Talking Girlhood With Emma Cline, Author of The Girls

Author Emma Cline. Photo: Neil Krug
If you have ever spotted another girl and found yourself transfixed, just needing to know her, then you might relate to the narrator of The Girls. This girl-on-girl, non-sexual captivation forms the basis for Emma Cline's new novel. You might well have heard about the book. All set to be the biggest literary debut of the summer, you’ll soon be seeing its retro cover everywhere: two mysterious-looking girls blinking in the midday sun. Narrated by Evie Boyd, the coming-of-age tale flits between 1969 when Evie is a lonely, hungry-for-experience 14-year-old, and the present day when we find a middle-aged recluse. Much has been made of the story behind it. Its 27-year-old Californian author Emma Cline reportedly snagged a $2 million advance, has sold the film rights to Scott Rudin (he who produced No Country For Old Men and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), and has found a fan in Lena Dunham, who said that this book “will break your heart and blow your mind.” So, what's it all about? On her summer break from school, Evie falls in with a Manson family-like cult. It is not charismatic Russell Hadrick, the Charles Manson-esque figure, who fascinates young Evie the most, but the young women who follow him around, especially 19-year-old Suzanne. Evie first spies the long-haired girls in dirty dresses in the park “tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.” Soon she has all but left her Californian suburban home to join their feral ranch. Of course, it doesn’t end well. But amid bloodshed and downfalls, what struck me most when reading the book was the way Cline perfectly captures the spirit and nuances of female adolescence: the boredom, the longing, the jealousy, the manipulation. The constant search for validation.
“I waited to be told what was good about me,” Evie tells us. “I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you — the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” Refinery29 spoke to Emma Cline about the politics of girlhood, our continued fascination with the ‘60s, and becoming an overnight literary sensation.
You write about different types of girls with such accuracy, it makes me wonder what you were like at school? Were you a watcher or did you belong to a particular set?
I definitely felt like an observer. But I’m also one of five girls and I think being from such a big family informed me. I’m the oldest and I have four younger sisters but we were all adolescents at the same time and we are very close in age. So even if I didn’t experience something, one of them did. I had all kinds of different lenses on being a girl. Evie is a very lonely, only child, with divorced parents. Did you find it hard to write such a character when your own upbringing was so different?
I think it was actually surprising to me how easily accessible those feelings were for me during adolescence. What I remember most about it was how every feeling was so extreme and all-encompassing. And everything felt black and white. Everything was the most wonderful thing or the most terrible thing. Which is kind of an exhausting way to look at the world. It takes a lot of energy to sustain. Did you feel intimidated by other girls when you were younger? I think I was more intimidated by girls than boys.
Yes! Especially older girls. They seemed capable in ways that I wasn’t. Or they seemed to be models for this life that you could have, which is what makes older girls so magnetic. It was a dynamic that I wanted to write about. It’s kind of a love story, or an alternative love story that you have at that age. I remember becoming obsessed with my babysitter, who was probably 17 when I was 10. I thought she was the coolest person I’d ever known and I wanted to dress like her and just be her. She totally fascinated me.
As soon as you said that I remembered my babysitter too! I’d forgotten about her. She had this T-shirt and all I wanted to do was wear her T-shirt. And there was nothing special about it except that it was hers [laughs]. It’s a really funny age. I don’t know if men and boys have that same feeling. I don’t know why. It feels very specific to being a young girl.

I feel like teen girls are given the short end of the stick in society. They’re made into these objects and they aren’t given much agency.

Teenage girls can be really mean as well. There’s a scene when Evie’s friend Connie sets her up and pours soda all over her at a carnival. Did you have similar experiences with girls?
Yeah, I definitely thought about how power gets distributed. I feel like teen girls are given the short end of the stick in society. They’re made into these objects and they aren’t given much agency. In terms of the agency that they do have, they often wield it much more cruelly, I think, because they don’t have agency in other realms. And what about the Manson family and the late ‘60s? Have you always been interested in that period or is it just that you thought that era would work well with the story?
To some extent I was interested in it because I thought it worked well with the story. It exaggerates some of the concerns I was interested in writing about anyway, which was girls and sex and vulnerability. It’s a very extreme way to talk about those things. But it’s also something I was interested in from a young age. Growing up in California, it is still so steeped in cult mythology, and the whole history of the ‘60s still looms so large. Why do you think people continue to be fascinated by that time?
It was an era of extremes. The dark points of that time were so dark and they were coupled with this intense idealism that everything would be peace and love and they were making a new world. And then to have that sort of crumble and break up around the edges. Those two things together really interest me about that time. Also the ways that people are, at least in northern California, sort of haunted by that time.

The feeling of wanting to be seen or noticed or acknowledged is such a basic desire for a teenager

And what about the Russell character? Have you ever felt drawn to someone like that before?
Not specifically but I think the feeling of wanting to be seen or noticed or acknowledged is such a basic desire for a teenager. It was important to me that Russell was a side character in a weird way. I think in a traditional narrative he’d be the centre. Some people have said to me, ‘Good book, I just wish there’d been more of Russell’. And I’m like, ‘That was the point!’ The pop culture of that time is sort of left out of the book – was that deliberate? And what is your own relationship with the pop culture of that time.
I did that on purpose because I think sometimes in certain period books I’ve read or books set in the past, and there’s such an effort to ground it in time and place, it can be a little bit distracting. What’s more true to life is that people experience their personal relationships and emotions most strongly and that pop culture stuff rarely breaks through the consciousness of a character in that way. But growing up in California, all the songs and musicians I listened to in high school were, like, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. My first concert was Joan Baez.
Photo: Neil Krug
Is Evie based on anyone in particular?
Not really. In the Manson family, the numbers swelled. At the highest point there were maybe 50 people hanging around him and we only know, like, 10 main names. So I started thinking about those other people and wondered how they think of their time orbiting this infamous moment in history. Like, they will now just have jobs and just be normal people now who have lived their lives while these other people are lionised in a weird way. Did you draw from any fictional people? Evie sort of reminded me of Lux Lisbon from The Virgin Suicides meets Sissy Spacek's Holly in Badlands.
Oh that’s interesting. Wow, I didn’t think of either of those but I really like it! Definitely with the outsider perspective, I was thinking a little of The Great Gatsby, as in, it's narrated by someone on the sidelines. And what about you? How are you handling the attention and the pressures of having the big book of the summer?
I’m working on a new thing already, and that feels good and important to remind myself that the main thing is to do my job, which is being a writer. And that stuff is not why I wanted to write a book, and I think I would have written the book even if no one wanted to read it. And that’s a useful thing to remember. Can you tell us anything about your new project?
It’s at that moment where I don’t want to talk about it yet [laughs.] And what about the film version of The Girls? Is that something you’re involved with or are you quite detached from it?
I feel like I did my work on this book and I don’t mind the thought of someone else turning it into an entirely new thing. But yeah I don’t really want to be involved. I want to keep working on the new thing and move ahead. The Girls by Emma Cline is released Thursday 16th June by Chatto & Windus.

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