Getting a short story published in The New Yorker is a dream for an unknown writer. Seeing that story become an Internet phenomenon immediately upon publication is a Hollywood fantasy, however—the kind of thing that happens to blonde heroines in rom-coms or binge-y Netflix series.
Or at least it was until Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” debuted in the December 2017 of The New Yorker.
“Cat Person” centres on a date between Margot, a 20-something female college student, and Robert, a 30-something doofus. Their romantic misalignment culminates in an undesired but seemingly obligatory sexual encounter (Margot doesn’t really want to have sex at one point, but determines to “carry through” with it anyway).
The story took Twitter by storm. Readers were excited by its nuanced representation of sex and the issues of consent and desire from a female perspective. The timing of the story was impeccable, arriving at the precise moment that mainstream culture was grappling with similar issues within the context of the #MeToo movement.
Roupenian was instantly upgraded from anonymous writer, quietly working on her short stories, to bona fide literary sensation.
“It was overnight, literally, that it went from my friends reading my stories to millions of people,” says Roupenian, who just released her first collection of short stories, You Know You Want This (Scout Press).
Within a week, the Harvard PhD had landed a seven-figure two-book deal.
Going to bed a hardworking unknown and waking up a viral phenom isn’t a seamless transition. Unsurprisingly, it came with a side of imposter syndrome—just not the regular “I’m not worthy” kind.
It wasn’t her confidence in her work that nagged at Roupenian. Instead, it was other people’s expectations—specifically their assumptions about who she was—that made her feel like a fraud.
“Some of the hugeness around [‘Cat Person’] was just noise,” she says. “But there was also a sort of interesting twist, which was that I was very different as a person than the person many people imagined was the author of that story.”
“Imposter syndrome has so many layers to it: it’s about what you think you should be, how you want to be, how you are and what people expect from you and what they want from you.”
Many readers of the story assumed Roupenian was Margot: a 20-something, single straight woman, and that “Cat Person” was the fictional equivalent of a diary entry.
“As people talked about the story, and by default about me, I had this sort of odd feeling that the imposter was out there [a.k.a. the twenty-something straight author people had created in their imaginations], as opposed to the idea that I wasn’t qualified [for the success] or was operating under false premises,” she explains. “I started to wonder, Am I tricking people? They think I’m one thing and I’m actually another.”
She started to feel oddly guilty for being a 37-year-old queer author who had just done a credibly compelling job of writing a character in her 20s. She also worried about being thrust into a precarious cultural moment as some kind of authoritative voice for women trying to navigate contemporary dating culture.
“I was very self-conscious at the beginning about talking about my sexuality—about being queer—because I felt like I was being thrust into the spotlight as a spokesperson for bad dates with men.”
Ultimately, she decided to follow her authorial instinct and let her work speak for her.
“I put ‘Cat Person’ out there as the thing I had to say, and the idea of trying to improvise and add to it in real time as the conversation was moving forward so fast didn’t feel good for me or anyone within the larger conversation.”
As she promotes her new collection, she’s still “figuring out” how to deal with Kristen Roupenian, viral sensation/media creation versus the writer she is and aspires to be going forward. That said, there’s one thing she knows for sure: She’d rather be grappling with this dichotomy in her 30s than in her 20s.
“I would have felt such an obligation to be the person everyone was expecting, knowing I couldn’t be that and sort of completely falling apart,” she says. “If ‘Cat Person’ had come out when I was 24… it would have destroyed me.”