About The Author
Emma Cline works as a fiction reader for The New Yorker. Before earning her MFA at Columbia, she gained her BA at Middlebury College. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, Salon and O. The Oprah Magazine. She won the 2014 Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction.
Her debut novel, The Girls, now out in paperback, and loosely based around the Charles Manson affair of 1969, looks at what happens when vulnerable14-year-old Evie is recruited for unstable drifter Russell Hadrick's cult by his 'girls'.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Emma about her fascination with cults and whether teenagers today are more or less vulnerable than they were in the 1960s.
Author photo © Neil Crug
Questions & Answers
Such a striking feature of The Girls is the beautiful prose; have you been writing from a young age and when you started, what were you writing about?
I was a big reader first, I’m from a really big family. I’m one of seven kids so reading was a way to have private space, so I read a lot and I was writing stories from a young age.
I don’t know if I wrote about the same thing over and over, but I definitely remember one story I wrote when I was eight called ‘Tales of Love and Suspense' and I drew a very detailed picture of a dagger dripping with blood. I think it could be used as an alternative cover for The Girls, as well!
Was the relationship between Evie and Suzanne your starting point for the novel, or did the setting of a Manson-style cult come first?
I always knew I wanted to write about something set in the Culture Commune. I like the way it elevates the normal concerns of the novel, making it more extreme. The relationship between Evie and Suzanne was the way in, I didn’t want to write the story that was very familiar to me at this point, which was, all these girls following this charismatic male leader, I didn’t’ see anything new there. The idea of having this alternate love story at the centre is what interested me.
What research did you have to do in order to understand the psychology of cults?
I think I’ve always been fascinated with cults, so I read a lot about them even before I thought about writing a novel. There is some great memoirs from former cult members. What interests me about cults is the universal feeling of the desire to belong. This was my starting point and trying to imagine how that very normal, very typical feeling, might be taken advantage of in a cult setting.
Sometimes actors talk about the difficulty of playing disturbing characters, whose attributes start to infringe on their own thoughts. In The Girls, you brilliantly weave a sense of loneliness and danger together, creating the feeling of impending disaster. Where there any points in writing where this became too much and you had to take a step back?
There was one scene, a sort of crime scene where I was writing it alone, in this little house at night and I freaked myself. That was the only time where had to take a break. What I liked about writing it, at least the last draft, is I wrote in a very intense, isolated place and it was nice to be immersed in it.
We have a greater understanding now of the challenges faced by teenagers, but the challenges have also become more complex. Do you think teenage girls today are more or less vulnerable than in the period you were writing about?
I think teenage girls today and societies are more aware of these issues facing women, and there’s a little bit more social structure in place to protect women. But I think we see gendered and sexual violence all the time, I think there’s a lot of similarities, I wish it was better but I’m not sure that it is.
Who were the writers you first fell in love with and have they stayed with you or have your tastes changed?
My first real favourite books were the Sherlock Holmes books. I still like a certain kind of thrilling crime novel, but I’m more interested in psychological crime.
What are your plans after publication? Is there another novel on the way, or maybe some non-fiction?
I’m working on a new novel and have finished a handful of short stories.