Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, has been on our must-read list since its acquisition was announced in 2014 following a massive bidding war. The novel’s elevator pitch is immediately compelling, promising a fictionalized version of the Manson murders that terrorized the country’s psyche in 1969, teaching a generation of Americans to lock their doors. But Cline’s book has deeper concerns than that sensational chapter of history—it’s a coming-of-age story with teeth, both a pulse-pounding literary thriller and a paean to the insular, headlong glory of female friendship.
On the ragged edge of the Summer of Love, impressionable teen Evie is drawn into the dark, cultish world of Mansonlike figure Russell and his devoted “girls,” led by thrilling nonconformist Suzanne. The daughter of divorced parents, Evie is lonely and drifting when she first spots Suzanne, and soon finds a place beside her at Russell’s tumbledown ranch. But as Russell makes increasingly twisted demands of his followers, Evie must decide how far she can follow Suzanne into the dark. Sentence by sentence, it might just be the most beautiful book you’ll read this year.
We talked to author Cline about her book, her process, and the place of girls and girlhood in American culture.
With protagonist Evie, you capture the way a young girl can be so open to influence and hungry for approval that she’s capable of almost anything at all. How did that become a subject of fascination for you?
I’m one of five sisters, so I’ve got four younger sisters and we’re all very close in age—like a year apart, each of us. So I grew up in a house of girls and experienced female adolescence as this extended illness in the household. It’s such a particular age and you just want to be loved and seen, no matter where that attention comes from. And in this book, Evie’s not really getting seen by her mother or her father, and there’s someone who sees her and I think that’s such a magnetic situation.
What was your role among your four other sisters? Which sister were you?
I’m the oldest. But I wish I had an older sister, looking back. We’re all really good friends, and one of them read many drafts of this book. So I was sort of writing for them; I wanted to write a book that I thought they would like. They’re all big readers and they sort of have very similar taste in books.
Did you girls grow up in a house of books?
Yeah. My parents loved mystery and crime, so there was a lot of that, and then I got into literary fiction through school. And I wanted to do a book that would combine the best of both of those things.
When you were young, what kind of books spoke to you?
The books that I remember reading a lot of were the Sherlock Holmes books. I worked at a haunted house for a while, in California. It was at a little pumpkin farm and they had a haunted house in the barn.
Was there anything actually scary about it?
It was scary to me, but I don’t think it was scary to anyone else. And I would just read Sherlock Holmes books on breaks, before people would walk through. So I love Sherlock Holmes. And Archie comics, a lot of Archie comics. And then when I was a teenager, I got more into books books.
Did you read books about young girls or did you sort of skip and go straight to literary fiction as a teen?
No, I definitely read books about young girls. I’m trying to think of the ones I liked the best. What are your favorite books with young protagonists?
I missed out on those.
Those are good. And Anne of Green Gables for sure.
Your story “Marion,” which I loved, shares a lot of elements with The Girls—it’s contemporary but it still has that feeling of dread, and a similarly impressionable female heroine. Why do you think it is in our culture that we’re so fascinated by the story of the wayward lost girl? No matter what the era is, it has that appeal.
I think it’s because we have a very familiar narrative about teenage girls. And I think a lot of their pain is very invisible because they turn it inwards, whereas I think with young men, it’s more in our culture that young men or young boys will turn their pain outwards and project violence onto others. So I think women have this sort of invisible role, and any time that’s switched and they do do something that’s outward, it becomes more of a story and a source of fascination.
Do you remember when you first heard about the Manson murders and how that percolated in your mind?
I’m from California, and it’s such a big part of California mythology. And both my parents grew up in California and were around the same age as Evie is in the book when the murders happened. And for them it was such a big cultural touchstone, so I grew up hearing a lot about it. And there are so many others, besides the Manson family—Jim Jones and Jonestown started in the Bay Area, and then there were the Zodiac murders. There was something in the air, to me, about California in that era, and I sort of always knew I was interested in it and wanted to know more.
Having your parents as firsthand witnesses to that, did they agree that the widespread feeling of dread, of darkness, was not just something we created with hindsight, but really a thing that was happening?
I think it was very formative for them. And they really talk about this moment after everything changed: they locked their doors, and that was something that didn’t happen before. I think it was a real moment when the culture had this sort of awkward growing up period, when suddenly the party was over.
I read a lot of YA. But as I get older, I’m like, “Who do I identify with, the heroine or her mom?” I read an essay you wrote in which you discussed the possibility of becoming someone’s stepmother. When you were writing Evie, were you identifying with her, or were you writing from the perspective of someone who would be Evie’s caregiver?
For a lot of it, I was thinking about Evie. But in the characters of her parents and the adults around her, it was really important to me that they not be one-dimensional, like “absent mother” or “distracted father” or “evil stepmother.” Just that everyone have the complexity humans have in real life. I don’t think anyone is all bad or all good, and I think it’s interesting the moment you might think someone is all bad and they do one little thing that might reveal them as human.
So the framing narrative you gave to the book—in which an adult Evie is looking back on the experiences of her younger self—was that always part of your plan for the book, or did that come after you wrote Evie’s narrative?
To me, that was always an important part of the book, because that’s where I could imagine the character. I really liked the idea of someone who had been involved with this infamous crime and how that would shape their life after. And a lot of it was thinking about the leftovers of the sixties that I see all the time in California. I was thinking of a character who has to live in the space of something that happened so long ago but that might be the only defining moment of her life.
Is that an interest of yours, echoes felt within spaces?
For sure. I don’t know if it’s a California thing—it’s weird because the East Coast has so much more history, it’s such an older space, but somehow California feels very haunted to me.
There’s something spooky about it.
It’s like these wide, open spaces, and people who come there because they want to become someone else, to have this freedom. So I think it’s both. It draws people who want extreme living, some extreme expression of self. And that can either be good or bad. And I think that’s what all the darkness comes out of. That search for the extreme.
But you’re now a New Yorker. Do you feel that as a change in yourself?
I think I’ll always love the West Coast, and I think I’ll end up back on the West Coast, but New York is a good place to get things done. Because you’re just doing your thing. In California, you’re like, “Let’s go on a hike; let’s eat beautiful food.” In New York, you’re just plugged into the matrix.
What was your earliest experience of becoming a writer?
I was a big writer and reader—reader first, and then writer. I think I loved it so much because I was from such a big family. There are seven kids altogether. And I think reading and writing is something you can do in private and you don’t have to share it—and I had to share everything. So it was a way of eking out this little private space.
In telling Evie’s and Suzanne’s story, it feels like you’re walking a fine line where it could become prurient. Was that a danger you kept in mind, that you wanted to avoid the exploitative possibilities?
Yes, definitely. And I think for me, the way to avoid exploitation is to really account for the full humanity of a young woman instead of flattening it into cliché. And I think that’s a problem with a lot of our cultural narratives about teenage girls: they often just don’t give them agency. They’re just objects or they’re just acted upon, and there’s no complexity in their response to things. I wanted to write a character that was more than a victim, who was a full person. And I think as a culture we don’t give teenage girls enough credit in that way. Especially in our media and TV shows and fashion. We have this very flat image of teenage girls.
I don’t want to give anything away, obviously. But there’s this turning point in the book for Evie, where what happens next has the potential to define the rest of her life. Did you always know which way she was going to go at that crossroads?
There was a moment where I thought it could be something else, but I like stories with moral ambiguity, and I think there’s something more interesting about that. As a culture, we’re very comfortable with that binary of guilty or not guilty. And what would it mean to have to operate in the space between those and make your own story about what happened, without the props of a larger cultural narrative about what your role had been?
What were you reading when you were working on this?
The two books I was thinking a lot about were Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill, which I love, which is just an amazing book about female friendship and also an older narrator looking back on her life. And then a beautiful novella by Lorrie Moore called Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Both of them have complex female characters, and they’re about a formative relationship. I’m really interested in friendship as a subject for fiction, and I think there’s a cultural shift toward that lately. I’m thinking especially of Elena Ferrante. We have all this language to describe marriages and romance, but friendship is so undefined, and again, I like that ambiguity.
In high school were you more of an Evie, a follower, or were you more like her object of obsession, Suzanne?
Suzanne. I killed many people. [Laughs] No, I was sort of an observer. Sort of hanging, watching. I didn’t like high school. Did you?
I liked the second two years. The first two not so much. What kind of a teen were you?
I don’t know. Ugh. I try not to think that far back. But, I mean, it’s strange what a formative time that is. Every emotion is so intense. The world is so black and white. There’s no room for compromise. Which is insane and not sustainable, but for a moment the world is so alive.
It’s easy to be the smartest person in the world.
Oh, yeah, you’re sure of it.
Can you talk about what you’re working on next?
I’m working on a novel. It’s still early days, so I don’t, I’m not…But I’m happy to be working again. There was a time when I wasn’t for a little bit. But I was working on short stories, so I have a handful of those, and a larger project, which is set in the present time.
That’s all you can say, right?
Are you more of a plotter or a pantser?
Plotter or a…?
This might be more YA terminology. Are you a plotter or a seat-of-your-pantser when writing a book?
Oh, I thought you said panther. I was like, “I’m a panther. Certainly.”
Right. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m a panther.”
I think I do a lot of drafts where I’m seeing what’s happening as I’m writing it. And then take a step back, and then organize what I have, and then figure out what I’m missing and how to balance it.
Can you tell me a bit about what you’re reading right now?
I’m actually reading Edith Wharton for the first time. Have you read her?
I’ve been dying to read House of Mirth. Is that the one you’re reading?
Yes. Oh, my god. So good. I’ve been shocked at how good it is. No one told me that it would read extremely quickly and be totally a pleasure through and through. It’s very contemporary in a weird way.
That’s how I feel about Dickens. I read Great Expectations and I’m like, this is hilarious.
Yes! I’m planning out my summer and I’m like, I’ll just read Edith Wharton in the sunshine all summer. And then I read a great book called Private Citizens, by Tony Tulathimutte. It’s an amazing book about San Francisco. It’s the best book I’ve read about internet culture, so I love it. It’s a great, funny novel.
Anyone else at Random House you’re excited about?
I’m really excited about George Saunders’ novel.
Oh, my god, have you read it yet?
No. You read that?
I did. I’m in love with it.
He’s amazing. We were driving in the car today, and I was like, “I’m sitting next to George Saunders.” He’s the nicest guy. He’s an angel.
The Girls is on sale now.