone does. I think the story is richer if you read it in that way, but I’m not offended or troubled if people approach it from a different angle.
Bookish: “The Boy in the Pool” seems to be about the roles we’re all expected to play. Kath and Lizzie and Taylor all negotiate their shifting roles as friends, and Jared grapples with the strange legacy of a role he played a long time ago. What drew you to this theme?
KR: My experience of growing up is that I keep expecting to reach what I think of as my final form—that I’ll find out who I am and stay that way; become a person with consistent desires, values, goals. But instead, I keep shedding my skin, starting over and emerging as someone raw and new. And now that I’m heading into my late thirties and I’ve been to more wedding parties than I can count, I realize that one of their functions is to provide a space where you can ritually let go of one version of a person, to say goodbye. In that way, bachelorette parties are kind like funerals. Which is maybe why they can sometimes seem so grim! But of course, the actual transitions rarely take place on schedule, and so weddings are spaces where lots of different versions of ourselves—past, present, and future—are fighting it out. This makes them interesting to write about, and to put into contrast with adolescence, which is another space of intense transition from one self (or role) to another.
Bookish: The first story in your collection is narrated by a couple. What was it like writing from a “we” perspective, and why did you choose to do so?
KR: Writing “Bad Boy” was a little unsettling, in that I had no idea where it was going, or how extreme it would get, until I’d gotten through the first draft. When I started, I imagined that at some point, the “we” would disintegrate into its component parts, and an “I” and a “you” would emerge. But that’s not what happened—instead, the worse things got for the couple, the more fused and indistinguishable the “we” became. That’s a theme in the collection—the way that boundaries between people collapse, bodies merge, individuals fuse into a collective—so I think it makes sense to open book in that way.
Bookish: Sex and violence are very entwined in these stories. Your characters punch as hard as they can, smother to death, and imagine they’re wielding knives—all in the midst of sexual encounters. Could you delve into why you set these encounters up in this way?
KR: For me, what ties sex and violence together in this collection is the idea of power. I’m obsessed with questions of power in interpersonal relationships—not only in romantic relationships, but between parents and children, teachers and students, among friends. Sex is a realm in which power relations become (for lack of a better word) explicit, and violence is always the result of a power relations gone awry, so it’s natural to bring them together. But my goal is to do so in ways that are surprising and defamiliarizing, and make you think about those subjects in new ways, rather than treading ground that’s been gone over 10,000 times before.
Bookish: Several of your stories (“The Good Guy,” “Scarred”) play with the notion of power, particularly power over other people. Your characters all want it, but even when they get it, it doesn’t make them happy. What role do you see power playing in your stories?
KR: I think all of the stories in You Know You Want This are about power. Whenever we want something from another person, we’re setting ourselves up for a power struggle. What we want doesn’t have to be sexual; it might be completely innocuous: affection, kindness, respect, an acknowledgment that we exist. Or maybe it’s something negative: We want someone to go away, to leave us alone, to change their opinion, to be a better person—to be anything other than what, at that moment, they are.
The moment we desire something of someone else, and they don’t respond the way we’d hoped, we’re faced with a question: Do we walk away, and let them continue on as they were? Or do we move closer, and try and try to get what we want from them? The first choice is probably saner and healthier, but the second one is the start of a story.
Bookish: Some of these stories get at the fine line between lust and revulsion, and the ways in which one feeling can sometimes accompany the other. Why did you decide to write about this?
KR: Because it’s true? I don’t know. We sometimes talk about casual sex as sex that happens in the absence of emotion, but I don’t think that’s right. I think emotion is a necessary component of all sexual desire—it’s just that the emotion doesn’t have to be love. It can be anger, envy, nostalgia—or self-loathing or revulsion, which often, in these stories, travel together.
Bookish: In “The Matchbox Sign,” the reader wonders whether a real parasite or an imagined one is wreaking havoc on a couple living in San Francisco. For much of the story, it feels plausible that it is, in fact, the relationship itself that is making the man and woman sick and unhappy. Do you see any parallels between parasites and relationships?
KR: Sure. I think all relationships have some aspect of parasitism to them, but ideally, it’s a symbiotic one: What you drain from me is approximately matched by what I gain from you. It’s when things get off-kilter that you have a problem: One person in the relationship feels needy and dependent, and the other feels sapped of energy, weighed down.
Bookish: The conversations about “Cat Person” frequently touched on consent. How do you see the other stories in your book expanding that conversation?
KR: It’s important to me that people know what they’re getting when they open the book. This is a collection of stories, not a collection of ethical arguments—and many of the stories are messy and violent, painful, and dark. They can’t stand in for advocacy, or reasoned arguments about the importance of consent. The best I can hope for is that they get people thinking about their own desires and experiences, in a way maybe they haven’t before. If the stories can do that, then they can provide a jumping-off point for new conversations, and I do think that’s important work.
Bookish: What short story collections are you most excited about these days? Where would you point a reader who loves your work?
KR: I just finished Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and wow. I’ve never read anything that moves as quickly from hilarity to horror—my stomach dropped like I was riding a roller coaster. Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, those are all relatively recent and all great. I think people who loved “Cat Person,” in particular, would probably also love Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, but I personally feel the closest affinity of all for Shirley Jackson, who’s the writer I’m hoping to someday grow up to be.
Kristen Roupenian graduated from Barnard and holds a PhD in African Literature from Harvard. She is a Zell Fellow in the University of Michigan MFA program, and has received numerous awards for her work. She has studied with Laura Kasischke, Jeff Van der Meer, and Claire Vaye Watkins. Her short story “Cat Person” became a viral sensation when it was published by the New Yorker at the end of 2017, dubbed “the most talked-about short story ever.” You Know You Want This is her first book.