Sunday 8 December 2019

Irish author Emma Cline: 'I grew up hearing about cults and communes'

Based on the girls of a Charles Manson-like cult, Emma Cline's debut novel has been released to critical acclaim, a rumoured $2m book deal with the rights already sold to Hollywood - and she's only 27 years old. Our reporter meets the young and gifted Californian

Emma Cline, whose debut novel has been released to critical acclaim. Photo: Megan Cline
Emma Cline, whose debut novel has been released to critical acclaim. Photo: Megan Cline
Disciples: Followers of Charles Manson Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten attend trial circa 1970.
The Girls by Emma Cline

Marianne Power

Ask any writer what they really want in life and they'll usually joke about a six-figure book deal and a Hollywood film.

I, for one, have spent many a happy hour fantasising about the house I'd move in to (pool, big windows, possibly in LA), the parties I'd have (you're all invited) and the Pretty Woman shopping trips…    

But right now I'm sitting in a London coffee shop opposite someone from whom this dream is a reality. In fact, Emma Cline didn't just get six-figures for her first book but a rumoured $2 million after 12 publishers got into a bidding war and Hollywood uber producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men) snapped up the rights to her coming of age book The Girls. Oh and did I mention that she is only 27? And she wrote the book when she was 25? And it's her first book? I know, it's sickening.

But what I'm noticing here is a lack of Chanel. There are no diamonds. Not even a pair of designer shades. In fact, the girl sitting opposite me in blue jeans, black cardigan and white adidas, looks like she could be a student in the nearby university.

Quiet, self-composed with an understated, dry humour, she visibly squirms when talking about her success.

When I ask her if the sum quoted is correct, she looks away, pained. "Uhhh… I'm not… er…." before concluding that it "almost doesn't feel like it's my business."

So how did she celebrate this huge success (that I am not remotely jealous of)? "I moved into my own apartment and I now have a door on my bathroom!" she says. She was living in her friend's shed, while writing the book but now she misses the shed. "I feel so nostalgic about it," she says. "It was so small… but it was really wonderful, it was really helpful in terms of writing the book, it was a very condensed space, living there, working there - a little hot plate, so I just made beans, and it felt like I just had the most important things around me, it felt really nice…"

It's safe to say that Cline is not of the Kardashian mould.

Disciples: Followers of Charles Manson Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten attend trial circa 1970.
Disciples: Followers of Charles Manson Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten attend trial circa 1970.

When I ask her what it's like to be such a hit, she keeps her bright blue eyes on her coffee cup.

"There's a lot of noise and it's not quite real in a way," says Cline, who looks like a young Sissy Spacek, pale skin and long reddish blond hair.

And there really is a lot of noise, with everyone from literary heavyweights and teenage vloggers alike. She is already being compared to Donna Tarrt's The Secret History and Jeffrey Eugenedes The Virgin Suicides. Lena Dunham promises that it will "break your heart and blow your mind". Richard Ford found it "imposing not just for a writer so young, but for any writer, any time". Mark Haddon says "I don't know which is more amazing, Emma Cline's understanding of human beings or her mastery of language."

High praise indeed for any first-time writer, let alone a book that she started when she was 22 and finished at 25. Cline made a joke to another interviewer about having a "legitimate nervous breakdown" and watching seven seasons of The Real Housewives after she heard the news. She's now worried that was taken seriously and is watching her words.

The Girls by Emma Cline
The Girls by Emma Cline

"It all happened fairly quickly, it sold within the span of a week. It was an overwhelming time and hard to process - it's nerve-wracking to get that much attention. Mostly I feel grateful that the book will be read, that feels like the ultimate thing to keep in mind."

The book follows 14-year-old Evie as she falls in with a group of girls involved in a Charles Manson-esque cult leader in late-'60s California. Cline grew up hearing stories about cults and communes, which, she says, were part of the mythological landscape of the West Coast.

"Both my parents are Californian and were about 13 or 14 when the Manson murders happened. They have a very strong memory of him and as a kid he was like our Boogie man. We would drive past St Quentin and dad would say 'there's Charles Manson's house'," says Cline. "It's shocking to me how much he mattered to people. He came to represent the end of the '60s, after that people no longer believed in the ideals.

"But even as a teenager I identified with the girls and was interested in them; they were people I wanted to know more about. In books about the murders, they're all about Manson even though he wasn't actually there - he didn't act in the way the girls did."

The Girls is not a retelling of the Manson murders - in which Charles Manson directed his cult followers to kill some 35 people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski. Instead it is a fictionalised telling of a young girl who gets involved in a similar cult and explores the issues of female friendship, sexuality and what it's like to be a girl.

The novel is narrated by present day middle-aged Evie, who recalls the summer of 1969, when as a bored and lonely teenager, with average grades and average looks spots 'the girls' in the park. With their bare feet, long hair and patchwork dresses, they set themselves apart. "The familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water," Cline writes. They were, she says, "like royalty in exile."

For Evie whose life felt like "a waiting room until someone notices you", these girls embodied freedom and excitement, even when she sees them stealing food from a dumpster. She follows the girls to a dilapidated ranch where she is introduced to Russell Hadrick, their cult-leader who wants to 'free people' from the system. He is sleeping with all the girls, and happily using them to steal and cook for him.

But he is not a magnetic presence, he is a repulsive one. The main focus of Evie's attention is dark-haired Suzanne, with whom she feels a 'dizzy solidarity' and who later goes on to commit a brutal murder.

"In the traditional narrative there's a charismatic man - but here's a bit player," says Cline. "The book is about the experience of girlhood, it's such an extreme time, it's so exhausting…" Cline seems to think that many of us could fall into the wrong company if we're caught at the wrong moment or the wrong time.

"Nobody is 100pc awful or 100pc good, and you can fall in love with someone who does something bad.

"There is a basic human desire to belong, to believe that life could be more than what you see are around you."

The book is also a love song to her native California. The heat comes off every page.

"California is such a beautiful landscape but so dangerous at the same time - it's on a fault line, an earthquake could happen, it's like the land wants to kill you but it's so gorgeous." It also, she says, "draws people who are searching for something."

Cline was born and raised in Sonoma, Northern California.

The second of seven children, she grew up on the winery her parents started after her father, a scion of the Jacuzzi family, came into a small inheritance.

"My dad grew up in LA, he was a surfer kid with shaggy blonde locks, he was a juvenile delinquent who was sent to live with his grandfather, who was a home wine-maker, and that's how he learned."

Her mother was also Californian, from Irish descendent. "She visited Ireland this year and said it felt like going home…" Her grandparents were from Cork and Lurgan in Co Armagh.

"We had a little cult of our own but we didn't kill anyone!" she jokes. "I read a lot, it was a way of getting some private time. I wrote all the time, even as a younger child, it felt like staking out your own territory mentally and otherwise."

Though she said she always wanted to be a writer she had a fleeting moment as a child actor.

"I was in a made for television movie in which I played Billie Jean King as a child. Holly Hunter played the older Billie Jean and I had a stunt double who played tennis for me."

She went to a hippy high school in Sonoma - "we had knitting class, it was that kind of school" - where she started writing short stories, before studying for a degree in art - "I was lazy" - then doing her MA in fiction at Columbia, New York.

She first got attention as a writer with a 2014 essay about the bizarre friendship she struck up with LA music figure Rodney Bingenhemier when she was 13. He was 55 and called her over to his café table to tell her that she looked like his first love. They became unlikely pen-pals, corresponding for a year. In the essay she wrote, "Some girls, even at 13, probably knew not to do things like that, I wasn't one of them. When I was offered any attention, I took it eagerly. I look at pictures of myself at that age and wonder how plainly it was encoded in my face, the flash of a message: see me."

This teenage neediness and vulnerability is a core theme in The Girls, as is commune life, which she also wrote about in a short story, Marion which was published in The Paris Review and won the Paris Review Plimpton Prize.

"I was always writing about communes," she laughs.

It's not surprising really, given that she didn't have her own bedroom until she was 20 and at college.

"I really miss it - just the sound of people breathing is such a comfort to me and there was often three other people in the room breathing, there are so many human beings, brothers and sisters around you."

She is close to her family and her sister Hilary read through all eight drafts of the book. "I was going through my emails the other day and I found all these messages I sent to my sister Hilary, 'sorry, sorry, sorry, would you read one more draft?' I promised her all kinds of treats and presents…"

It took eight drafts to get the book into what it is today. In the last three months it came together.

"It was a very humid hot New York summer and it was so isolating. In a way I liked it by the end of it, such an extreme state - I'll probably never reach this state again, it's not sustainable - almost extremely pleasurable when I look back on it now. It might be the best part of the whole experience - it was pure - I dropped out of the human race.

"I didn't have the internet and it was the number one best thing I've ever done." She still doesn't have Facebook, Twitter or any social media. "I would like to go back to living without it, it feels like such a distraction. With my personality type, I just can't have it around, I can't discipline myself. Any fleeting feeling of discomfort or loneliness and... 'oh look, this magic machine that reflects the world back at you…"'

When she finished the book "there were five minutes of glorious happiness - a real pure happiness. It was a private moment when I'd finished it and it felt real to me."

When I asked about her parents and siblings she says they are supportive but also busy with their own lives. "They've been very sweet but we all do different things, one is a Fulbright scholar in Siberia, the other is an aeronautical engineer, one of them runs a rodeo in Texas, we all do our own weird thing. This is just another weird thing - the book world makes no sense to them and why should it?

"With that many people in the family, everyone is constantly keeping you in line - you never feel like you're the best. They remind me I'm just their sister, who is not that impressive…"

I beg to differ. Both in person and on the page Cline is wise beyond her years. I read the book with a biro underlining phrases that I wish I could write. I am no longer jealous, I am just in awe.

The Girls by Emma Cline is published by Chatto & Windus at €16.99

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