A lonely teenage girl, her last summer at home before boarding school, an intriguing gang of older, louche girls in a local park. It's northern California at the end of the 1960s, and these girls are coming of age at the edge of unspeakable violence. Written in seductive, luminous prose, Emma Cline's haunting novel, The Girls, captures the experience of crossing between adolescence and adulthood, questioning what we're willing to do to belong and to be seen.
The reviews continue to land, and they are all phenomenal. "Arresting," "stunning," "mesmerizing and sympathetic" -- and that's just a start. They continue: "An astonishing work of imagination, "remarkably atmospheric, preternaturally intelligent, and brutally feminist," "a wise novel that's never showy," "a quiet, seething confession of yearning and terror."
A few weeks ago Emma Cline and her editor, Kate Medina, executive vice president, associate publisher, executive editorial director at Random House, took the stage at Barnes & Noble on Manhattan's Upper West Side to talk about the genesis of this remarkable novel. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. --Miwa Messer, Director, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Kate Medina: One of the things I found remarkable about your book, as you know, is your profound understanding of adolescent girls and of the women they become. I remember asking you when you came in to see me, "How do you know so much about girls?" How do you?
Emma Cline: Well, there's one easy, obvious answer -- that I was a girl. But then, I also have four younger sisters, which is quite a lot of adolescents to be in one house together, as I'm sure my mother would agree. So there's five girls in my family, as well as two boys, and all five of us are very close in age. It was really one right after the other. So just five teenage girls in one house, which is like an illness in the household. You should stay away. There should be a sign over the door.
You experience something as an adolescent girl, and maybe it doesn't imprint on you, but you see it repeated four times in quick succession, and you start to see patterns and sort of think about the way that girls and women are treated in the world.
KM: That's one really strong draw, I think, to this novel. In the New York Times feature about you, Emma, you spoke about driving past Charles Manson's house as a child. Would you tell us about your background and how it inspired this novel.
EC: That was a huge part of why I came to this story. I'm from California, northern California, which is still very haunted by the '60s. They're still sort of dealing with the leftovers of this era, which was so important. So I sort of grew up in the shadow of it. Yeah, we would drive past San Quentin, which is a prison, when I was little, when I was six or seven, and my parents would say, "That's Charles Manson's house." And in the way of little kids, I really thought he lived there. I thought that's an awfully big house, but I was also really scared of him. He was sort of my version of the Bogeyman growing up.
Then, as I got older, I read Helter Skelter. That was the first thing I read about the Manson Family. Which I think a lot of teenagers sort of find magnetically somehow; they're just drawn to this tawdry true-crime book. I read that, and I remember being so fascinated that the women involved, the girls were really only a few years older than I was at the time when I first read it. That's who I was interested in, in the story. I wasn't so interested in Manson, who I think we all know quite a bit about at this time, and I don't know that there's much new information that has a lot of texture. But to me, the girls . . . there was some space left over for a novelist.
KM: I think that is what we're finding many readers relate to is your understanding of the powerful longing in girls to be seen, acknowledged, and belong. One of the messages we get on Facebook a lot about this book is: What would you do to belong? I think about this aspect of the girls in your novel when I read about ISIS, young women called "brides of ISIS" who leave Canada, the United Kingdom, and other places, vulnerable to falling into that kind of attachment. I'm wondering if you'd say more about that kind of vulnerable time in a girl's life.
EC: Yes -- this book is set mostly in the '60s, but to me there is something about the story that really could happen at any moment, and, like you're saying, the teenage girls who sort of ran away to join ISIS -- it's not something that was only specific to 1969. I think the desire to belong and be part of something larger, and to really be seen and noticed, is such a primal desire and won't ever really go away. I think that's what animates a lot of the book, and what makes it to me . . . The cult aspect is interesting to me, but it's a way of talking about what I'm really interested in, which is the lives of girls and sort of that yearning, and how does the world treat that yearning -- how do they take advantage of it?
I think it's also an age when young women are testing the boundaries of the world around them. I think we teach young women that the world is dangerous for them specifically. So if you've been raised that way, how do you find your way in the world? Could you maybe want to seek out danger? Because that's a way of figuring out how will the world treat you. That's a moment where you have excitement or power over your own life in a world that often leaves you powerless.
KM: Some other reviewers have focused on the Mansonesque aspects of Russell, who is the charismatic center of the cult. And other books have been written about California's dark side and the male leaders, with women as bit players, I think you once said. But you wanted to write about the girls. Would you say a little more about that, and why you made girls the center of the story?
EC: Yeah. Like I said, and as you've mentioned, we almost have this interchangeable idea of what a cult leader looks like, and a lot of them came out of northern California. Go, California! Gerald Stone, Jim Jones, Manson . . . In many ways, they are very similar. I think we're familiar with the psychological profile of these people. I think in this book I really like that Russell is actually the side character. In a book that people might call, like, a Manson Book or a Mansonesque book, I really like the idea of sort of putting that meat to the side. It's been funny. It's mostly been men, but they've been like, Why not more about this fascinating Russell character?
But to me, yeah, I love that his orbit around these women, actually, is in many ways incidental to the plot.
KM: It's also very interesting in this novel how Evie gradually begins to see who he really is. It's very sophisticated and very marvelous, how you do that.
EC: I think an older reader can see right away that he's not anything very special, but to a fourteen-year-old girl, somebody who is sort of saying the things they want to hear -- but I also love that the reason Evie really gets interested in the group is because of Suzanne, an older girl, and not because of this man, that it's really like this projection and this intense friendship that acts as the incident that sort of gets her involved.
KM: I remember wanting to read your novel fast, to find out what was going to happen, and slow, to savor the words and the writing. I guess if a writer can ever say: How did you learn to write like this? You have an MFA from Columbia. What did you learn about writing there, and how did you develop this amazing voice?
EC: I think as a reader, I've always been drawn to books that create their own world, and that sort of are very immersive, and you learn how to read them as you go on. So I loved the idea of this book that functions as its own visual universe almost. I was thinking of other books that I really enjoyed. I think The Virgin Suicides is one that you immediately are sort of indoctrinated almost into this writer's tone and style. And Lorrie Moore, too. Other writers who sort of work at a heightened pitch, I think. That was important to me.
It mostly comes from reading so much and really thinking about what I enjoy as a reader. Which is also what was great about going to an MFA program. Because you're forced to confront the fact of readers, and if you're working alone, you can sort of project all kinds of things onto your own work that may or may not be there. But readers will tell you. So that was important to me, to respect the reading experience when I read this book.
KM: So it was workshopped?
EC: I actually never really workshopped this novel. I was mostly workshopping short stories, just because the structure of an MFA doesn't really lend itself to workshopping novels. So really my main reader while I was writing this book was one of my four younger sisters. It turns out you can make your younger sister read twelve drafts of a book! So she was my proto-editor. And I sort of bribed her with many treats, but she read my drafts. And in many ways, she's sort of my ideal reader, I think. So she told me when I was going in the right direction.
KM: Did your understanding of girls and women evolve or deepen as you wrote your way through this book or as you heard people talk about the book and respond to it? I guess I wondered whether the writing of the book and the publishing of the book affected the way you think about girls and women. Was there any change that you remember noticing?
EC: For me, it's been really gratifying hearing that the book has been meaningful to people, especially young women, but also anyone who has been a young woman or knows a young woman. What I wanted to do in writing the book was, I think, present a complex portrait of girls and sort of let them be more than the one-note characterizations that I think are so prevalent in the way that we talk about teenage girls especially. I think we have very flat characterizations of them and give them so little subjectivity and agency. So writing a book with these girls at the center who are allowed to be more than victims -- sometimes they are people who victimize other people. Or something terrible can happen, and they might almost like it. They have all these complex feelings, which I think is real to how girls and women experience the world.
I know for me, as a big reader, it's rare to come across this. I remember one of the first times I really did. I don't know if any of have you read Diary of a Teenage Girl or seen the movie, which was also great. But my heart started pounding a little faster when I was reading, because I just thought, Oh, here it is. That's something I really wanted to do with this book, too.
KM: A lot of the messaging online in praise of the girls has to do with what's called the "near miss" in a girl or a woman's life, that moment when everything could go horribly wrong. Were you aware of this kind of common or universal possible connection that people would be making to this book?
EC: Yes. And I've definitely heard a lot more stories as the book has been out in the world. But I think it's something that was true with most of the women I know. Just that they experienced girlhood as this very dangerous moment, and that they were sort of going right up to the edge of things all the time, that sort of way of testing boundaries, and they felt that it was almost an accident that nothing bad happened, or that nothing worse happened. I think a lot of that points to the way that we treat women and girls and the way our society is structured -- that it's such a vulnerable population.
KM: There is in the book some commentary about the stereotypes out there of women, with which you're at odds. So Evie identifies common female stereotypes by saying, "That was part of being a girl. You were resigned to whatever feedback you get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn't react, you were a bitch." That encapsulates many of the sentiments about female adolescence throughout the book. Would you want to speak about that line?
EC: Sure. It's grim to hear it repeated back, because I think it's somewhat true that we do give girls this tiny little real estate to sort of exist in, when, of course, they are full human beings. And can you write a book that gives them back their full humanity? Yeah.
KM: One of the things that I admired about this book is that you let us see all the people of different ages in this book as real people. Particularly your portrayal of Evie's mother and father, who really do kind of drop the ball and leave her on her own this summer, and also to Mara, her father's girlfriend, in that you make them real people. They are not all bad or all good. They are just people. So it's a surprise, and one of the many surprises in this book, who comes through for Evie. Tell me how you feel, for example, about Evie's mother. I found her quite sympathetic, trying in the '60s way to put her life together again after a divorce.
EC: It was really important to me that no one be 100 percent bad or good, because again, I don't think that's how the world operates. I think it's actually what's most frightening about something . . . you know, a crime like there is at the center of this book, is that it's often committed by people who you can see their humanity at the same time that you can see this horror. And what does it mean to be able to see both of those things, and have you make sense of it? Or can you even make sense? The parents don't commit any terrible crimes, but to the teenage Evie, I think she really experiences then not as monsters but as people who are just letting her down so brutally.
But that's what's nice about having an older narrator -- you get to comment and contextualize on this almost suffocating point of view that is like a fourteen-year-old girl's point of view. I feel like when you're a teenager, you can't really accept nuance or gray area. You have this real purity almost in your commitment to your ideals or the sense that the world is very black-and-white. The definition of adulthood is compromise and nuance, the gray area. That's the realm of being an adult, unfortunately.
KM: Can you love someone who has done something terrible? How would you answer that question?
EC: I think that's a lot of what the book is about, that Evie has had this intense relationship with Suzanne, the older girl who draws her into this group, and she is still struggling with this many decades later, to form some narrative about what it meant or who Suzanne was to her. They might be able to meet again as adults, and you might be able to get some resolution about this person who resists any kind of easy reading. But I like the idea that in this book she never gets that closure. That felt very true to life to me, that these people can come and have a huge impact on you, and maybe for the rest of your life you would be trying to come up with a story to tell yourself about what that meant.
KM: One of the things I love most about this novel is that in roughly the last half of the book, many things happen that are not actually explained. So with some of the turning points at the end of the novel, you have to kind of figure out what you think happened. How did you manage to resist telling us what happened?
EC: I think, honestly, the character doesn't quite know, so that's easier to sort of occupy as the writer, too -- that not-knowing. But also, that's what I'm most interested in in art and fiction especially, is these ambiguous moments. For me, I was thinking a lot about sort of moral luck with this book. One of the examples that's most used is, like: Is somebody who drives drunk but doesn't kill anyone as culpable as someone who drives drunk and happens to get in a car accident where someone dies? The accident of the way our lives turn out. And also, what would it mean to you if you could feel your proximity to something so terrible and sort of never know what your culpability, your moral responsibility really was in that moment? That to me seems a rich well to draw from for fiction.
--July 18, 2016