the cult of emma cline
Her debut novel, 'The Girls,' captures exactly how it feels to be young, female, and waiting to be noticed. It also takes its story, loosely, from the Manson murders, a fact that captured readers’ imaginations long before the book's release.
Emma Cline has a flip phone. Without it, she says, The Girls would never have been written. Or rather, if she'd had the distractions of a smartphone, the book might not have developed beyond another short story for The Paris Review, for which she's written a cluster of acclaimed pieces since graduating from Columbia's creative writing MFA program in 2013. Instead, cloistered in a shed behind a friend's house in Brooklyn — which was, thankfully, a Bermuda Triangle for wifi — she produced a novel, spurred on by a three-book deal from Random House for the legendary sum of $2 million. It's a figure, like her age, that immediately cast her in a very public story about a slightly mysterious literary prodigy.
More important though is that The Girls, which came out this week, is brilliant. The kind of book you cancel evening plans to come home to, and then promise to lend to everyone you know. Not only is the novel a page turner — the atmosphere of impending doom is palpable from the opening lines, in which self-conscious teen protagonist Evie Boyd is magnetized by a herd of ethereal girls gliding across a park in 1960s San Francisco — but Cline's observational powers become addictive to the reader. Her ability to drop a pin in the uniquely complex anxieties and desires of a teenage girl regularly kicks you in the gut.
While the book has acquired the informal tagline "the novel about the Manson family" — and centers on a gruesome murder — it's Cline's portrait of female relationships and precise rendering of womens' interior states that make The Girls feel like a revelation.
I read that you drove out to the ranch in Sonoma County where the Manson girls lived. What did you hope to find there?
Where I grew up, in Northern California, cults and communes are very much part of the history. And I think the parts that interested me almost more than the really macabre details were the really human, ordinary details: what food they ate, what music they were allowed to listen to, just these little details that somehow illuminated the everydayness of life in the Manson family and also made the horror that much worse, because suddenly it had a human face.
The book puts into words the way girls think in such a rare way. Are there other writers you think do this well?
The most important thing for me, writing the book, a lot more important than the cult stuff, was the experience of girlhood. And I do think it's strange that it's so rare to find a full, complex character that's a girl, who's given her full humanity, who's allowed to be flawed. Mary Gaitskill is one of the best writers for this. She gets down to this granular psychological level of what it feels like to have a body and be a woman in the world. She writes so well about sex and friendship. Lorrie Moore I think also has really sharp observations. And then, a book which I was so thankful I read after I finished my book — if I'd read it before, I think I would have gotten depressed! — was The Diary of a Teenage Girl. It's fantastic. I watched the movie too, and, like, my heart started pounding a little faster. It's really thrilling. Which points out how rare it is — a nuanced portrait of a girl.
Why did Evie feel like the right girl to tell this story?
It was always going to be someone on the periphery. I didn't want to write about a major player. By telling it from someone on the sidelines, you get a more full picture of what's going on. I always had the idea too of an older narrator — that was the version of her that came to me first, this woman who was alone, living a very transitory existence, and still felt defined in a way by this formative summer and this very peripheral involvement in this infamous crime.
Why do you think the present-day framework came first? Do you think it was a product of being from where you're from in California, and seeing the legacy of communes and cults there?
Yeah, for sure. Sonoma County really had countless communes in the 60s, some of which still survive in some form. A lot of people I know came out of those kinds of groups, or their parents were members and now they live a normal-ish life. I think I grew up very interested in and aware of the distance between this idealized past and what actually came to be. And people are always struggling to make sense of the difference.
Did you speak to those people about their experiences for the novel?
Yes, a little bit. And my parents, too. They were never part of a commune but we spoke generally about the 60s. My mom kept a diary when she was 13, which I read. It was very funny; I thought I was going to get this searing insight into her. But there was nothing about protests or man landing on the moon. It was like, "My haircut is terrible"! Which I kind of loved. People want the 60s to be this shiny movie set almost. I really wanted to write a version that felt real and didn't tick off all the boxes.
There's still a really strong mood that anchors the book in the late 60s. What were some of the references you used?
Some of it was other books — by Joan Didion, for example. Often I would just flip through a Joan Didion book and on any page you open to, there's one perfect, crystalline detail. Then movies. I was looking at Persona and 3 Women. They both have really murky female relationships at the center, and there's this sense of great beauty and menace combined.
You wrote an essay for The Paris Review about your correspondence with the aging Los Angeles rock 'n' roll icon Rodney Bingenheimer, which began when he was 55 and you were 13. Did that relationship color the book at all?
In a weird way, while that was happening — and we probably wrote back and forth maybe eight or nine times — I didn't experience it as strange. Then, when I was older, I found the letters and it struck me how bizarre it was. Retroactively, I considered what it might have meant if he was a different kind of person. It was definitely something I was thinking a lot about. When I was writing that essay, I was also working on the book, so these themes had been orbiting for a bit: girls, an intense desire to be seen and known, and the way the world takes advantage of that desire.
You also had an early turn as a child actor. Do you think that made you more attuned to the way girls are portrayed in books and on screen?
I was a terrible actor! I barely even count! But I think I was interested in it for a lot of the same reasons I was interested in reading and writing at that age. It's this ability to participate in an artificial mirroring of the world. And it's to be seen. I'm from a huge family, so it was also [about] having this thing that's yours. I did a few commercials and a terrible made for TV movie. I was awful in all of it!
Then I tried it again briefly, right after I graduated from college, and I hated it. You become so aware of the roles that are available to young women, just like the worst flat characterizations and cliches: the jealous girlfriend, the nagging girlfriend, the sad daughter. Everything is so one-note and it was so frustrating. And there's the experience of auditioning, which is soul-chilling. You're very much made into an object and a commodity, and you have to confront that. Writing is a great antidote because you're in control.
How consciously were you trying to create an alternative to those flat characters?
I thought a lot about books I had read, or frustrations I'd had as a reader or viewer with female characters. So just writing characters who could be awful and manipulative, a victim sometimes but could also wield power over other people, that felt truer to me.
There's been so much excitement about The Girls, and a lot of press. Has seeing your own characterization in the media been an interesting experience?
Maybe I just never noticed it before, and I haven't read it in profiles of men, but there is lots of hair talk! Length and color. It just surprises me! Maybe it's normal...? I have no idea!
Has anything surprised you about the reaction to the book?
Sometimes I feel like it's being read as a Manson novel. Or maybe the most salacious parts are what people are responding to. I guess that's understandable. But to me, it's so much a book about girlhood. But I try not to know what people are saying. I had a book event last night. That's the part that's always felt most real to me: the idea that the book might find its readers and maybe be meaningful for someone. That really cuts through the noise.
Who are your best readers in your family?
My dad read the book, and said, very grudgingly, that he likes it but he thinks there are too many adjectives, which made me laugh. I was like, "Maybe I can make you a special copy with all the adjectives cut out!" My sisters have been so sweet. Having them read it feels very meaningful to me. Having so many younger sisters [four, and one brother] was a big part of why I think I'm interested in girls and how we treat girls.
Now that you're working on a second novel, is it strange to still be talking about The Girls? How do you feel looking back on it?
I think it was Ian McEwan who said it's like being an employee of your former self. Because you're talking about this thing which at this point is a few years old. Even now, I'm a very different writer. But I like it because it's the best I could have written at that time, and I feel like it has a really clear vocabulary. It's a very condensed world to me. And I feel good about that!
'The Girls' by Emma Cline is out now.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Megan Cline