IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Asked an Author to Interview Him, And He Treated It Like a Date

That time sexism in the world of writing became less of an ambiguous cloud of evil I’d only heard of and became a real hand on my thigh.
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Kati Heng
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That time sexism in the world of writing became less of an ambiguous cloud of evil I’d only heard of and became a real hand on my thigh.

I’m a young writer. I was even younger with a much smaller and unimpressive résumé last year when I asked an author and established editor of a popular online site to do an interview. I took anything I could get at that point, so this was a big win for me. I don’t want to get too specific about who this guy was, but I’ll tell you this: I set up the interview after his new novel, a book that was a fictionalized tale of how he met and fell in love with his wife, came out.

While a lot of writers like the self-editing option of email interviews, this guy was totally onboard with doing an in-person interview since (a) we both live in Chicago, and (b) we had some mutual connections. I set up the meeting at this always pretty empty (i.e., quiet) restaurant right by my office.

I came prepared with a bunch of questions about “How does he enjoy mentoring younger writers?” and “How does it feel having the story of your marriage out there?” For the most part, he answered my questions well. There were some quotes that I found painful immediately, like when he said he was a better feminist than many of his female friends (red flag alert.) But it went along normally for the first half hour or so.

It’s not really important what we ordered at this restaurant, but I will say we ordered an appetizer to share at six o’clock and the guy ordered a bottle of wine. I just had ginger ale because, you know, I treated this like a job, since it was one. 

After a little while, things started getting weird. He would start saying things that, in retrospect, were totally not what an interviewee would bring up. For instance, he was talking about his dog; I followed with a mention of my boyfriend’s cat, and he asked if I lived with my boyfriend. He talked a little about attraction between characters in fiction writing, and then said something along the lines of, “I bet you attract a ton of guys. Like bros who don’t appreciate your brains.”

I know what you’re thinking. It’s what everyone who I tell this story to interrupts with at this point: Why didn’t you just leave?!

It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to reconcile how much I know about feminism and gender dynamics with how unprepared I was in an actual situation in which the older, more established person in a field that I, the younger female, desperately wanted to break into, used the situation to his advantage. 

Because I wanted so much to do well on the article, and in a larger sense, do well in my writing career, I put up with this bullshit because I didn’t know what else I could do.

And as stupid as it sounds, the other reason I stayed was this little voice inside my head trying to quiet down the fear, reassuring myself that this wouldn’t happen to me. That I was blowing little remarks out of proportion. That I was acting stuck up, like I was the hottest girl in the world, so hot that this married guy with such a secure relationship that he wrote an entire book about it would actually be dumb enough to hit on me like that.

I kept telling myself I was overreacting, that he was just a friendly guy excited for this interview, even as his knees began knocking mine.

After about 50 minutes or so, our waiter was giving us the cue that he wanted us gone. We ordered a shared appetizer, wine for one, and ginger ale during peak dinner hours, so I couldn’t be too mad at him. But this author wanted the interview to keep going. 

I still had a few questions left, so, when he said, “We should keep talking! Let’s head somewhere else!” I went with this creep to a second location. Bleeeeh, go ahead and throw things; I throw things at young, naive Kati retelling this story now.

A selfie I took the next day in a somber, new look on the world I was getting into. Feel free to use this image to throw the things at as you get angry.

A selfie I took the next day in a somber, new look on the world I was getting into. Feel free to use this image to throw the things at as you get angry.

We walked to this bar/restaurant I knew about a block away, the guy grabbing my arm the whole time. I want you to know it was in a kind of friend grabbing a friend to whisper a secret way, but still, not cool for a married guy to do to a woman he just met.

At this second location, it became clear any possibility this was an interview was over and that this man considered the evening a sort of first date.

First off, we walked into this place and I suggested grabbing a table for two that was unoccupied. He said, “Naw, I feel so far away when we’re sitting like that. Let’s sit at the bar.”

So we sat at the bar. After, of course, he pulled his chair basically a foot closer to my own. So close, he was jamming his knees into my thighs from the get go. That little, calm-down voice inside my head kept going, “Shut up, he’s not doing that on purpose. It’s just crowded,” even though there were, like, four other drunk guys in the bar at this time.

I asked what he was reading lately and he told me about this J.D. Salinger biography he just finished. I was still stuck on this being an interview, but I couldn’t help myself.

“Yeah, I can’t really read Salinger after reading Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World (in which Joyce describes the way Salinger, a middle-aged man, divorced with teenaged children, courted her at age 18). It’s like how I can’t watch Woody Allen movies anymore; I just can’t appreciate the art of artists who prey on girls like that.”

His reply: “I mean . . . whatever. Salinger was incredible.”

I was hoping for some acknowledgment that he was sort of doing the same thing, being an older man in a position of power creepily trying to get the best out of our situation, but . . . nothing.

Throughout the conversation after that, I kept causally dropping mentions of my boyfriend that I hoped he would pick up on. Eventually he did and asked me to tell him more about the guy. I gushed; told him all the things I love about my guy, made him out to be like the best thing on the planet (which, I’m still dating him, and I still think he is; but he’s also a human person with flaws, which I didn’t mention to the author). 

At the end of my gushing, he focused in on something I said and told me, “You know that’s a really big warning sign, right?” I tell him why it isn’t; he said, “Be careful with that guy.”

He then grabbed my thigh and squeezed.

I excused myself to the bathroom. I took longer than I needed, looking at myself in the mirror, having a conversation in my head between the little voice telling me I'm overreacting and the voice telling me this is freaking creepy. I promised myself I’d leave within 15 minutes, whether my interviewee thinks this conversation is over or not.

Maybe five minutes later, I reached for my glass of water and the guy intercepted my hand on the way, used his fingers to trace the length of my own and then held onto my hand. I froze in shock, just watching this happen as if I was seeing this happen to someone else. Finally, that little voice in my head admitted defeat; this guy was definitely, no doubt about it, hitting on me.

My other thought was, How weird is this? He’s trying to hold a girl’s hand while wearing a wedding ring another woman has the other half of, but whatever.

“What are you doing?” I finally snapped.

“What are you doing?” he answered playfully.

I got up and told the guy, “I gotta get home now.”

He tried to see if we were going the same way, and wondered if he could walk me to the subway or anything. No and no. He tried to give me a hug goodbye; I did one of those awkward, hand-interceptions to his arms. I relished in how cold my glare was. He told me he couldn’t wait to read the piece.

Our interview was never published, and this is the first written mention of anything that happened that night.