Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, may be loosely based on the Manson murders, but it isn’t really about Manson at all—it’s about the women around him, those attracted to life at the edge of the world. Though the book circles around the blunt facts of Manson’s crimes, it sidesteps the particulars, reducing him to a pitiful, failed musician named Russell whose only talent is tending to his wilting garden of devotees. Instead of dwelling on him, the novel follows fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd, who’s increasingly enthralled by one of the older girls in Russell’s circle.
Cline, a winner of The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, writes with the kind of beauty the painter Agnes Martin once described as “an awareness in the mind.” “Marion,” Cline’s story in the Review’s Summer 2013 issue, opens with the line, “Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways.” The Girls is set against a dreamy, at times abstracted, California landscape. Her descriptions shimmer on the page: trying to mimic a girl she admires, Evie stands straighter, “holding my head like an egg in a cup”; a teenage boy’s room reeks of masturbation, “a damp rupture in the air”; girls are “swampy with nostalgia.”
Though she’s encouraged by the warm response The Girls has received, Cline eschews the public eye. “I’m used to the isolated part of writing, the part where you’re doing a lot of work alone, in solitude,” she told me. When we spoke on the phone last month, she’d just landed in LA for a reading. I asked her how long she’d be out West. “Just another week or so,” she said, “and then I’m at large.”
I’ve heard you say that you read extensively about the Manson Family long before you started writing The Girls. What other research did you have to do?
There are so many cult and commune memoirs, and I read a lot of those to get the specifics of daily life, to get an idea of what time might feel like, how a day might track. The Girls is a historical novel in that it’s set in the past, but I don’t think of it as a historical novel. I really wasn’t after an assailable historical truth. It was a lot more about trying to achieve a certain mood or tone—which was menace adjacent to California sunshine—than focusing more directly on the group.
When did you actually start to write what would become The Girls?
I’d been working on a novel set in an Oakland commune in California—the same area where this book is set—for a few years, and then I sort of switched gears with it. I started working on this version about two years ago. I was of course aware of the murders when I was working on the commune novel. The events were the mythology I was circling around, but I didn’t explicitly talk about a similar cult.
Both “Marion” and The Girls feature young female protagonists, though I believe the girl in “Marion” is even a little younger than Evie Boyd—eleven years old.
I’m interested in this moment on the cusp of adulthood—when we encounter how the world treats women and girls—and what it means to be a girl in the world. That age somehow has both a kind of innocence and a burgeoning awareness.
You start to notice real darkness at that age that you didn’t really see before.
Yeah, you start to reckon with the world around you, beyond the confines of your family, for the first time. I think it’s a time when people look around to see what other models there are for living. You’re susceptible to whoever presents the most charming model of living or lifestyle. I was also thinking a lot about the male gaze. And then I thought about what the female gaze might look like, what kind of objectification and self-objectification happens at that age—especially with this hyperawareness of other people’s appearances—when everything feels right on the surface.
Other readers have noticed that, even though the book is saturated in the sixties, The Girls doesn’t have any of the pop-culture marks of that era—obligatory references to the news, movies, TV.
Those books or movies where you tick off every major cultural event—like Forrest Gump—they just have to interject every famous thing that ever happened. But it was important to me that The Girls feel in some way like a timeless story, or like you could access the truth that was at the core of it without getting too pinned down to the sixties. It’s a matter of choosing details that aren’t overly familiar, I think. Details that are slightly adjacent to what’s expected, and then just keeping in mind and foregrounding emotion. I think that’s how things feel real, if you actually write about what would be in the consciousness of a fourteen-year-old girl, which wouldn’t be major cultural or political moments. It would be personal events.
That makes me think of Evie’s mom—their relationship seems like it could only exist the way it does because of the era. Her mom, newly divorced, is trying to be liberated but is still choked in a moment that hasn’t really freed her. At one point, Evie and her mother have an unbearably awkward dinner with one of her mother’s boyfriends, and at some point her mom turns to her date to have him feed her “like a bird.” That’s a very submissive gesture. It’s like feminism hasn’t truly touched her yet.
That’s so funny. Somebody asked me before if I had read a lot about the feminist movement during that time, and what that moment meant in feminist history. To me, the mother character feels familiar—not like my own mother, but familiar. I feel like I encounter that personality a lot even in our moment. It’s interesting that her character may be dovetailed with a pre-feminist moment.
After a short prelude, the book begins by presenting Evie as an adult, staying at a friend’s beach house, and her memories of 1969 only start to flood in when someone—who turns out to be the son of her friend—comes in unexpectedly. Why did you launch the book that way?
I guess every book starts with a triggering moment, right? No? There has to be some incident, I think. I also liked the idea of the book opening with this perceived violence, which turns out to be benign. At least, it’s not an immediate danger. But it is this evil presence in this other way that’s breached the house. I also like bookending the story with another encounter with a stranger, where there’s this moment of fear that is also then deflated in a weird way.
Did the book always have a frame narrative?
It did. The only way I could project ahead into the whole project was from this starting point of having an older narrator. It’s funny, because I think people respond most to the 1960s section, since it’s the bulk of the book and it’s the most immediate, but for me the older character is more interesting. I think about her growing up in Northern California, where there was this flush of idealism in the sixties, and then in the intervening decades people have had to bear out that idealism to whatever ends. I’m interested in the way people navigate the space between that idealism and where you end up.
Young Evie, since she’s fourteen, can’t possibly be reflective or brilliant. But the older Evie imbues the fourteen-year-old with depth as a person.
Yeah, fourteen-year-olds can’t see around their emotions in any helpful way. They’re so monstrously claustrophobic, which I remember about being a teenager. They have no ability to gauge the difference between something minor and something actually larger that’s happened to some more consequential result. It’s emotionally tiring to have these high-pitched feelings at every moment. The older narrator gets to contextualize and comment on what’s happening.
The great central theme of the book is female friendship—how we develop those relationships and what they mean to young women. Evie says at one point, “At that age I looked at women with brutal and emotionless judgment. Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention … I took Tamar’s beauty personally.” Why do you think women evaluate each other like this? To me, it’s not just linked to competition but might also be tied to power and love.
I don’t have a good, simple answer. I think I was interested in the changeability of female desire. How many different forms it takes, especially when it locates itself in other girls. It does seem sort of like a proto-romance sometimes. Boys almost act as this triangulation, where everyone’s acting like it’s all about them. But boys are bit players in so many ways, and we have all this emotion that ends up directed at other girls. I feel like girls are so fooled in this mythmaking ability, in seeing the world as filled with these symbols and markers of love and meaning. I don’t feel that boys are indoctrinated into that vocabulary in the same way. It’s almost like the girls are the only ones speaking this language, so of course, when you’re dealing with other girls, you’re talking to people who can understand you.
I was talking with my boyfriend the other day about princess movies and wondering, How do you boys watch princess movies? Why do they even watch them? What do they see in them? Because he watched Aladdin and The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty and all of them just like I did.
Those movies are ostensibly love stories, but as a child you’re focused on these beautiful princesses at the center. I would sleep on these Little Mermaid sheets, and the pillowcase had a picture of Ariel, and I would sleep every night on her shell-covered breast, you know? This lurid, cartoonish breast. It’s so funny to me—of course, as a girl, anyway, I felt indoctrinated into this male gaze. You absorb it in this almost thoughtless way.
I think of Elena Ferrante’s books—they’ve been written about so much, but I feel like they definitely changed the way I see the world, my relationships especially.
That’s an interesting female friendship. Ferrante writes so well about how murky it is. About how much those relationships are wrapped up in—there can be all these dark feelings in friendship, too, I think. That’s what draws me to friendship as a topic. I just think it’s so much more malleable and it can accommodate so many more shades of gray than other relationships can, because people don’t have the cultural language and codes around friendship that we do around other traditionally sanctioned relationships. So I love that Lila and Elena’s friendship resists some easy narrative. That feels most true to me.
Caitlin Love is an associate editor of The Paris Review.
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