Long, sunburnt summer days, thick with orange blossom and smoke… That’s how Emma Cline’s The Girls opens, and if you are in mourning for summer (or if your feed is clogged with northern hemisphere holiday-goers, brazenly flaunting their leisure), then this is the novel for you.
The book is loosely based on the Charles Manson murders, following a 14-year-old girl long-ignored by her family who is drawn into the dangerous orbit of a cult. It’s a tragic story – you can see how it’s going to end right from the very start, and you just know it’s not going to end well – and a haunting one.
The story starts off languidly and builds slowly but steadily to a humming crescendo. By the end, you will have torn through the novel (as we did), probably in one weekend, because you simply could not put it down. But airplane thriller, this ain’t. Cline’s writing, which has been celebrated by The Paris Review, is limpid and lyrical. “This book will break your heart and blow your mind,” Lena Dunham said of the novel.
Cline is just 27-years-old, and this is her first book. Last year, the title sold in a highly-contested auction for an incredible US$2 million advance. Film rights were secured simultaneously by Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (the man behind The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Social Network). As far as new releases go in the terribly traditional world of book publishing, this is about as buzzy as it gets.
Does it live up to the hype? You betcha. We caught up with Cline while she was on a whirlwind press tour in London to find out more about the novel that has everyone talking.
MARIE CLAIRE: When did you first get interested in the Manson murders?
EMMA CLINE: I’m from California, and they’re really… not popular, but I grew up hearing about them. It’s like this contemporary folk tale or a dark fairytale. I was always fascinated but I didn’t know enough about the girls. All the books are about Charles Manson and no-one ever focussed on the women involved.
MC: What interested you about the women?
EC: When I first started to get interested [in the story] I was in high school and a lot of the women involved were 18 or 19, and they looked like people I knew who had come from middle class backgrounds and had been homecoming queens and taken typing lessons… They were very ordinary, then also very unusual. It was that combination of wondering how someone could start off in one place and end up in this completely terrifying place that really interested me.
MC: What were you like as a teenager?
EC: I was very quiet, very observant. This is sort of what is scary to me about teenage girls, they’re so intense but it’s not very visible. That’s a generalisation, but I just remember this time of such extreme feeling, like everything was black and white, and everything felt like it was such high stakes. No matter what it was, if it was homework or somebody looking at me in a critical way. Something big was always happening. It all felt like a huge deal.
MC: When did you decide to write the book?
EC: I had been working on it in some form for the last three years. I had been writing short stories that had the little seed of that relationship dynamic [between Evie and the girls of the cult]. I’ve been circling around it for a while.
MC: When the book sold for such a huge amount last year, how did that feel?
EC: In this weird way, it had nothing to do with me. I felt like I had already done the work, and after that I never thought of what happens next when you finish the novel. I happily let my agent deal with all that and I just want to work on the next thing.
MC: Did it feel like it was happening to someone else?
EC: It was just not something that I had connected to the act of writing or something, so in that way I think I’ve stayed distant from it in that way which I think is helpful, like my life doesn’t look any different to me. I still get up and try to write. That’s the only connection I can make: this allows me to just keep writing and working on the next thing.
MC: Film rights have been sold… How does that make you feel as a former actress?
EC: Just the thought of it becoming something else is interesting… I think movie adaptations are successful when they become this totally other thing, so in a way I’ve been happy to release it and see what comes out of it. But also movie stuff is so uncertain, it’s quite easy to be a little removed from that.
MC: What does your writing routine look like?
EC: I wish I could figure out some way to write other than just sitting down and suffering through it, but I can’t. Usually I’ll just write as much as I can or try to take a walk or read a little of something else. Reading is such a nice break from writing. I think there’s this tendency to [think] that writing is this mystical thing, that you have to be moved by this interior steering in order to do it, and there’s something very nice about treating it in a much more practical way.
MC: Are there any particular writers that you love and whose work you ofen revisit?
EC: I love the writer Mary Gaitskill, she just writes so beautifully about relationships between women, and she handles sort of sordid subjects in this beautiful way. And Elena Ferrante, for the same reasons, her descriptions of female friendship I find so interesting as a literary subject.
MC: And so underexplored.
EC: Exactly, which is why I think it’s nice that there is such a resurgence of it right now.
MC: What book are you reading right now?
EC: Oh I need a book. I just finished Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte. It’s about the San Francisco tech hangover, so it was really fun for me to read.
MC: You split time between Los Angeles and New York… which city do you prefer?
EC: I kinda like living between them, because they balance each other out. In California everyone is really focussed on these beautiful days that they have, it’s just so relaxed, like almost too relaxed, like no-one makes plans beyond what delicious foods they’re going to eat for lunch and in New York everyone has five year plans but they don’t care what they do all day. It’s two completely different relationships with time and how people spend time. I love California but New York has grown on me.
The Girls (Chatto & Windus, $32.99) by Emma Cline is out now