It’s hard not to be impressed by Emma Cline. Forget the two million dollar, three-book deal and the hype surrounding this, her debut novel. She can write. Very well. With The Girls (Random House), her language shines in amid the darkness of a coming-of-age tale based on the notorious 1969 Charles Manson orchestrated Tate-LaBianca murders. Cline’s story is rendered through 14-year-old Evie Boyd, a middle class girl, living a listless, confused life with her divorced mother the summer before heading to boarding school, and through a middle aged Evie, adrift and alone as she reflects on her younger misadventures and the tragedy that followed.
Cline, 27, succeeds in capturing the vibe of late sixties California, its chaotic tapestry of peace, love, drugs, sex and mysticism that veered into something frightening. Taking on the Manson role is the godlike Russell, a master manipulator of those in his sordid commune. Evie’s confidante and big sister figure, Suzanne, seems obviously modeled on Manson devotee Susan Atkins.
No surprise that Cline herself is from California and flirted on the periphery of show business as a child actress. She was first published in Tin House at 16. Later, she wrote a Salon essay entitled, “Am I Ready to be a Stepmother at 21?” which detailed her relationship with an older man who had a daughter. A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program (she still lives in Brooklyn) Cline won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize honoring new fiction in March 2014. She commemorated the award by writing a piece about her weird pen pal relationship as a 13 year old with Rodney Bingenheimer, a former music business exec, who spotted her walking past his table at a restaurant in her hometown. It’s not a stretch to see things that have happened in Cline’s own life, reflected and exaggerated in her novel.
Jeff Vasishta: I was told you had your first clip published with Tin House many years ago. How old were you at the time? What do you remember about that?
Emma Cline: It was a very short story that I wrote when I was sixteen. My high school English teacher was very helpful in terms of letting me know that there even were such things as literary magazines, and I sent the short piece into Tin House. My parents might still believe that it’s a magazine called Teen House that only publishes the work of teenagers.
JV: Did that early recognition give you the confidence to try and make a career as a writer? Was that ever the plan or did a career just fall into place?
EC: I was an art major in college. I think studying art was a way to learn a lot of the same things I might have learned in writing class, but sideways—by having to literalize an idea into a discrete object or performance or video or something, I was forced to think about representation, how best to engage with what I think about the world in order to make it accessible to others. Writing is the same way. It’s comforting to me that a lot of the art I was making back then deals with a lot of the same concepts that this novel does—alternative narratives of girlhood, how we experience and are often held hostage by the past.
I didn’t get serious about writing until grad school, but when I got there, I was really focused on trying to produce as much work as I could.
JV: In the novel, would you say it’s fair to say Evie’s relationship or lack of one with her father seems to influence much of her life and Suzanne becomes like a surrogate mother or big sister? What inspired Evie’s character?
EC: Do I think people do the things they do for recognizable reasons, like you can trace the forensics of their psychology? Sometimes. And that kind of narrative can be a pleasure to read. Evie’s lack of relationship with her father is a part of why she does what she does. But I try to keep in mind what it feels like to be in the world—we don’t really do things for such easily identifiable reasons. People act out of selfishness and a desire to avoid pain, but sometimes they act in ways that are mysterious to themselves. That mystery was an important part of this book, for me—making sure that the book didn’t have a tidy moral or sense of closure. That doesn’t align with how I experience life. Terrible things happen and nobody learns anything. I wanted to move away from notions of what a character has to earn or realize, and aim for some kind of truth that has more to do with life as I know it.
In terms of what inspired Evie’s character, I remember reading a post on one of these Manson blogs by someone who had been peripherally involved with the group. And I thought, why is this person actively making this a part of their identity, even these many decades later? What do they get by identifying with this long-ago crime? I started imagining a woman whose perception of herself is based on being a bystander to history, and what that person’s life might look like.
JV: Russell and Mitch are monsters. How much of their characters were researched, amalgams of other people?
EC: There are probably some biographical details of both characters that came out of research, but men like that are familiar to me as someone who’s been a girl in the world. I don’t know if I would call them monsters—monsters are mythologized, seen as less than human, and I think what is often most frightening about people who do harm is their essential humanness. Like Charles Manson being insecure about his height or Anders Breivik being proud of his polo shirts. I wanted to push against that mythologizing a bit, to let Mitch and Russell reveal themselves as basically weak people.
I remember once reading in Patti Boyd’s memoir that the members of the Beatles were afraid of needles, and that they hired other people to get their vaccinations for them. There are these somewhat pathetic realities that are often ignored—it’s more exciting to imagine people as monsters or untouchable icons or whatever.
JV: Much of this novel seems to be like a handbook on how not to raise children. Have you discussed this with your own parents or others? What has been the early reaction from those closest to you who have read it?
EC: I understand the impulse to want to know how people close to me react to work that is dark or unsparing, but I don’t think that this is a question that gets asked very often of men. I believe that partly we ask women these questions because we see women in relation to those around them, as daughters or partners or mothers, and not as autonomous artists. Asking what my parents think of my work is a way of reminding me of my social and emotional obligations as woman.
JV: Mitch and Russell remind me of the manipulative music exec in A Visit From The Goon Squad which was also set in California in the 1970s. It’s a great era and time to set a novel because so much crazy stuff went down in the hippie and post-hippie era.
EC: I’m interested in the best and worst of human impulse, and am drawn to the sixties as a fictional backdrop for the way it engendered such extreme manifestations of those two poles. Communes interest me for the same reason, the way they exaggerate the good and bad elements of the world they are trying to leave behind.
California, too, seems to provoke these extremes in people. So many people go to California to become someone else. I loved the title of Claire Vaye Watkins’s last book, Gold Fame Citrus—it says so much about the mythology of California and its lure. It’s a place where people go in search of something. If you’re seeking something outside of yourself, that’s automatically a somewhat vulnerable position. So it’s a state with a shaky spiritual foundation and a literally unstable landscape.
JV: How was it for you transitioning to life on the East Coast?
EC: In Northern California, you can have these lovely Lotus Eater days, almost hyper-sensual, but the years pass without a lot of forward movement. In New York, the quality of the days is sacrificed to the years, or in service of that kind of long-term ambition. I feel much more capable in California, and my life there feels a lot more like life, but I work better in New York. I miss driving and the landscape and I miss California weirdos. I will always be susceptible to a certain kind of mood and late afternoon light that I think of as particular to the West Coast.
EC: I didn’t think of them as overlapping in terms of plot, but more in terms of tone. That’s something I did learn while writing this book—often juxtaposition can do the work of intricate plotting, and can be more useful than trying to account for every cause-and-effect or trying to babysit the reading experience. The reader is intelligent, and if I place two narrative threads side by side, I can trust that their brain will understand it was on purpose, and that there are connections to be drawn.
JV: The thread of young women being taken advantage of by men in positions of power is probably more poignant today than ever, especially with some of the topics being discussed in the election. How much research did you do into the women involved with Charles Manson?
EC: I definitely read a lot about the women who intersected with Manson and Jonestown, as well as less infamous groups that didn’t end in culturally recognized violence. It’s interesting to me how even counterculture movements or groups that desire radical change still have these blind spots around gender.
JV: How long had a tale based on the Manson killings been percolating in your brain and why? What was the attraction?
EC: I grew up pretty steeped in the cultural leftovers of this era—in Northern California, 1969 isn’t so far in the past. Those stories and remnants were always fascinating to hear about: the Manson crimes were a defining moment for my parents, both California teenagers at the time. As I grew older, I felt there were large parts of this story that were missing for me. Something already so well-digested by the culture was hard to engage with in a new way. Writing a novel let me access a different understanding of something like the Manson family, and pursue what I was really interested in, which were the girls involved. A novel gets to exist separately from the expected reality, adjacent to the recognizable world but not subject to its laws. Which is to say, this is not a Manson novel.
JV: The beating heart of the novel is the friendship between Evie and Suzanne, which is fascinating, dense and complicated. What was the inspiration behind that?
EC: I wanted to write a book where the love story at the center wasn’t traditional. I’m interested in friendship as an unchartered realm—we have so much language and cultural coding around other types of relationships, like marriages or families, and friendship is free of a lot of those societal pressures. It’s undefined, which allows for the ambiguities and murky power dynamics that are most exciting to me as a writer.
Jeff Vasishta started his writing career as a music journalist interviewing legends such as Prince, Beyonce, Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock for publications such as Billboard, Yahoo.com and The Daily Telegraph. He’s recently written for Rolling Stone, Interview, The Amazon Book Review and, of course, The Open Bar.