Bookforum talks with Emma Cline

The Girls BY Emma Cline. Random House. . $27.
Emma Cline

A month ago, I attended a reading by Emma Cline at BookCourt, in Brooklyn. Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, had just come out to breathless reviews, and the event was well attended. Cline, twenty-seven, seemed neither nervous nor overeager to please. She announced she’d be reading from the beginning of her novel and read its opening passage and then another page or two, stopping after a few minutes and making a joke—that she always wished readings would end sooner than they did—that was at once unpretentious and spot-on. Less-is-more is a concept Cline understands. The Girls is taut and gripping, the language lush but fragmentary, the pacing tight; there’s an aura of sexiness and mystery to what the author withholds. Loosely inspired by the Manson murders, it is a historical novel that feels fully contemporary. In the month since Cline’s reading, the news cycle has been hot with violence reminiscent of the late ’60s and early ’70s, making The Girls’s nuanced, discomfiting insights into power dynamics and people pushed to the brink feel eerily prescient. The following interview was conducted over email.

How much does your upbringing—lots of brothers and sisters, winemaking in the countryside—overlap with the theme of the commune? Another way of asking this is: How real a family was (is) the Manson Family?

Writing about communes is definitely a more exaggerated way of writing about family—the concerns are the same, only heightened. That’s what I love about communes as a setting for a novel, how they often create a funhouse version of the world they are trying to get away from. The jostling within a group, the constant tracking of hierarchy and power—these feel like traditional family concerns that get amplified in a commune setting. I’m also interested in communes for the slippage between the pursuit of the ideal and then the baser realities. Families are sometimes like that—lots of conditioned talk about the family unit, family values, undermined by the way families actually operate. Pettiness, greed, competition. I lived in a co-op in college, and there was so much sniping about dirty dishes. There’s something funny and sweetly human to me about the scale of ambition adjacent to the banal details of daily living. You get the sense all utopian experiments succeed or fail on the basis of dirty dishes.

The landscape of California—lush and sunny and full of menace—figures in the book as something more than setting or backdrop: it's almost a character. What strikes me about California is the misleading ease of if the bounty of the earth and the perfect weather conspire to suggest that maybe work-qua-work is superfluous, a construct of the Man. Why work and be miserable when you can chill and be free? Idleness punctuates the book. Russell is idle compared to the women he assembles, who steal for him and prepare the food until he summons one back to his bedroom or emerges for one of the bacchanals. Evie's summer is empty of scheduled activities, and the work she does as an adult doesn't seem like a vocation, nor does there seem to be enough of it (work or wages). Zav has dropped out of school, Sasha's hanging around. Is the California climate/lifestyle antithetical to work (in the East Coast puritanical sense of it), and are idle hands the devil's plaything? This might be a lazy cultural generalization, but it seems as if the criminality California is famous for is more the loopy, culty, too much self-actualization and drugs kind, versus the criminality of, say, an East Coast mob boss who's adjacent to legitimate industry but not paying taxes.

My lazy cultural generalization: California time is measured in days, East Coast life is about years. In New York especially, I feel like people are aimed at achievements, long-term planning. How you spend your day has to be in service of these larger goals, whereas in California you can waste a day deciding what you’re going to cook for dinner. And definitely California idleness seems to attract or breed a certain kind of weirdo. There are more serial killers in the Western states, right? Some of that must be the wide-open spaces, the sense of existing without context or consequence. In New York you are reminded every day of the social contract and are more subject to its laws. It’s much easier to indulge and feed craziness in isolation and idleness.

California is also lush and bountiful, as you describe, but there’s a latent danger, this sense of the land actively rejecting human presence. The San Andreas Fault, the drought, valley fever, sometimes called California fever—there’s some aspect of the punitive.

The delicacy, changeability, and complexity of female desire is something you capture so well. The men in this book are, to a man, weaklings ruled by lust, lazy and cowardly, without loyalty. Russell can't even get it up to carry out the murders—he has to sic his women on Mitch (as he has deployed them, in a different way, before). And the sex with the men is so terrible! Yet Evie is ostensibly straight. I found myself wondering whether Evie is a product of her time, a closeted lesbian à la Notes on a Scandal or The Price of Salt, or whether her obsession with Suzanne is a flash-in-the-pan teenage thing. Maybe it's not an either/or?

I’m interested in the ways girls grow up in a very sexualized world, helplessly absorbing the vocabulary of male desire. As a child, I had these Little Mermaid sheets, and for years I fell asleep with my head on these shell-clad cartoon tits. Or the Sweet Valley High books starring these porny twins who were always noted to have size six figures, tennis-toned bodies. There are so many songs and movies and books that teach us how to look at women and girls, but not how to be one—it’s an efficient way to alienate girls from their own sexual agency or experience. What would it look like for a character to have internalized that highly-sexualized male gaze and then also be saturated with the narrative of heterosexual romance and fantasy? And how would that attention look when it lands on a character like Suzanne? Not explicitly naming or categorizing Evie’s sexuality was very purposeful—I wanted her to resist any easy reading.

I liked writing a book, too, where the men were incidental. I don’t know that the male characters are all monsters, with some obvious exceptions, but I think they are disappointments, especially in relation to the weight they are given in the world of the book—Mitch is a celebrity, Russell achieves his strange sort of fame, Evie’s father is orbited by these women who want his attention so badly. There’s an outsized importance put on them and their judgment, when, for the most part, they are just humans who are disappointing in the ordinary ways all humans are disappointing. There’s a disillusionment that comes with running up against the limitations of the romantic fantasy or male-centered world-view.

You mentioned that in researching The Girls, you read a bunch of groupie memoirs. What were some lines or details that struck you as interesting, whether or not they migrated into the book?

Ostensibly, we are supposed to be interested in what groupies have to say because they offer a private glimpse of these male heroes. But the pure amount of creative and narrative energy they expend in mythologizing these ultimately very ordinary men seems to make them artists in their own right.

I remember reading Keith Richards’s memoir and then Marianne Faithfull’s memoir in quick succession. Marianne Faithfull isn’t a groupie at all, of course, but she is often reduced to being Mick Jagger’s girlfriend. Richards writes about the technical and the factual: alternative guitar tunings and the blunt happenings of the years. Faithfull’s book is full of these crystalline little stories and witchy reportings which illuminate a far more interesting and artful vision of the world. Same with Pamela Des Barres’s book, I’m With the Band—you’re meant to read it for the prurient gossip, but her ability to record and make vivid her own sexual agency is really wonderful. It makes me think of how society often narrows the focus of women’s lives so their creativity can only be expressed in the ways they engage with this mythology of romance and love.

What was the hardest part of writing this book? What part came most easily? Was it structurally simple because you knew, to an extent, what would happen, or is that an illusion? Certainly we can't anticipate the simplicity and brilliance of where it ends—as it began, Evie terrified of a stranger (whether an intruder or an isolated figure on the beach).

I wanted to write a book with an ambiguous ending, an ending that pushes back against the redemptive narrative we’re all familiar with. There’s this sense that even trauma or suffering will improve our character or will impart some lesson. I wanted a very conscious avoidance of the corrective, to write about the accumulation of life and keep it separate from the impulse to make redemptive meaning. That felt more true to the way life works—that these things happen to us and carry us along. We struggle to make sense of them, but never really come to a satisfactory answer about what they’ve meant. Maybe the best we can get are these echoes and doubles, like the images of violence that begin and end the book—they imply there is some shape or pattern to life, even if there are no clear meanings.

The murder and its inevitability wasn’t a huge part of how I structured the book—in so many ways, it’s incidental to the psychological and emotional action that I wanted the book to focus on. It was fun to think of how to write a book featuring an infamous crime and make that the least important thing that happens. I think it’s changing, in some ways, but there is still some of this dated criteria floating around for what makes a book worthy or literary, especially within a white male power structure—if you’re going to write about a cultural moment or event, especially a well-known one, it better be in the context of sweeping historical movements and politics and manic male incident and all that DeLillo shit. But if you write about it from a place that prioritizes emotional, rather than political or cultural, information, that’s trickier for people to categorize.

Objectification and self-objectification—that double gaze girls master at a young age, "Connie with her whines and feints, the grating laugh that sounded, and was, practiced. A space opened up between us as soon as I started to notice these things, to catalog her shortcomings the way a boy would. I remember how ungenerous I was. As if by putting distance between us, I could cure myself of the same disease"—are major themes of The Girls. So I wonder how it feels to be experiencing it as a novelist: the double-edged sword of press and attention (good for the book and for your career, and well-deserved) and then the more prurient side of it (size of advance, strawberry blond locks) that seems a little bit sexist. Is it an irony? An inevitability? The reality of being a girl in the world?

It’s been strange, certainly, and there are aspects of it that do feel sexist, as you point out. Even some of the questions I was asked by interviewers—I can’t imagine we ask male novelists what their parents thought of their work or what clothes they like to wear.

On one hand, I didn’t “ask” for this attention—I wrote a literary book and never imagined it finding a wide audience. But I’m also wary of disavowing my own hard work, especially as a young female writer. There are enough ways that we undermine the work of women. It’s helpful to remember that the press/public aspect of it never really intersects with the reality of either the book or me.

Just for fun, let's be Scott Rudin and cast the movie. Evie: Elle Fanning. Russell: Johnny Depp?? Suzanne: very hard. Your turn. Who do you think could play her?

My only desire is for the ghost of Phillip Seymour Hoffman to play Mitch.

Do you have a writing routine? Do you try to sit down at the same time every day? Do you write on the computer or with pen and paper or...? Do you carry a notebook to jot down ideas?

I don’t have a good writing routine. People always say, oh, up with the sun, a quick five-mile jog, back at the desk, but I’ve never had a system like that. I think that’s probably going to have to change soon. I do have a Word document where I might write one or two sentences about the day—not a record of events so much, more little descriptions. I’ve kept it since high school—I sometimes end up using details or phrases from that.

You mentioned John Banville, Mary Gaitskill, and Lorrie Moore as writers who've had an influence on your style or thinking. Are there others?

Scott Spencer, especially Endless Love, his book about the psychosis of teenagers. It also has some of the best sex scenes I’ve read. Ottessa Moshfegh and Alexandra Kleeman are geniuses. Deborah Eisenberg. Geoff Dyer’s essays, especially about the deflation of nostalgia, which were particularly relevant as I tried to write about the ’60s. Norman Rush for his study of relationships and intimacy—he elevates romantic love to a religion.

Lately, Joy Williams—her stories present a world just off to the side of our world, everything tinged with mysticism. I'm so interested in how she manages to avoid most of the clunky logistical movements in a story and instead gather you up in her specific momentum so you fully accept the events without needing the usual credentials.