Your story in this week’s issue, “Cat Person,” is both an excruciating
bad-date story and, I think, a kind of commentary on how people get to
know each other, or don’t, through electronic communication. Where did
the idea for the story come from?

The story was inspired by a small but nasty encounter I had with a
person I met online. I was shocked by the way this person treated me,
and then immediately surprised by my own shock. How had I decided that
this was someone I could trust? The incident got me thinking about the
strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we
meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off.

Especially in the early stages of dating, there’s so much interpretation
and inference happening that each interaction serves as a kind of
Rorschach test for us. We decide that it means something that a person
likes cats instead of dogs, or has a certain kind of artsy tattoo, or
can land a good joke in a text, but, really, these are reassuring
self-deceptions. Our initial impression of a person is pretty much
entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection. When I started writing
the story, I had the idea of a person who had adopted all these familiar
signifiers as a kind of camouflage, but was something else—or nothing at
all—underneath.

Margot’s sense of Robert and his motivations keeps shifting throughout
the story. She repeatedly changes her mind about him. Do you think that
she ever actually interprets his thoughts or behavior correctly?

Margot keeps trying to construct an image of Robert based on incomplete
and unreliable information, which is why her interpretation of him can’t
stay still. The point at which she receives unequivocal evidence about
the kind of person he is is the point at which the story ends.

Do you think that the connection that these two form through texting is
a genuine one?

I think it’s genuine enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very
far. That Robert is smart and witty is true, but does the fact that
someone’s smart and witty mean that he won’t murder you (as Margot
wonders more than once), or assault you, or say something nasty to you
if you reject him? Of course it doesn’t, and the vertigo that Margot
feels at several points in the story is the recognition of that
uncertainty: it’s not that she knows that Robert is bad—because if she
knew that she would be on solid ground—but that she doesn’t know
anything at all.

Quite a bit of the story takes places through dialogue, whether face to
face or via text. How hard is it to write dialogue that feels
natural—or, in this case, that feels naturally stilted?

The first draft of the story came fairly easily—I wrote it in a feverish
burst—but I did feel self-conscious, afterward, about the verisimilitude
of the texts, especially because Margot is younger than I am and there’s
nothing more embarrassing than someone older trying to mimic the
communication style of a slightly different generation. There are fewer
of her texts in the story for that reason. I liked writing Robert’s side
of the conversation, on the other hand, in part because I felt like I
was his analogue as a writer: both of us were trying to imitate how
someone younger would talk, always on the verge of a slip that would
give the game away.

The subject of nonconsensual sex—between older men and younger women,
in particular—has been very much in the news lately. Do you think of
this encounter, which is, at times, cringe-inducing for the reader, as a
consensual one? Will Margot remember it as such?

Well, he buys her alcohol, even though he knows she’s underage, and he
tells her that he thinks she’s drunk right before he takes her home. So
I don’t think his hands are entirely clean. But I’m more interested in
the way that Margot herself weighs the costs of her own decision to
consent.

Margot, choosing between having sex she doesn’t want and “seeming
spoiled and capricious,” decides to have unwanted sex. She thinks (or
tells herself) that she isn’t afraid that Robert will “force” her, and I
think, on one level, that’s true: she has no evidence that he’d be
violent toward her. At the same time, she’s already speculated about the
possibility that he could kill her and has become anxiously aware that
she’s entirely in his territory, that he could have rooms full of
“corpses or kidnap victims or chains.”

Louis C.K., who has obviously been in the news a lot lately, echoed
Margaret Atwood’s line “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women
are afraid men will kill them” in a standup routine, by talking about
how the equivalent of a woman going on a date with a man would be a man
going on a date with a half-bear, half-lion. In the bar, Margot thinks
of Robert as “a large, skittish animal, like a horse or a bear,” that
she is taming, coaxing to eat from her hand. But what would happen if
she stopped trying to coax and pet and charm him—if she said, bluntly,
that she doesn’t want him, that she’s not attracted to him, that she’s
changed her mind?

That option, of blunt refusal, doesn’t even consciously occur to her—she
assumes that if she wants to say no she has to do so in a conciliatory,
gentle, tactful way, in a way that would take “an amount of effort that
was impossible to summon.” And I think that assumption is bigger than
Margot and Robert’s specific interaction; it speaks to the way that many
women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people
angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working
extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and
self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough
you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re
making that choice.

It’s in this context that Margot decides to have sex with Robert. In
order to avoid an uncomfortable, possibly risky exchange, she “bludgeons
her resistance into submission” with a shot of whiskey. Then, later, she
wonders why the memories of the encounter make her feel so sick and
scared, and she blames herself for overreacting, for not being kinder to
Robert, who, after all, didn’t do anything wrong.

We know that Margot is a college student, but we never find out what
Robert does for a living. Is that intentional? Do you know?

I left a lot about Robert intentionally vague, because I wanted people
to be able to share in that shiver Margot feels when she enters his
house: Wait, who is this guy? He could be anyone.

I do think there’s a hint of class tension in the story: Robert teases
Margot about her “highbrow” taste in movies, and repeatedly brings up
her college education in a way that (in my mind) suggests the
possibility that he hasn’t gone to college himself. Margot, certainly,
interprets his behavior in this way: she believes that he’s intimidated
by her, that she has the upper hand, and this appeals to her. I can
imagine Margot not asking Robert what he does, because she intuits that
he might be sensitive about answering the question. But is she right?
Maybe he’s playing to her ego by pretending that she intimidates him;
maybe he’s trying to undermine her by implying that she’s a snob; maybe
he talks a lot about the fact that she’s in college because he’s
fetishized the idea of dating a college girl. Again, we don’t know.
Margot, and the reader, can project practically anything onto Robert,
because there’s so little there.

Which of these characters do you feel the most sympathy for, at the end
of the story?

Well, at the end of the story, Robert calls Margot a “whore,” so I
hope that most people lose sympathy for him then. But, for most of the
story, I wanted to leave a lot of space for people to sympathize with
Robert, or at least, like Margot, to be able to imagine a version of
him—clueless, but well-meaning—that they can sympathize with. I wanted
that version of Robert to exist alongside the possibility of a much more
sinister one.

I have more genuine sympathy for Margot, but I’m also frustrated by her:
she’s so quick to over-read Robert, to assume that she understands him,
and to interpret his behavior in a way that’s flattering to herself. I
think it’s telling that the moment of purest sexual satisfaction she
experiences in the story is the one when she imagines what Robert sees
as he looks at her: she’s seduced by the vision she’s created of
herself—of someone perfect and beautiful and young. So much of dating
involves this interplay of empathy and narcissism: you weave an entire
narrative out of a tiny amount of information, and then, having created
a compelling story about someone, you fall in love with what you’ve
created.

The moment when I feel the most sympathy for Margot is when, after she
spends the entire story wondering about Robert—what he’s thinking,
feeling, doing—she is left marvelling the most at herself, and at her
own decision to have sex with him, “at this person who’d just done this
bizarre, inexplicable thing.”

This is your first story in The New Yorker, and you haven’t yet
published a book. Have you been writing fiction for long? Are you
working on a book?

I always wanted to be a writer, but I spent most of my twenties doing
anything and everything else. I did the Peace Corps in Kenya, and I was
a nanny for a while, and then I spent a long time in graduate school,
studying African literature. It’s only in the past five years that I’ve
really committed myself to writing fiction. I just completed an M.F.A.
at the University of Michigan, and I’m putting the finishing touches on
a short-story collection. I’m also at work on a novel.

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