Guest of Honor

Emma Cline Discusses the Cult of Her Hit First Novel

"The Girls," author reflects on how the beauty and darkness of California influenced her writing, and on why she's more interested in characters that don't learn from their pasts.

Photo Credit: Megan Cline

Emma Cline is author of “The Girls,” this season’s hottest literary debut. The New York Times describes it as, “A seductive and arresting coming-of-age story… told in sentences at times so finely wrought they could almost be worn as jewelry.”

The novel’s protagonist is Evie Boyd. She’s an unremarkable middle-aged woman reminiscing about a summer back in the 1960s, when she was 14 and got caught up in a Manson-like cult in Northern California. Just as the hippie dream was shifting into a nightmare.

Interview Highlights:

On why she set the book in the pretty well-documented world of Manson’s California

Emma Cline: Because I’m from California, so it really speaks to me as a setting for a novel especially. Northern California is such a weird little ecosystem, particularly, and in a lot of ways, it’s still dealing with the ’60s. So I liked writing a book that interrogated the idealistic vision we have of what the ’60s is, and I think the Manson family is a pretty good way to undercut that peace and love.

On focusing her research on the little details of everyday cult life

I guess for me, what I was looking for in research was more just little details that had some twerk to them. Where you’d read it and it would illuminate something. I guess what I always wanted to know more about was just day-to-day life. I think when you hear about an infamous crime or something, there’s a way where everyone has the general movements in mind. Everyone knows what they are. But, sort of the days leading up to it before anybody knew what was happening, that’s sort of what I wanted to think about more.

Even stuff just like what they ate or that [when] they ate, they had to pass dishes in a certain direction. Just things which make no real sense.

On why she had her protagonist, Evie Boyd looks back at her cult life from present to the past


I always wanted an older narrator. Because, to me, what was most interesting is that tension between the past and the present. And, especially nostalgia and the way we think about the past. And what would it mean if this one summer had maybe been the most important summer of your life? What story would you tell yourself for the rest of your life about what that had meant?

And I think I’m also interested in the people who were peripherally involved in major events, from the ’60s and other eras. And sort of what that means to them in the present day.

On why she Eve’s present is unremarkable compared to her fond memories of her cult life

I think we have this expectation in reading a book or seeing a movie, that people will — if they undergo something horrible, like being peripherally involved in this cult — they’ll learn something at the end. But I really like the idea of having a character who didn’t learn anything and who actually maybe missed that time.

And just to have there be no redemptive meaning, necessarily. That felt to me more true to how life operates often, which is these things happen to us and we struggle to make meaning out of them, but they never really hue to any narrative line.

On how her California upbringing influenced her writing

I think that’s why I was drawn to writing about the ’60s because you’re still dealing with them in Northern California. Sonoma County, especially. Like there’s still sort of the remnants of communes and groups. They have websites now. That might be the main difference [laughs]. They’re selling hammocks online. I don’t know.

And then, you know, just, all the people who moved there in the back land movement who then had children, who are the people I grew up with. So that’s been interesting, I think, sort of navigating.

In New York, especially, I experience this everyday, it’s like you’re surrounded by people so you’re constantly made aware of the social contract. And you sort of know, “Like wait, let everyone off the train.” There’s all these ways which you understand which you’re living with a group of people, and you have to adjust your behavior accordingly. In California, there’s so many open spaces… I think it breeds a certain kind of craziness. Or it attracts a certain kind of weirdo who wants freedom. But then, even the landscape… it’s so beautiful. It’s such unreal beauty.

But it is almost actively trying to kill you [laughs]. There’s like earthquakes. You have valley fever. You have these beautiful beaches, people are always drowning. Some guy in Bolinas, I think, just got bit by a shark for the second time. You’re like, “Dude, no more! Give it up.”

On her unique writing style, which is filled with creative verbs, adjectives, and precise spot on observations

I never really thought of it as so different or not usual. And I think a lot of it — why I sort was drawn to that style — was from reading things that were out of my age range, you know?

So you hear the way things sound but you don’t quite know they mean. Like, I remember I was reading Cormac McCarthy and I circled this word. And I was like this is a beautiful world. But, it’s so evocative. And I was like, “Sil-ent, the sil-ent hills.” Like, “Wow, silty hills! Beautiful!” And then I like came across it a few years later and I had circled it so many times and I was like, “What’s silent?” I just circled the word silent. So I think it’s like almost a slight glitch in my brain.

On why the public is still fascinated by cults and why it keeps appearing in pop culture

I don’t know, exactly. I wonder if it’s like an enhanced desire for community. Because things are so fragmented right now. Politically and socially. But I’m not sure, either. And I mean they’re interesting for artists, I think, because they operate in a lot of ways like families operate. They’re little microcosms of society. So I think that’s interesting.

For me, they’re like hotbeds of hypocrisy, which I love writing about. Especially coming from Northern California [laughs]. That, to me is like the little vein that runs.

This grand idealism, undermined by petty humanity. Like, “Oh, we want to group beyond racism. We’re all about love. We’re going to create a new society. And then everyone’s like, who is washing the dishes?!?” Like I love those two things together. It’s a ludicrous combination.

[Ed note: Didn’t hear Brendan ask our “2 Standard Questions” of author Emma Cline in the interview? Fear not! You can listen to them below.]


[This interview has been edited and condensed.]