In December 2017, the New Yorker published a short story by the then unknown writer Kristen Roupenian. What happened after that is unprecedented. “Cat Person,” the story in question went viral and the author landed a seven-digit book deal.
In the story, a college student, Margot, flirts with an older man, Robert. They exchange text messages and have an awkward date. That night they end up in bed together, but the connection is not there and although Margot is repulsed by the prospect of sleeping with him, she does not find the strength to leave. In the following weeks Robert turns to her, but Margot wants to forget the incident. More text and awkwardness follow, leading to verbal aggression on Robert’s part when Margot pretends not to see him as they pass each other in a bar.
But it’s the story behind the story that went viral this time, according to an essay published in Slate by Alexis Nowicki. Nowicki was struck by the similarities with her own life the first time she read “Cat Person”: “The protagonist was a girl from my small hometown who lived in the dormitories of my college and worked in the art house theater, where I worked and went with a man in his thirties, like I did. ”The fictional Robert also bore an eerie resemblance to her ex-boyfriend, from his rabbit fur hat to the tattoo on his shoulder.
Nowicki urged Roupenian to confess (the author emailed apologizing for not changing any identifiable details about Nowicki) and later posted on social media that part of her personal life had been “rewritten”.
I kept getting asked on the site why I had to kill my parents, what did they say about my emotions and mental health?
But their hurt feeling of injustice is out of place. It makes no difference to us whether Roupenian heard the report from the man (who sadly passed away) and changed a few facts while leaving others intact. “Cat Person” is widely read because it is a bold and nuanced script. If the male character in the story liked board games or bought Red Vines at the movies, it is not evidence that Roupenian stole the material from a narrative, but rather evidence of her talent for the inwardness she conveys amid everyday facts.
In my mid-twenties I wrote a novel in Greek called Zero and One. The protagonist, a girl my age who had attended the same school and US university as I, grew up in a leafy suburb of Athens and had been raised by a slightly deranged guardian since her parents died. The book attracted some attention for a debut and won a small literary award for a first novel. I did a lot of interviews and in autumn I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair with my publisher. On the coffee table in my parents’ house in Athens there is still a copy of the novel with the faded cover – Andy Warhol’s “Do It Yourself”. My parents, who were still alive 20 years later, were never disturbed by the conspiracy. But the public was.
Again and again I was asked by friends and journalists whether I had been raised by this unstable woman and if not, why did I have to kill my parents on the side, what did it all mean in Freudian terms, what did it say about my emotional world and mental health? It was demoralizing to have to explain that my parents were my heroes, that I killed them to imagine life without them. Although the novel itself was dedicated to both my mother and father, readers were not convinced.
The main character spends hours in her bedroom window watching a white flag with a red maple leaf flutter against the trees as she plans her escape. A former classmate pointed out that the house I grew up in is next to the Canadian Embassy. “It’s only natural that people think your novel is autobiographical,” she scolded me. “You can’t do that.” Oh, but I can.
Many fictions are based either on an incident in the author’s life or on something that was witnessed, overheard. There is no rule how many percent can be invented or how much one can take from experience, not even from second hand. That’s what artists do. You take records of real life and turn them into something new that has its own integrity.
Life is in the public domain and can be inspired or used by anyone. “There are no facts,” wrote Nietzsche, “only interpretations”. In fiction, it means that what the sky looks like depends on who you are. So there can be no censorship or excuse for the content of a novel, as the idea itself violates the founding premises of imagination and reinvention. Biographical information is meaningless in itself. What always resonates is the voice, and with Roupenian it is very authentic. Everyone else can write their own stories.
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