Since Emma Cline took her first author photo, a picture seen round the literary universe after it was revealed her debut manuscript fetched a $2 million advance, she's moved the middle part in her long copper hair to the side. It's a small thing, for sure, but these days she looks less like a precocious talent than a polished 27-year old publishing star. (The California country girl went poof.) Probably I can be accused of extrapolating too much from an aesthetic footnote, but it's the leaner details that have everything to say in Cline's debut, The Girls.
Out now, the novel takes the basic template of the Manson Family story—a curiously charismatic cult leader, beautiful young supplicants, cold murder—and smartly pivots the focus away from the leader toward the intricate internal dynamics of his too-willing followers. Whether it's the book's sexy subject matter, the youthful appeal of the author, or the obvious talent on the page—Cline has been "fast-tracked by the Muses," as James Wood wrote in The New Yorker—the attention has hardly wilted since her three-book deal with Random House was announced in 2014. (The film rights to The Girls were sold to Scott Rudin early on.)
"It's been weird," Cline admitted earlier this week. We were having a quiet drink at a nearly empty café blocks away from her apartment in Brooklyn. Dressed casually in an army-green jacket and jeans, Cline was in a light mood, remarking offhandedly about not having anything to wear to her upcoming readings. It was the eye of the storm: the magazine profiles and glut of admiring reviews had passed, and her book tour, which begins today, had yet to start.
"Honestly, it helps not having a smartphone," Cline said, placing her flip-phone on the table. Its ancient scuffs were covered by stickers peeled from the skins of fruit—a decorating quirk throughout her life, judging by her laptop. I asked if her publisher had insisted she get on social media to promote her book. "They wanted me to get Twitter," she said. "I just held up my phone, like, 'Not possible!' Then they asked if I could take pictures at my reading for the website. And I showed them the picture quality on here." She smiled, as if she'd hacked life. Then she admitted that she gets lost constantly.
Although reviews of The Girls have been overwhelmingly positive except for a few high-profile demurrals (most notably, and most dismissively, by Dwight Garner in the New York Times), Cline's four younger, social media-fluent sisters have been protectively curating her exposure to the Internet. "I get a heavily redacted sense of what's going on from them," she said.
Cline has always moved with a pack. Her parents, who are Sonoma winemakers (they own Cline Cellars), had seven children in the span of 10 years. The second-born, Cline has an older and younger brother, and four younger sisters who are all close in age. "I'm very sensitive to group dynamics," she said. "The first time I had my own room in my second year in college, I couldn't sleep because I couldn't hear people breathing."
When Cline applied to Columbia for her MFA, she submitted a story set in a commune. "I was always writing about communes or groups," she recalled. "In college, I even subscribed to a magazine called Communities, which was for people in intentional communities. I wanted to live in one."
The genesis of The Girls can be traced back to Cline's childhood in Sonoma, where a hippie commune called the Chosen Family once owned a mansion. "The Chosen Family blew through a million dollars in 1971," Cline said. "Like, buying motorcycles and building pizza ovens. Then someone left incense lit, and the house burned down. Two kids drowned in the swimming pool. The story has always been in the back of my mind, this great idealistic experiment and its ultimate destruction, side by side."
Set mostly in Sonoma in the summer of 1969 (with occasional flashes forward to the present), the novel finds 14-year old Evie Boyd adrift, abandoned by her best friend. In one of the book's most evocative early passages, young Evie gets bored and sloppily fixes herself a martini in the middle of the day, grown up-like. Happily drunk, she re-reads her favorite books, paints makeup on herself, and walks around her house if she were seeing it for the first time: "It was fun to feel loose and amused with my own house, realizing, in a spill of hilarity, that the furniture had always been ugly..."
It's the last moment of innocence before Evie is sucked into the cult around Russell Hadron, the Manson-like figure who lives on a remote ranch in a sort of rich squalor, surrounded by his groupies. Although Evie alludes constantly to the gore-filled end of the great experiment, the pulse of the book is in the relationship between Evie and Suzanne, the leader of the girls at the ranch. For Evie, Suzanne exudes a magnetism that Russell cannot match.
The novel is profoundly perceptive about the hearts and minds of teenage girls. Cline even revisited her high school journals to recapture that time. "I re-read them all," she said. "It was horrifying—I forgot how monstrous the teenage brain is. And it seems so tiring to me now, how intense feelings were."
Cline likes to say that she's been writing this book much of her life, but the final version was mostly written over the span of one summer, during which she lived in a tiny shed in her friend's backyard, a block away from where she lives now. It was not meant to be inhabited by humans, but Cline patched the roof, got the water running, and did something that resembled drywalling. There were many trips to Ikea, and across the yard to the house when she wanted a shower. In some ways, it resembled the way Evie, Suzanne, and the girls slapped together a life on the ranch.
"I still love the shed," Cline said brightly. "I'm grateful to it now; I couldn't have written the book without it. Plus, my friend lived in the main house. We had walkie-talkies."
"I guess I do not like being alone."
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Produced by Biel Parklee. Special thanks to Brooklyn's BookCourt.