Kristen Roupenian: “We Have So Many Selves Wandering the World”

A painfully realistic short story gets published in the New Yorker and goes viral, launching dozens of think pieces and Recommended If You Like lists, earning comparisons to Mary Gaitskill and A.M. Homes. But Kristen Roupenian’s debut collection is creepier and wilder than you might expect based on “Cat Person” alone. The stories in You Know You Want This range from the mundane to the weird and fantastical, but they’re all provocative studies of the messiness of sex and gender dynamics. I spoke to Roupenian shortly before her debut book was set to release.

Maris Kreizman: What’s it like to have a short story go viral? You’re literally the only person in the world who can tell me.

Kristen Roupenian: It’s a hard question to answer because so many other things that had never happened before happened to me when the story went viral–having a story in the New Yorker at all, or having a story published in a magazine anyone would read, or selling a book. As I move a bit away from it, the viral piece feels like there’s something out there that has my name on it but has a life of its own. It shows up in all of these unexpected places. That version of the story feels far from me now, like a distant cousin.

MK: So you wrote a viral short story about a woman making judgments about another person’s digital communications. And now because the story has a life of its own, people are making judgments about you based on what they’ve read online.

KR: Exactly. It’s like we have so many selves wandering the world.

MK: The hope is that people who don’t normally read short story collections will read yours. What do you think they’ll get out of it?

KR: I hope that’s true, that the people who have that knee jerk reaction of “short story collections aren’t for me” will pick up the book anyway and discover that short story collections can do and be a million different things. They’ll discover pretty quickly, based on the way the collection is set up, if this one is for them or not.

MK: Yes! The story “Bad Boy” opens the collection, and it has a much different mood than what a “Cat Person” fan might expect. Is making “Bad Boy” the first thing readers encounter purposeful on your part?

KR: The collection hadn’t sold when “Cat Person” came out, but “Bad Boy” was always the opening story. So the placement of the story wasn’t a direct response to [“Cat Person”’s popularity] but I do think it’s interesting now to think about what that story will do. I love my editor because she thought, as I do, that “Bad Boy” is a microcosm for the collection in that it starts with a bad relationship and then it escalates dramatically and shoots off in all these strange different directions. Some people will read it and say, “this is not for me,” and that’s fine, but there’s no point in pretending that the collection is anything else. I always imagined people reading “Cat Person” in the context of the collection, so by the time they got to it murder was already on the table, and the supernatural was on the table. So that in the moment when Margot is thinking what’s going to happen to me, we’re in a world, truly, where anything could happen.

MK: The feeling that anything could happen is both exciting and uncomfortable. How do you get readers to embrace their discomfort?

KR: I’m a reader who likes to be uncomfortable, turning pages so fast because you want the book to be over because you can’t bear being in it anymore. When I’m in that spot reading I’m completely happy, and that’s when I’m in the palm of a writer’s hand. It’s hard to do, though.

A good opening step is to have a writing style that’s inviting–relatively simple, relatively straightforward, conversational. A sense of humor lightens the tension. A laugh at the right time will keep you going forward into something horrible if it lands right. In the short story form, it’s easier to give readers a quick roller coaster ride. In a novel it’s a lot harder because sustaining that level of discomfort is almost impossible.

MK: “The Biter” is a another story that’s short but gets weird real quick! Had the Me Too moment heated up when you wrote it?

KR: No. Or maybe it had. I wrote “Cat Person” post-2016 election, but before the Me Too movement got big. But both stories came out of the same feeling, that same sense of creeping dread and a heightened awareness of power dynamics. It’s about wanting to snap, to lash out.