LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Pictures go viral. Memes go viral. Videos go viral. But a little over a year ago, a short story published in The New Yorker caused an internet explosion. Everyone had feelings, especially women, about Kristen Roupenian's short story "Cat Person," which told the story of Margot, a college student, and Robert, a man in his mid-30s.
After a few weeks of flirty texting back and forth, the two go on one date during which Margot grows more and more uncomfortable but proceeds to have sex with him anyway. Afterwards, she feels disgust for him and ends things over text. And when she runs into Robert again, he sends a series of progressively angry texts to her. The story ends with his last text, the word whore.
Roupenian's new collection of short stories is filled with depictions of women and men who misjudge each other and treat each other with cruelty and discomfort, a weird and awkward anatomy of life in the age of digital life and #MeToo. The book is called "You Know You Want This." And Kristen Roupenian joins us now from Michigan Public Radio. Welcome.
KRISTEN ROUPENIAN: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start, of course, with "Cat Person." How did you come up with the idea for that? It felt both personal and universal. Was it for you?
ROUPENIAN: I guess a few different things led up to sitting down and writing it. I had been on a bad date, nothing like what actually takes place in the story. But also, I was just - I don't know. I was just sort of at this moment of self-reflection and then also feeling just disoriented kind of by the whole world. And I hope that that vulnerability maybe made it into the story in a way that let people connect to that kind of core of, like, confusion and kind of loneliness that I think powers a lot of the story.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And one of the reasons I think it had such resonance - right? - is that it shaped the conversation at a moment when women were grappling with #MeToo. And what seemed to give it the thrum of, I think truth is the word, was that it wasn't about an overt act of sexual assault or sexual harassment but rather the experience that many women have with men where all of a sudden, right? - someone safe becomes someone who might feel entitled to us.
ROUPENIAN: Right. That is one of those things where I feel like it was probably true for me my whole life that I had experience with men - where my attention and my understanding of them was split. Where I'm like, I think that this is fine, but I'm not 100 percent sure that it's fine, so I'm going to be sort of subconsciously or, like, with some part of my attention being like, how will I get out of this? What will I do if he gets angry? How will I manage to defuse this situation?
I mean, I can't speak for anyone else, but I do feel like it does seem, in the wake of the story, a experience that many women had had but also that they hadn't quite been conscious of having. And that to me, like, does power writing that is meaningful to me - where it's not about, like, you seeing what other people are doing, but it gives you a moment to, like, look at yourself in a sort of estranged and, like, new way. And you'll be like, oh, yeah, I was doing that, and I never would have thought that that was behavior I was engaging in until it was called to my attention.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many, if not most, of these stories seem to be about these awful men and their relationships with women and to sex - the submissive who kills his ex-girlfriend, for example. What were you trying to excavate?
ROUPENIAN: Yeah, I mean, I guess I would say, for better or worse, there are many terrible women in the stories, too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's true. The women are truly terrible, too.
ROUPENIAN: They're also given the opportunity to be disgusting. I mean, I - excavate is actually a great word. And often when I start a story, I am trying to excavate a feeling rather than an idea or a thought. There will be something that's making me uncomfortable.
And the stories are sometimes a way for me to look at the sides of myself that don't fit perfectly into that story that I'm often telling myself about how I am a good person, about how empathetic and thoughtful I am. I think I am like that. Like, I think if you met me you'd be like, Kristen, she's a decent human being.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am absolutely sure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You seem delightful.
ROUPENIAN: (Laughter) Thank you. But I do think it's, like, that fiction for me has always been a space to escape that and to imagine different ways of being in the world and also to look at myself and the urges and the, like, desires and the fury, to put it, like, mildly, that I can't and don't want to let free in my daily life. And I think - I mean, I am one of, you know, thousands of people who have been talking about how in the past few years anger of women and the kind of ugliness of anger in them is something that has taken them by surprise. And I would say that I am one of those people.
These books - stories were written over the course of about, like, five years. And one thing that happened to me over the course of that time is that I realized that the emotion that I had been calling anxiety, which was obsessive thinking and sort of, like, being unable to stop thinking about something that someone had done to me or, like, something that might happen in the future - like, I was like, oh, I'm so anxious.
And then I had this moment where I was like, you're not anxious, you're angry. Like, just because you're not saying anything, and you're not - you know, you're smiling - like, I am a person who will smile, like, while their hair is on fire because it just seems safer. And so there are a lot of stories where the point-of-view character has a moment where they're doing something terrible, and they'll look up, and they'll be like, who am I? What am I doing? Like, how did I get to this place? And that is a space that I return to again and again as a writer.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's been a while since your story was published in The New Yorker, and there's really not been more clarity on these issues around consent and relationships. So I wonder where you feel like we are as a culture, since your story was so resonant.
ROUPENIAN: Yeah. I mean, I - it's hard, right? Like, it was just so wonderful and so awful to have this collective moment of, like, recognition and frustration and disgust. I felt like what it seemed like - as though all these women who'd had a shared experience were looking at each other and kind of being like, OK, I'm not alone, but also, oh my, God, like, this is so pervasive, this is so ugly and uncomfortable.
And I think I am a person who thinks that any - the more specifically you can name something, the more power you have over it, the more you understand yourself. And so I hope that in a very kind of, like, perhaps slow-moving and, like, maybe even subtle way, like, if women saw themselves in the story, and they didn't like seeing that, what that means is that they have something that they didn't have before - a level of clarity, a level of understanding.
That's not a solution to misogyny. It's not a solution to power dynamics. It's not a solution to how difficult it is to be a person, but specifically a woman, in the world. But I do think it's a little bit better than what was before. And I see that with everything, right? Like, I mean, that was, in a much broader sense, true of the #MeToo movement, which was like, all #MeToo is saying is, like, this happened to me. In and of itself, it's not an answer, but it's better than before when you thought it was just you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristen Roupenian is the author of the new book of short stories called "You Know You Want This." Thank you so much.
ROUPENIAN: Thank you.
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