“Itchy.” Kristen Roupenian describes her writing process like the hunt for an invisible bug bite. “There’s something I don’t really get, that’s bothering me, that I’m feeling but can’t articulate — that I need to pick at,” she says. “It’s visceral.”
The description tracks. This is the woman, after all, behind “Cat Person,” that spiky New Yorker short story which swiftly and improbably catapulted Roupenian to literary fame. Every reader who so cringingly, intimately related to young Margot and the tale of her date with an older man gone wrong — to that “shockingly bad” kiss — felt that same itchiness. That sense of raw, ugly, funny truth spelled out, plainly and brutally. “Cat Person” went live in December 2017, and within two weeks, its author — then a virtual unknown — had signed a two-book, seven-figure deal with Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The story ranked as The New Yorker website’s second most-read piece of the year, trailing only Ronan Farrow’s initial bombshell report on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct.
On Twitter, readers screenshotted excerpts of “Cat Person” and captioned them with their own romantic mishaps. They argued about its approach to misogyny and fat-shaming and the new dating culture of apps and texts and ghostings. They debated its quality. The very idea of “Cat Person” — its premise, its resonance, its message — was rooted in its virality. “[Twitter] let people read the story in a way that was unguarded and less analytical — it slipped in around some of the normal expectations we bring to fiction,” Roupenian, 37, says.
She’s had some time to consider the “Cat Person” phenomenon: how it did what no short story in the social-media age had done before, and how it changed her life. “The story went viral over the weekend, and it was exciting but also scary,” Roupenian says. “I felt like I was under a giant spotlight in a way that was not comfortable at all.” Her memory of that cold December weekend when “Cat Person” first hit, which she spent at home in Michigan, is “fragmented” and jumbled. Her clearest recollection is her dog being very ill, and balancing caring for him with taking calls of interest from “famous editors.”
This modern success story has yielded a traditional test in publishing: the first book. Roupenian’s debut, You Know You Want This, is a collection anchored by “Cat Person,” though hardly defined by it. Roupenian forms freakish monsters, grants bizarre wishes, depicts shocking depravity. Sex and power course through the tome like a torrent of desire. (The book is already in development at HBO as a series, with The Leftovers scribes Carly Wray and Lila Byock attached as writers and executive producers.)
You Know You Want This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind that stick with you for days. Roupenian even argues that the book’s genre plays change the shape of its most famous — and realistic — piece. “Margot wonders at this one moment [in ‘Cat Person’], ‘Is he going to murder me?’” the author explains. “If you’ve read the previous stories in the collection, maybe that moment lands a little differently than if you’d read it in isolation.” The story that appears right after “Cat Person” is subversively called “The Good Guy.” Roupenian is content with people reading it as a sneaky response to persistent asks from some that “Cat Person” be written from the male perspective. She cheers now: “Be careful what you wish for!”
The book’s opener, “Bad Boy,” is a nasty, bite-sized satire about a bored young couple whose sex life is revitalized when their friend crashes on their couch. The couple get off on their houseguest listening to them have sex, and the turn-on escalates to the point of tragedy. A pitch-black work of domestic horror, it’s a far cry from “Cat Person,” aside from Roupenian’s unique feel for interiority and sexual dynamics. She had to fight to lead the collection so pointedly. “There were situations where editors and other people were like, ‘Maybe we should ease people into this!’ We could start with ‘Cat Person’ and build up to ‘Bad Boy,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘No.’ I don’t have any interest in tricking people. Readers know what they want.”
Roupenian speaks about reader preferences confidently, presumably because they fit squarely into her literary sweet-spot: the mechanics of wanting. Everything in her debut — whether about a preteen who encounters a creepy drifter or a self-proclaimed “biter” who daydreams of sinking her teeth into an amiable co-worker — delves into desire and all its violent volatility. As in the best of horror — a genre Roupenian consumes voraciously — terror is an instrument for getting on the icky inside of deeply human urges. “To include stories where people are being murdered or transformed into monsters is a way, for me, of capturing how it feels to be a person in the world,” Roupenian says.
Bleak? Sure. But one senses Roupenian isn’t alone — that this philosophy is her secret sauce, how she illuminates the darkest, strangest corners of modern life with such queasy panache. She’s drawn to the ways in which we crave things “that are bad for you and bad for other people,” and turns giddy at the thought of successfully exploring them in her book. “Nowadays there are so many demands on our attention,” she says. “There’s a certain kind of compelling discomfort that I’m always searching for. I come to it honestly as a reader.” You can bet she does as a writer, too.