Debut novel shows ‘violence under the surface of an ordinary girlhood’

Emma Cline’s first novel, “The Girls,” had folks buzzing two years before it was published.

The hubbub started in 2014 when news broke that the then unknown 25-year-old had sold her debut novel, inspired by the Manson family, for a reported $2 million to Penguin Random House, part of a three-book deal. The film rights were sold shortly after.

The chatter continued in May of this year when “The Girls” debuted to rave reviews from major publications.

But while it may be inspired by Charles Manson and the gruesome murders his followers committed in 1969, Cline’s novel artfully places that lurid horror on the sidelines.

Instead, she gives a stylish narrative voice to Evie Boyd, a restless 14-year-old caught in the thrall of the older teen girls who surround a Charles Manson-like charismatic leader. Alone over a summer after her parents divorce, Evie’s drift toward the dangerous is fueled by her restless adolescent curiosities as much as by the late ’60s radical shift in social mores.

Narrated by the adult Evie — who has spent her mature years adrift, letting “the days crumble away like debris from a cliff face” — the novel brings a remarkable poetic sensitivity to Evie’s teenage folly as well as to the intricate dynamics between the female acolytes attracted to a dangerous man.

Cline grew up in California’s Sonoma County — vineyard country — and received her master of fine arts degree from Columbia University. She was working as a fiction reader at the New Yorker and had had a story published in the Paris Review — from whom she received that publication’s 2014 Plimpton Prize — when she signed with Random House. She currently lives in Brooklyn and is at work on her second novel.

We caught up with Cline, who will join in a discussion with author Robin Wasserman (“Girls On Fire”) at 3 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Texas Book Festival, via email.

Fourteen-year-old Evie is at a potent age, on the cusp of adulthood, beginning to navigate her independence and trying to articulate the male gaze. What inspired her character?

The book began with the older Evie—for me, she was the entry point into the narrative, a woman who had been peripherally involved in an infamous crime as a teenager. The book came out of trying to imagine what story she would tell herself about her ambiguous moral position. I’m very interested in nostalgia, this slippage between past and present, and Evie is someone who has been taken hostage by the past, and hasn’t had the redemptive narrative we like to believe is the result of trauma.

I think teenage girls are often reduced to symbols or objects and rarely allowed to be fully human characters. It was important to me that the teenaged Evie be ambivalent and complicated — she is never just a victim.

I read ‘The Girls’ as a very California novel with its evocation of ’60s California’s lure as a utopia and a place where you can become someone else.

California is a landscape of great beauty but is also a place that isn’t fully safe — there are earthquakes and Valley Fever and droughts, this sense that all that loveliness comes at a very real cost. That dichotomy — great beauty and great darkness — is something I wanted to circle around in this book. California is also a place built on these fantasies of becoming someone else or living a heightened life — Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush — and I wanted to write about those desires taken to their extreme, the end point of a certain kind of idealistic narrative.

You’ve said that you don’t posit the novel as a historical novel, nor is it intended to be specifically reflective of the Manson family, yet you’ve mentioned before that you did a considerable amount of research on Manson, cults etc.

I was inspired by the ways certain crimes live on in the cultural consciousness, becoming mythic visual tropes, but I wasn’t interested in any responsibility toward the facts — that wasn’t the project of the book. There are already so many books and movies that are trying to work with the historical reality, or attempting to wring out some new truth from the same facts, and I saw nothing fresh or interesting there. In many ways, the crime is really the least important thing that happens. I was much more interested in the moments of everyday violence, psychological and emotional, that are foregrounded in the book. That’s where the heart of the project really was for me; exploring the violence under the surface of an ordinary girlhood.

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