I first encountered the work of Emma Cline in the winter of 2016, when I found myself at one of The Paris Review’s legendary parties: this one celebrating the launch of The Unprofessionals, an anthology in which Cline’s Plimpton Prize–winning story “Marion” (first published in issue no. 203) appeared. I’d arrived late, and I tried to enter as quietly as possible—the living room of 541 East Seventy-Second Street, the residence of George and Sarah Plimpton, was packed full with bodies, almost eerily hushed. Cline read an excerpt from her then-forthcoming debut novel, The Girls, which tracks a California teenager’s peripheral involvement with a Manson-esque cult in the late sixties. Though I couldn’t see her face over the sea of heads between us, I let her singular command of language, image, and psychological nuance carry me into the sort of hypnotic trance the best writing does. Once home, I devoured everything I could find of Cline’s. It was no surprise when The Girls, which I read feverishly in a few sittings, became an international best seller.
In her aptly titled new story collection, Daddy, Cline delves deeper into the same thematic concerns that haunted The Girls: agency, cost, the performance of gender, the undercurrent of violence roiling just beneath the surface of ordinary life. An aspiring actress sells her underwear to strangers. A washed-up film director confronts his cruel judgments about his son, who wants to follow in his footsteps. The former nanny to a celebrity takes refuge at a friend’s home after her affair with her employer is revealed in the tabloids. A disgraced magazine editor is hired to help edit the ghostwritten memoir of a tech entrepreneur, an opportunity at what he sees as a final chance at redemption. Above all else, the characters in Daddy vie for control—at times over others, but in large part over themselves, their own narratives, and especially the ways in which they’re perceived. The lengths they go to in order to impose some semblance of that control are shocking, moving, and deeply human.
Since 2016, much has changed. 541 East Seventy-Second Street no longer belongs to the Plimptons; living rooms packed with people are, at least for the foreseeable future, a thing of the past. Cline’s prose, too, has undergone an evolution of sorts. Critics of The Girls called it “overwritten”; here, Cline’s virtuosic sensory descriptions are pared down in a way that allows her piercing psychological insights to shine. A satiric, bone-dry humor reigns. Atmospheres hum as though shot through with electricity; place informs psychology, and vice versa.
In late August, Cline and I spoke on the phone from opposite ends of Los Angeles, where we both currently live. A heat wave raged on; wildfires were tearing through her native Sonoma County. She was crouching in her neighbor’s driveway, trying to find better service—a scene which could’ve easily sprung from one of the stories in Daddy.
Even though a handful of your protagonists are women, you render male interiority here in a highly specific, and often deeply uncomfortable, way that feels especially exciting to me. Can you talk about the process of inhabiting some of these “monstrous men”?
The culture has sort of forced everyone into having to imagine the interior lives of men, and why they do what they do. Just think about the amount of energy that is expended trying to decode what Donald Trump is thinking, and why he’s acting so erratically—it’s sort of this forced contemplation of male interiority, and I thought a lot about that, during all of the #MeToo moments. Just seeing an entire workplace having to grapple with the actions of one man, and all this energy and effort that was expended by all of these other people to try and figure out what could have possibly been going on inside this man’s mind. So I think on one level it’s not that much of a leap, just because it’s something the culture is already pushing. But in terms of writing, it was nice after The Girls, which is so much about a character who feels herself to be buffeted about by this larger system that she has no control over, very much enthralled to men—there was something interesting about shifting gears so much as a writer, to try to write about men who didn’t feel so attuned to the emotional world around them, or the emotional world of others.
What are some of the major differences for you, process-wise, between novel and short story? Between first book and second?
I think of novel writing as almost like surgery—the stakes are very high—and I think of stories more like acupuncture. It’s working with smaller currents of energy. It’s more subtle, it’s more ambient, at least for me. Stories often come for me out of a single image, or a dynamic, or a setting. I find that their origin is much more of a singular image. With novels, you’re just juggling an entire world and it can sometimes feel more like a math problem, or keeping all these balls in the air and trying to figure out how this world is going to be braided together, and how to manage large swaths of time—years, decades. Stories are so much more circumscribed, which for me has been really a pleasure, just to dwell in these granular moments. I think if my second book had been another novel, the difference between the two experiences would’ve felt more marked to me, because writing a novel is such an overwhelming, all-consuming forced march that you put yourself on, to the exclusion of all else, for a time. And this book was a lot different, because these are stories I’d written over a decade. The earliest story, “Marion,” I wrote a version of it in college. So it’s just something that’s spanned a lot longer. But it was interesting trying to put a book of short stories together, to think about which stories worked well together, and built on certain themes, and echoed each other.
Sensory detail and descriptions of place often seem to function as mirrors for your characters’ emotional states. One that comes to mind immediately is “Los Angeles,” in which Alice notices the lawns turning brown and the reservoir emptying out, alongside a growing disenchantment with the city. Can you talk about that connection between the internal worlds of your characters and external occurrences in the landscape?
I wish I could say that these were moments that I was very aware would connect to this later moment in the story, but that’s something that I find is almost unconscious—and I find it much more so in stories than when I’m writing a novel. There’s something that can feel a little dreamlike to me about short stories—the writing of them, anyway—where I’m following images without exactly knowing what their meaning is, just knowing that for whatever reason, I’m drawn to it, or whatever the temperature of the story I’m writing, it just seems to draw forth this image. Like the kid with the scab on his head in “Arcadia.” I have no idea where that came from, and at the time couldn’t have consciously said, This is a detail that’s going to resonate later, or mirror something later, but again that’s what’s so magical for me about fiction in general, and especially short stories—they get to operate on this kind of dream logic. For me, stories are so much about mood—how am I conjuring an emotional mood or whatever it is. Once I have that in my mind, whatever the vibe is of the story, it seems like the corresponding incidents sort of just reveal themselves. One thing I try to give myself as a writer is a lot of time not writing, but just reading and being in the world and gathering—not in a conscious way, but just because that’s what happens when you’re in the world—images, or moments, or incidents, or vibes, for lack of a better word. And that kind of enters into you, and settles at the bottom of this lake, and as you write, these images rise up and reveal themselves to you when needed.
Often, you make the decision not to explicitly reveal what “bad thing” a certain character has done—I’m thinking of “Northeast Regional,” in which we never know exactly what Rowan did to warrant being asked to leave his boarding school, and “What Can You Do With a General,” in which the father’s abuse is hinted at but never overtly stated. It got me thinking about The Girls—how often, in your work, the meat of the story isn’t in the buildup to a terrible occurrence, but rather in the exploration of the fallout surrounding it and the psychology of those affected by it. Why did you choose to withhold certain information from the reader?
On one level, it’s a sensibility thing. I find that often I’m drawn to these very extreme situations, like a cult murder, or a celebrity scandal, or Harvey Weinstein—these very lurid and dramatic incidents—but the writing of them, to me, is partially, How can I mediate the extremity of this incident in a way that serves the tone of the story I’m trying to write? One version of writing this moment would be the “staring straight into the sun” version, where you’re just looking at it head-on, it’s burning you, it’s overwhelming you, it’s the full-on details and explicit exploration of what’s happening. But for me, I’m always thinking of the mediating factors. It’s sort of like how you can only look at a solar eclipse through a special box. You need to mediate this overwhelming incident to make it something digestible. Or, how can I make the effect more oblique, like when you bounce reflections off multiple mirrors—the light still gets to where it’s going, but you’ve created this diversion for it. I think a lot about those kind of craft approaches when I’m thinking about how to write these extreme moments or incidents—and another part of it is that I find it interesting to leave these blanks for the reader to fill in, especially when you’re talking about things that are so horrible or violent. Leaving that space allows the reader to fill it in with whatever their version of horror is, whatever the kid did at boarding school. I could definitely write what the kid did, but as I was working on the story, I thought, Would that add anything? Or would that close it off in a certain way? Because suddenly, what he did would be something that the reader could adjudicate for themselves morally, like, Oh, it wasn’t that bad, or, That was really bad. That was not the focus of the story for me, so I didn’t see the purpose of including it.
The depth of interiority in Daddy is astounding—it felt so exciting and voyeuristic to be inside these characters’ minds, witnessing their mental acrobatics as they work to frame situations in a particular way, overlook or fixate on certain details, and write stories about themselves and others. There seems to be a lot of misperception going on, and a lot of erroneous judgments on the parts of these protagonists. Can you talk a bit about the human tendency to build false narratives?
That is a major interest of mine. The stories people are telling themselves all the time, both about themselves and about the people around them—how they justify these narratives, and where they come from, and how the narratives actually keep them separate from reality. I thought a lot about it with the character in “Menlo Park,” or the father in “What Can You Do With A General,” these men who have clearly caused pain, but cannot absorb that fact into their self-narrative—it would be too dangerous and too confrontational to have to assimilate this information that they are getting from the people around them—You have caused pain, or, You were abusive. And so these defenses that get built up to protect one’s self-image are very, very interesting to me. I thought a lot about it with the #MeToo stuff, and the apologies that came out afterward. There were a few essays written by people that were trying to tell their narratives, and they always sort of seemed to show their raggedy edges. You could see how much effort was going into their idea that they were a good person. Which I think is a totally natural human instinct, and one that every person has—but I find it to be rich fodder for fiction, because of the way it puts you at odds with reality and can prevent you from real intimacy with the people around you, or seeing them clearly at all. There’s this great nonfiction book called Into That Darkness, by Gitta Sereny. She did these very intense interviews with Franz Stangl, who was a commandant at a concentration camp. He was pretty old at the time and awaiting trial, and she would go visit him and do these long interviews about what he had done. She approaches it not without judgment—obviously, there’s no moment at which the reader or the writer is anything but horrified at what has happened—but her willingness to hear this person’s narrative of himself, and the way that he really felt he was the victim is remarkable. The tremendous amount of emotional effort we can expend in service of protecting our own ego, in service of protecting this idea about ourselves. That’s obviously a very extreme version, but we can learn a lot more about why these things happen if we understand that people are not cartoon villains, they are not a hundred percent evil—these are normal people whose self-delusions can engender true destruction. With Harvey Weinstein, too, after he was sentenced, he was so blinkered. I think what he said was, “How can this happen in America?”—just clinging, always, to this sense that you are a victim. I was thinking a lot about ego death with these characters, who were so invested in this ego palace of their careers and their lives. Definitely with “Harvey” and “Menlo Park,” both of those characters had this forced, nonconsensual ego death, and they were clinging to this story that they were still relevant, that there had been an error. I think about it in a much larger way with what’s going on with the country right now, that we are undergoing this ego death. The story we told ourselves for so long about how progressive or how democratic or advanced America is—that was all revealed as total vapor. Seeing people still so unwilling to accept the death of that story, and clinging so viciously and brutally to this false narrative, is very fascinating to me, and very sad.
I love how your endings resist neat conclusion, and yet they often feel like punches to the gut, swiftly taking the story in a different direction than I might’ve suspected. How do you arrive at the end of a story?
Especially in the last five or six years, I find myself really resisting a neat narrative arc, or a kind of ending that ties together the story that’s come before it. I remember I had a teacher in grad school who would talk about certain kinds of endings, “This is the dismount,” and you could almost see it coming—it was almost this formal, performative dismount at the end of a gymnastics routine or something. And just thinking about the way that I experience my own life, or my own cultural moment, or the lives of the people I love and am around, life rarely follows any kind of recognizable pattern or pleasing conclusion. Even with what’s going on right now in the country, you see all these clean narratives that we had, this forward momentum of life becoming better and better, these very clear-cut paths—those have all suddenly shifted profoundly. I’m looking for fiction to reflect that. You don’t get a clear, satisfying ending. I think the best you can hope for is resonance, or a slow circling-around of a moment or an emotion. It’s so much more ambient and diffuse, and a lot less concrete.
Something I have always loved about your writing is your ability to identify danger and decay within what is ostensibly beautiful. I wonder if that sensibility is, in part, a function of having grown up in California. This landscape that is painted out in the cultural imagination to be a sunny paradise and yet is deeply unstable geographically.
California is so beautiful, and sensually so rich, and the landscape resonates in me so deeply, and I love it, but you’re right, it’s built on this unstable foundation. That is a very interesting duality to have at work. I definitely see it in my fiction. I notice that often I’m drawn to seemingly idyllic situations that have these undercurrents of darkness. I wonder, too, if it’s just growing up in a rural place, where there’s something very lonely about it, and you’re so much more exposed to the elements—the indifference of the natural world. I woke up in the middle of the night during an earthquake recently, and it was just this moment of, I have no idea what to do. I was immediately confronted with how ill-equipped I would be to push through with any kind of survival mode. And since then, I keep having these sensations of an earthquake—maybe three or four times since then, the sensation that an earthquake is happening when it isn’t. It must live in you, in some unconscious way. It must live in the body, this sensation that it can all disappear or shift suddenly.
Do you have any rituals, writing or otherwise?
Every time I get asked this question, I always think, I need to have a ritual! I should start one! And then I never do. I wish I did, especially with writing. I have a lot of friends who are every-morning writers—from 8 A.M. till 4 P.M. they’re sitting at their desks, and I’ve never been able to write that way. I think I’ve gotten more used to and comfortable with the idea that I won’t always be writing all the time, that the other things I’m doing are valuable, and trusting that it’s all kind of work, in some way—reading, walking, thinking, listening to music—that all this stuff is stocking my unconscious. And then I find I write in very concentrated bursts. I don’t think it’s very healthy or sustainable, but just a run of four days when that’s all I’m doing, and I don’t leave the house and I don’t see anyone and I eat like shit, and it’s just a total garbage woman situation. [Laughs.] Just totally becoming a troll. But I’ve gotten used to that being how it is. So, I guess my ritual is not very satisfying and possibly unhealthy.
Read Emma Cline’s stories “Marion” and “The Nanny.”
Annabel Graham is a writer, photographer, and illustrator from Malibu, California. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from NYU, where she also taught, and serves as fiction editor of No Tokens, a journal of literature and art run entirely by women and nonbinary individuals.
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