A Waterstones Exclusive Q&A with The Girls Author Emma Cline
"I think of every song and movie and book that taught me how to look at women and girls, but not how to be one."
A standout choice for our Fiction Book of the Month for May, debut novel The Girls is intense, heat-filled and brooding; as sensuous as it is brutal. We caught up with author Emma Cline to talk about creating an immersive Californian noir, honest depictions of female sexuality and that ever-tricky label, 'girl'.
The Girls is set in the summer of 1969, yet the feel of the book is in many ways timeless, existing in its own bubble and you eschew obvious references to very specific period allusions. How important is it that the book is located in this time and place? Do you feel the events of the book could be recreated in a contemporary setting?
I wanted to write a book that, although set in such a recognisable era, transcended the specifics of time and place. It was a tricky balance - how to create a vivid atmosphere while not relying too heavily on the clichés and cultural cues of 1969. I tried to focus on how this particular teenage girl would experience her own particular life, and that helped keep the book in the realm of the universal. I think the desire to be seen and known isn’t specific to any era - that seems true of adolescence no matter the time period.
The novel draws the reader inside the closed circle of a cultic community and also considers the wider social fascination with this sort of community, reflecting upon the mixture of revulsion, awe and prurient curiosity that surrounds it. Why do you think we remain so intrigued by the mystery of the cult?
For me, I’m drawn to cults and communes for the way they encapsulate the best and worst of human impulse. They both mirror normal life and exaggerate it, and in that way exaggerate the good and bad of the world they are trying to leave behind. And, in their way, these groups function like this highly pressurized kind of family unit. As a novelist, I like the opportunity to explore group dynamics and competitions, especially in such an intense setting.
As a novelist, you create vivid, sensual pictures for the reader; The Girls brims over with intense descriptions of scents and tastes: from the enveloping smell of honeysuckle to flat, warm coke that tastes to Evie like champagne and the sickly sweet smell of vegetables starting to rot in the sun. How important is this focus on powerful physical evocation to creating this book’s claustrophobic, enveloping feel?
I looked to other books and novels I’ve enjoyed that also build a very strong sensual atmosphere - books like The Virgin Suicides, where the descriptions create this immersive reading experience, almost like the book has its own weather system. I also wanted the descriptions to mimic some of the intensity of being a teenager, when everything is so new and vivid and the world feels deeply alive - its this very particular way of seeing, which can’t be sustained past that age. Thankfully - it would be too gruelling, as an adult, to imbue everything with symbol and meaning the way teenagers often do.
One of the book’s great strengths is the very real embodiment of how it feels to be a teenage girl: the complex mix of frustration, constriction, rebellion, insecurity and sexual frustration. At one point in the novel, Evie says: ‘I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe in yourself.” How much do you think the world has changed for teenage girls in America since the 1960’s?
There was a lot about that era that spoke specifically to the concerns of the novel - female relationships, the lack of sexual agency. At the same time, having a modern framing story was a way to think about what hasn’t changed since 1969, and what about this story might be universal. As opposed to Evie, Sasha is a character who has benefitted from growing up in contemporary America, with its supposed feminist progress. Writing the scenes between them in the novel was a way for me to think about what hasn’t changed, or consider what might connect this older woman and this young girl, despite the decades between them. I didn’t come to any hard or fast conclusions, which is one of the nicest things about being a novelist - I get to ask questions, create juxtapositions, without having to tie things up in any definitive way.
The book is particularly insightful in getting under the skin of female desire. Particularly the cognitive dissonance between women’s fantasies and their real experiences. Is this part of what fascinates you as a writer – the moments where desire outstrips reality, the place of vivid fantasy in our imagination and how it interplays with real life?
Definitely - I think that gap between fantasy and reality is what I’m drawn to in all my fiction, trying to explore that dissonance. It’s such a deeply human experience, that failure to see the world as it is. In the novel, so much of girlhood is connected to these myths and imaginings, almost like fairy tales of romance that stand in stark contrast to the girls’ actual experience of the world. Evie’s experience of the ranch is another example - as a teenager, she fills in all the blank spots and disappointments of this gross, kind of awful place, shaping it in her mind into this special and meaningful group. The reader, and the older Evie, can see that distance between the reality and the self-propelled mythology, but the teenage Evie can’t. I like those many layers of projection and dissonance.
Some reviewers have made much of the Manson case on which the book is based and the relationship between the girls in the novel and the cult’s leader Russell. For me the more interesting power dynamic was that between the girls themselves, particularly Evie’s relationship with Suzanne. How interested were you in tackling the less commonly addressed idea of women’s objectification of and desire for other women in this novel? It’s a crucial part of growing up and how women relate to each other, why do you think we’re reluctant to discuss it more openly?
I agree that the cult and the crime are the least important parts of the book - that was another challenge I set for myself, seeing whether I could write a book with such an intense setting while still foregrounding the psychological and emotional relationship between these two young women.
Lately, I have seen a lot more books that take on friendship as a subject, rather than a more traditional love story. Ferrante and Zadie Smith come immediately to mind, as well as books by Mary Gaitskill and Lorrie Moore. As a novelist, I’m interested in friendship as an unchartered realm—there are a lot of expectations and cultural codes around other types of relationships, like marriage or family bonds, and friendship is free of a lot of those societal pressures. It’s undefined, unknown, which allows for the murky power dynamics that are most exciting to me as a writer.
That objectification between the female characters was also something I thought a lot about - how do you render the viewpoint of these girls who grew up steeped in the vocabulary of male desire? I think of every song and movie and book that taught me how to look at women and girls, but not how to be one. What would it look like for an adolescent girl to have internalised that highly-sexualized gaze, and then also have all these fairytales about heterosexual romance? In Evie, it comes out through her hyper-focus on appearances, this sense that power is distributed or held based on surface qualities. It makes her a brutal judge of other women and girls, to her own detriment - she has bought into a value structure that leaves her alienated from her own experiences.
One of the things I liked most about the novel was the framed narrative; in particular the way Evie’s adult voice narrating her teenage experiences overlaid her teenage excitement, anticipation and self-doubt with a cocktail of adult regret, shame and sympathy for her younger self. How important was it that this be an adult’s perception of a teenager’s experiences?
An adult narrator gave me so much more freedom as a writer – teenagers are so locked into their immediate experience, without the benefit of hindsight, and I think a younger narrator would start to feel claustrophobic after a little while. I wanted the complexity of a narrator who can step outside her own reactions to explore a larger context. The novel is also so much about nostalgia, the distance between our memories and the reality, and an older narrator gets to comment on that distance and parse its meaning more than a teenager would be capable of.
There’s been a recent surge in the prevalence of books with ‘girls’ in their titles which are really books about adult women. Your book is unusual in its title matching its central characters but it’s a book that highlights the difficult space between girlhood and womanhood as well as considering the difference between how women and girls feel and how they are more frequently portrayed. To what extent is this book a response to the pressure upon women of all ages to achieve and remain within some nebulous ideal wrapped up in the label ‘girl’?
I liked The Girls as a title for both its blandness, its nebulousness, but also the whiff of infamy. It is a word that, as you point out, is often used as a placeholder or a label, and I liked the idea of interrogating that a bit, having this almost deceptively simple title paired with this very savage unpacking of what a teen girl’s psyche is actually capable of.
And yes, in a larger way, the book is very concerned with the labour of being female, being a 'girl' - that pressure is felt by almost every female character in the novel, from Evie to Suzanne to Evie’s mother to Sasha. They are imparted these instructions and models for how to properly fulfil the role of 'female' and that’s at the heart of a lot of Evie’s interest in Suzanne - this desire to unlock the secret or answer to how to properly perform gender.