Oh, the Horror: An Interview with Kristen Roupenian
By Samantha Edmonds
Kristen Roupenian is best known for her short story “Cat Person,” which went viral in the December 2017 issue of The New Yorker— but “Cat Person” is far from the only story in her collection with the power to captivate and consume. The eleven other stories in You Know You Want This, which was released in January 2019, are sexy and twisty in ways that prove delightfully hard to forget. In the opening story, “Bad Boy,” a couple, fixated on the idea of their friend listening to them having sex, spiral down a dark path that culminates in their ability to only have sex in the presence of another. In other stories, a dangerous birthday wish turns children into monsters, a woman fantasizes about biting her co-workers, and an innocent spell grows lethally out of control. The result is a darkly compelling collection that is itself obsessed with questions of genre, horror, adolescence, sex, and what happens to people when they don’t know—or perhaps forget—their own rules and boundaries.
Roupenian is a fiction and screenplay writer living in Michigan. She holds an 49 MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan and a PhD from Harvard University.
Her work appears in such journals as The New Yorker, Writer’s Digest, and The Colorado Review. Film and television rights for You Know You Want This have been sold to HBO. She was in Austin, Texas, at the Texas Book Festival when I had the pleasure of interviewing her over the phone in October 2018. This conversation has been modified slightly for clarity and concision.
Samantha Edmonds: I would really like to talk first about your relationship with genre. This collection spans so many at once. You’ve got stories like “The Good Guy” and “The Boy in the Pool” and they’re firmly rooted in the real world and situations that are totally plausible and realist. Then you’ve got “Sardines” and “Scarred,” where the narrators casts spells and magic happens—they’re really supernatural. So I was just wondering, do you think of yourself as a writer of one genre over any other? Or how do you see these multiple genres overlapping in your work?
Kristen Roupenian: Sure. There have been times in my life when I have called myself a horror writer. I don’t think that’s exactly true anymore. I think I write in a wider range, but I think that almost everything I write—or at least, everything that made it in the collection— is horror-inflected or trends in a darker direction. But beyond that, I think it’s wide open. I think that reflects mostly just my taste in reading; I mean, I read across genres pretty widely so I don’t think it’s too surprising that I end up drawing from those different forms. I also think for me, when I put the collection together, I really liked thinking about the ways that having stories of different genres in the collection would change the way you might read the collection—in the sense that it would change what you thought the stakes would be, or what you thought would be possible in any given story. If in “Sardines” children turn into monsters, then maybe you read “Cat Person” without being quite sure what the stakes are when she goes home with him. Or if you read “The Night Runner” and if you’re not quite sure if it’s genre or not, you might change your perspective on it because of the possibilities that have been raised by the other stories. I think as a writer I like moving between genres but it also felt really important to the collection as a whole to have a collection that went in as many different directions as possible.
To read the rest of Grist’s interview with Kristen Roupenian, buy your copy of Issue 12.
Kristen Roupenian graduated from Barnard and holds a PhD in African Literature from Harvard. She is a Zell Fellow in the University of Michigan MFA program, and she has received numerous awards for her work. You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories is her first book.