Remember 'Cat Person'? The Backstory Just Got Weird

Alexis Nowicki says Kristen Roupenian based short story on her
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 9, 2021 10:31 AM CDT
New Twist on Viral Short Story in New Yorker
This photo shows, Kristen Roupenian, author of the online sensation "Cat Person."   (Elisa Roupenian Toha/Simon & Schuster via AP)

More than three years ago, at the peak of the #MeToo movement, a short story in the New Yorker went viral, earning Kristen Roupenian a book contract and movie deal. This week, however, a swerve: In an essay for Slate, Alexis Nowicki says the main female character in Roupenian's "Cat Person"—an uncomfortable read about an unpleasant relationship between a young woman and much older man—was based on her own life and her relationship with a man 15 years her senior. Thing is, she didn't know Roupenian. After friends alerted her to "Cat Person" (with some asking if she had written it under a pen name), Nowicki read it and was startled by the similarities to her own life. "Could it be a wild coincidence?" Nowicki, who'd split with Charles in 2015, texted him a link to the story and they joked about being "stalked." She never asked him if he knew Roupenian.

Charles died late last year, which is when she found out he and Roupenian did know each other. She emailed Roupenian, who confirmed she had an "encounter" with Charles and based "Cat Person" partly on Nowicki. "I later learned, from social media, that this man previously had a much younger girlfriend," Roupenian explained to her. "I also learned a handful of facts about her." She admitted she should've removed some of those specifics from the story, which she called "primarily a work of the imagination." After Nowicki's essay, debate quickly emerged on social media on the ethics of writers incorporating another person's story into their fiction. At the Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett says there are no "neat answers" to the questions raised: "Every writer has a splinter of ice in their heart. ... You have to have it, otherwise you would spend all your time worrying about the impact of your work on others and you would never write at all." (More from Nowicki here on this odd "Cat Person" coda.)

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