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"Mum, something's going on with my story": The moment Kristen Roupenian's 'Cat Person' went viral.

The morning of December 4, 2017 “felt like Christmas” to Kristen Roupenian. Her story, ‘Cat Person‘, had been published in The New Yorker – a pinnacle for any short fiction author. She searched for copies in print, she shared the link to Facebook, inviting her circle to join in her excitement. But then that night, as she celebrated with friends in a Michigan bar, it all settled.

“There was a moment when I was like, ‘Oh, OK. That’s it. That’s what it feels like when all your dreams come true,'” the US author told Mamamia‘s No Filter podcast. “It happened, and then the next day you go back and you keep living your life.”

But over the next week, ‘Cat Person’ became something else entirely, something more than an author’s realised dream. It anchored into the cultural zeitgeist, and within a matter of days was dragged, largely via Twitter, into full-blown viral status.

Kristen chats to Mia Freedman about what it was like to watch Cat Person go viral.

‘Cat Person’ was, after all, a thoroughly modern dating story: Margot, 20, meets Robert, 34, while working her part-time job at a movie theatre. They text for a few weeks, flirt and banter, but when they eventually go out, the chemistry fizzles. Still, Margot sleeps with him; a decision she regrets, even as they undress.

“Insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious,” the story read, “as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”

It wasn’t exactly #MeToo – there was no assault, no harassment or abuse. But Margot’s reluctant consent spoke to something about how women (young women, in particular) tend to take responsibility for other people’s emotions, to placate them at the expense of their own comfort and pleasure.

“Basically anyone who’s ever used a dating app could write Cat Person, just maybe not as well,” one person wrote on Twitter.

“Tons of women in my feed are sharing The New Yorker ‘Cat Person’ story but not many men,” added another, “which is unfortunate because it’s like a secret window into a private experience our majority has suffered through, and if anyone needs to read that shit it’s men.”

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It was the Friday – five days after publication – before Kristen learned of the new life ‘Cat Person’ had taken on. She was having coffee with a friend in the publishing industry who had been watching the story being shared, debated, dissected online.

“She sort of tried to explain that people were talking about my story on Twitter, and I just kind of stubbornly refused to understand that it meant anything,” Kristen said. “I just didn’t get it.”

At home, Kristen looked for herself.

“I was trying to read [the discussion on social media] and then my mum called, and I was like, ‘Mum, something’s going on with my story. I don’t know – it’s on Twitter. I’m confused,'” Kristen said. “And she got on Twitter and she started searching, and we both were kind of baffled.

“At one point she said ‘Kristen. Oh my God. Someone Barack Obama follows on Twitter shared your story. Do you think Barack Obama read your story?’ And then she started crying. That was the moment I was like, OK, something really weird is going on…

“I thought, ‘This is too much. I have to get off.'”

Was ‘Cat Person’ based on a true story?

Despite assumptions made by many readers at the time, Kristen wasn’t Margot nor was Margot’s experience hers. Kristen was in a relationship with a woman, and she was 16 years older than her character. Yet this all-too-relatable fiction had made her a touchstone for a burgeoning conversation about consent.

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What had been sparked by the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein earlier in 2017, held the mirror up to a culture of sexual aggression and women’s disempowerment. Thousands said #MeToo, while thousands more began to interrogate murkier, deceptively mundane experiences – just like Margot’s.

‘Cat Person’ wasn’t a direct, conscious response to any of it. But people started looking to Kristen for more answers and insight and commentary. News outlets, radio stations, mastheads around the world came calling, but she chose to stay quiet. Even as thousands of men said they didn’t “get it”, or as some accused her of fat-shaming with her descriptions of Robert, or even as many pinned Margot as the ‘villain’.

With 18 months’ distance, Kristen is glad she let the narrative unfold on its own. Such was the speed and scale of it all, that she doesn’t feel she was equipped to match it.

“It’s not a human scale, you know. It’s this other thing,” she said. “When you’re just one person seeing it and you’re trying to take it in, it’s just very disorienting. You move from feeling huge to feeling tiny. It’s very hard to have a right-sized relationship with it.”

Still, it was precisely that scale that helped Kristen secure a seven-figure deal for her new book, You Know You Want This, a collection of equally cringe-inducing, brilliantly rendered short stories (yes, including ‘Cat Person’), which are due to be adapted for TV by hit-making US network HBO. It seems that despite that feeling in that Michigan bar back in 2017, Kristen’s dream was – is – far from over.

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