'There's always one murder for women that becomes your idea of what danger is' - Kristen Roupenian talks about her book 'You Know You Want This'
Caroline O'Donoghue talks to author Kristen Roupenian about coping with the overnight success her 'Cat Person' essay brought and our collective fascination with murder
A few hours before I meet Kristen Roupenian, I am having a breakfast interview with a very celebrated author. "Oh my god," he says, when I tell him who I'm meeting. "Tell her to try to enjoy it. I'd hate to be her right now."
Which is an odd thing to say, unless you're familiar with Roupenian's trajectory. In 2017, whatever planet governs supreme and unruly success floated into her orbit when The New Yorker published 'Cat Person', a short story about a young woman's relationship with a much older man. The story was a blow-by-blow account of a miserable date, of depressingly bad sex, and of being a young woman who is aroused by the very concept of someone being aroused by you. It was, for many women, almost too real. The timing could not have been more appropriate. #MeToo was, at the time, a relatively new term. The Massachusetts-born writer and Harvard graduate was catapulted into literary, viral stardom.
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In person, Roupenian is sunny and self-deprecating, with a darkly brilliant sense of humour. She's happy to play ball, but mature enough to have clear boundaries about her personal life. She's quietly bemused by her success, careful to approach it gently and from the side, as though it were a horse that could spook easily.
"For all that it happened overnight and probably way too quickly, I still feel lucky that I was at least older," she says. "I'm 37, and if it had happened at 27, I would have lost my mind completely. It helped a lot to have many, many years of normal living before things got so weird."
I had not known Roupenian's age before meeting her, and for some reason, I had assumed she was younger. This is not a mistake. She is constantly referred to in the press as a "student", a "young woman", a "new talent".
"It's interesting," she says, when I point out the coverage. "You notice it in all these little ways. Even now. There's a lot of focus that I was a student, which is true, but I was certainly an older student. I wasn't 20."
Is it because, I ask her, that when a previously unknown woman does something of artistic merit, the media likes to pretend that it's an astounding fluke - like a cat learning to talk.
"Yes! I do feel like a cat who has learned to talk!" she laughs. "Cat Person speaks!"
Her collection is brilliantly funny and often horrifying. In Roupenian's world, monsters exist and people's most private desires dominate and warp their world. Women bite men, abuse them, asked to be punched in the face by them. The whole book is heavy with female desire turned sour, a subject Roupenian has a lot to say about.
"I've been thinking about this a lot because there's this new Ted Bundy thing on Netflix. It honestly makes me feel very… old, this new interest in him," she confesses. "There's all these people who are like 'Ted Bundy! He's a serial killer! But he's kind of hot! Isn't that interesting?' I'm like, 'girl, I was having complicated feelings about Ted Bundy when I was 11 years old'.
"I was always stealing the books off my dad's book shelf. And what I'm so unnerved by is this memory of… him being there, and there being all these pictures of beautiful girls. And I just stared at them. I would think: 'They are very beautiful. I, too, would like to be very beautiful. They have been murdered. I would like not to be murdered.' I'm compelled, I'm repulsed, I'm deeply confused."
I bring up the proliferation of "murder content" around right now: every weekend, it seems, there's a new documentary, a new podcast, a new film about a gruesome murder that women, in particular, find themselves darkly fascinated with.
"There is always one murder for women," she says. "Something you hear about at a formative age. A true thing that happens, that becomes your idea of what danger is, what it looks like, and what can happen to you. I remember that so vividly. I remember that so clearly, being a pre-teen and hearing about Polly Klaas [a US teen abducted from a slumber party in 1993 and murdered], and realising that a man can just come into your bedroom, at a sleepover, and take you away. And probably will. Because you have no sense of odds, or what's likely and what isn't. You're just like: the world feels very dangerous suddenly."
It feels weird to say it, but it's true: Roupenian comes alive when she talks about murder. In general, she talks about extremely morbid subjects with great lightness, and positive subjects with frank interrogation. She is extremely suspicious, for example, of her history in Kenya with the Peace Corps, an organisation so many are so quick to praise. This period is reflected in one of her stories, 'The Night Runner'.
"I did HIV education," she says, adding that at that point - the early 2000s - HIV and AIDs had taken a stronghold over Kenya, and that drug therapy was still a long way off.
"It was a really complicated thing. Much more complicated, I think, then I was able to wrap my head around at 21. I loved the family I lived with, we're still close, I learned the language. It was wonderful. But also, I was utterly over my head. I didn't have the words I needed to explain what was going on. Now we have the term 'white saviour complex' to explain why it's uncomfortable to be in a certain position.
"It was so beyond any of the tools they had to give us. I don't even blame the trainers or the Peace Corps. No one knew what to do. It just felt so urgent that you had to do something. Which is when all the really messy things start to happen. The good thing was that the amount of harm I could cause was relatively minimal because I was just a kid," she laughs.
It's a funny way of phrasing it. The "amount of harm I could cause" is not how people usually refer to their time working in international aid. Roupenian's father is a surgeon, her mother a nurse, and something tells me that she grew up in a house where "good intentions" weren't quite enough.
"One of the things about being a doctor is you have to bring 100pc to your work everyday. You can't fall apart. And if you're going to fall apart, you're going to fall apart at home, in private. Not in public," she says, definitively. "There's all this unspoken fucked-up-ness (in the book) that isn't fully able to express itself. It's maybe a very, very exaggerated version of growing up in a house where people were making life or death decisions, then coming home and trying to be regular people."
The success of 'Cat Person' has meant that Roupenian has second-album syndrome, despite You Know You Want This being her first book. The people who loved 'Cat Person' have ridiculously high expectations, and the people who were jealous of its success want to see her fail.
"The weird thing about this book coming out with massive hoopla behind it is that people do feel obligated to keep reading the book, even if they don't want to. Which is the last thing I ever wanted. People are like 'why do I have to read this terrible story?' And it's like: you don't have to!"