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Stephen Metcalf: In 2017, the short story “Cat Person” appeared in the New Yorker magazine, and thus an unknown writer named Kristen Roupenian joined the tradition of J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, Alice Munro.* But her story did something theirs never did: It went viral. It went really viral, and everyone I knew read it. We talked about it on this podcast. You pretty much had to read it. You had to have an opinion about it. You had to hash it out with the people you knew online and off. “Cat Person” told the story of a young woman, a college sophomore, who has a romantic relationship with an older man. He’s kind of a slob, sort of a know-it-all, kind of a loser, but something’s intriguing about him. The woman is both attracted to and repelled by his charms. They have sex. The sex is bad. There’s a long description of that. She then ghosts him, and over a course of texts, increasingly the veneer comes off her paramour, and his rage and misogyny surface right at the end of the story.
A curious fact about “Cat Person” was unknown until last week: Many of its core details were taken from an actual person’s actual life. So we spoke to Alexis Nowicki, who wrote the Slate essay “ ‘Cat Person’ and Me.”
Alexis, you write, “The similarities to my own life were eerie: The protagonist was a girl from my small hometown who lived in the dorms at my college and worked at the art house theater where I’d worked and dated a man in his 30s, as I had.” You go on to say that you recognize the man and the story, too—we’ll get to that. But you ask, “How did Roupenian, a person I’d never met, somehow know about me?” That must’ve been a very strange experience. And for quite a long time, you actually didn’t know the answer to that question. You lived with the omnipresent virality of the story, with an overwhelming but then-unconfirmed suspicion that it was partially about you. What was that like? And then how did that finally come to an end when you realized it really was about you?
Alexis Nowicki: I mean, at first it just felt wild. There was a phase of my life where I would, as a fun fact, sometimes tell people, “Oh, I think this story is about me.” But I didn’t have evidence. So I convinced myself that it wasn’t—that it was a crazy coincidence, partly in order to make myself feel OK and not totally creeped out by the similarities. And it wasn’t until my ex—whom I called Charles in the piece—died that I found out it actually was about me, and I had to process it in a real way. But I had been avoiding it, really, until then.
Metcalf: You had a suspicion that if it were untrue, it would be merely paranoid, but it wasn’t paranoid at all. It was rooted in fact, but it also brought your alienation into a new phase. I mean, things that had really happened to you had been, in some sense, repurposed. What was that like?
Nowicki: My first instinct was actually to reach out to Kristen Roupenian herself, but I realized I was too angry at the time. It wasn’t going to have a good result. I talked to an old writing teacher, coincidentally, and she suggested I try writing about it. My mom had also said the same thing. When my mom said it, I kind of brushed it off because—I don’t know, it was just my mom. But as soon as a writing teacher said I should do it, I did.
I think it ended up being the best thing I could have done in terms of empowering myself to reclaim the narrative. Also, [Charles’] was the first death I’ve experienced. So maybe this is something that happens every time someone dies, but I felt so scared of losing the memories I had, since I was suddenly the only person who had them. I was so scared of forgetting them and of remembering instead what Kristen wrote in “Cat Person.” So I just felt that I needed urgently to make a record of everything that happened in our relationship. And then once I had written it, I thought, oh, this is actually something that might be of interest to others.
Allegra Frank: Something that was really interesting to me about your story— beyond literally every part of it—was that the original short story immediately engendered a ton of conversation. But this was an essay I was sharing with friends who had read the story, friends who hadn’t read the story. It felt like everyone I knew had interest in or an opinion on it. What was that experience like, for you, watching as people responded in real time to the reality of your situation, your life?
Nowicki: I had not gone viral before, which is a strange experience. It felt too overwhelming while it was happening to really process it. A lot of people were sending me tweets from fiction writers who felt that they were maybe threatened by the essay or felt I was saying that you can’t take anything from real life when you’re writing fiction, which of course is not true. And I don’t think I was saying that. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to or care very much about those tweets. I felt like the overwhelming response—which I did pay more attention to—was that people seemed to understand that this is actually a pretty complicated, nuanced situation. And there’s no real right and wrong here. I was really pleased to see that so many people got that. But of course, because it’s Twitter, people want to take sides.
Heather Schwedel: I found it interesting how some people seemed to want to gleefully discredit Roupenian and use this as evidence, like, oh, she’s a bad writer, she steals things. My reaction to that was that I wanted to defend the story, still. She has admitted that what she did was wrong, but there’s still so much that I appreciate about the story. How do you think of the story today? Are you able to separate yourself from it?
Nowicki: I understand why it had the reaction that it did and the reception that it did. I understand why people loved it at the time. Unfortunately, I think I’m never going to be able to separate myself from it. And I don’t think I was able to read it at the time, even, with any sort of distance, because it was just such a different experience for me reading it and recognizing myself in it. But if she had just changed a few key details, and if I hadn’t been so recognizable in the piece, and if my ex hadn’t … I wonder what reaction I would’ve had to it. I probably would have some more appreciation for it.
Frank: Even though so many explicit details in the story come from your life, the pivotal scenes are not taken directly from your relationship. I do wonder about what it would have been like for you if there was a version of the story that was still inspired by you but without that same specificity.
Nowicki: I think about the idea of autofiction a lot. I mean, I work in book publishing, and in my job as a publicist, I’m constantly thinking about how I need to get readers to see an author as credible with fictional stories. Often, the way I go about doing that is by saying the author is from a similar background or has had a similar experience to the narrator they write about. In my opinion, there’s no black and white and no clear answer on what is an OK amount to borrow from someone’s life. I think the least you can do is change recognizable details.
Frank: In late June, I remember seeing news about casting for the “Cat Person” movie, which was the first time I had thought about the story in quite some time. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the fact that is a movie in the works based on the story itself. I’ve seen some people say, “Well, actually if there’s a movie to be made, it seems like it’s Alexis’ story more than the original.”
Nowicki: It’s interesting. I’ve seen some good tweets about doing something sort of Adaptation-style. Honestly, I don’t think I will watch the one that is slated to come out. I wonder if it will be changed in some way.
Metcalf: We’re living through a funny moment where there’s some weird premium in Hollywood on basing movies on true stories and insisting on that truth, even when a cursory fact-check reveals it’s been reworked almost beyond recognition. But there’s some value for certain audience members in believing that they’re getting a history lesson, as well.
I mean, for all of human history, fiction has often been autofiction to some degree, right? It’s drawn upon real experience. But what made this story so unique in some sense is that this was a very small-canvas short story by an unknown writer that achieved unprecedented virality. That must have shocked its author when it happened. I mean, it was probably a story she anticipated would be read by a few hundred people when she wrote it. This sense of awesome responsibility came after the fact, I would imagine, of it going viral. And so it’s a bizarre quirk of fate in the age of the internet, that the two of you got co-elevated and she was suddenly faced with the responsibility of not having sufficiently fictionalized the story. And you were faced with this weird existential vertigo of watching things that had happened so exclusively to you suddenly become part of a nearly universal conversation among our peers. It feels like virality plays a huge part in whatever the ethics may or may not be of the story.
Nowicki: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s part of why it’s so complicated, and why I don’t explicitly say she did something wrong—there was no way she knew it would go viral. I think there was no way she even knew that the New Yorker would publish it when she submitted it. She had not published writing there before. I don’t think she meant to hurt anyone. I mean, I know she kind of stalked me on social media, but I imagine that when she wrote the story, she had no way to know I would end up working in book publishing and be someone who would be participating in the conversations people were having around “Cat Person.” I very well could have gone in a different direction with my life.
Correction, July 15, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Alice Munro’s last name.