EMMA CLINE‘s debut novel sparked a bidding war that resulted in a $2 million advance. She tells
SARAH BREEN what inspired this summer’s most hyped book …
Last October, Random House saw off eleven other bidders to acquire the literary rights to 25-year-old Emma Cline’s first three novels, beginning with The Girls. Set in California during the summer of 1969, the story centres on 14-year-old Evie, who, after becoming infatuated with an older girl, is absorbed into a hippie commune led by a manipulative drifter named Russell. It’s an evocative, coming-of-age tale that culminates in several murders, much like the real life events surrounding the Manson Family cult. Deservedly, it’s one of the summer’s most hyped releases although Cline, who won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2013 for her essay Marion, remains reassuringly grounded.
“My younger sister Hilary read many versions of the novel,” says the Columbia graduate who writes in a renovated garden shed in Brooklyn. “One nice thing about sisters is their endless patience with terrible drafts. She is in many ways my ideal reader, so her response is a good gauge for me about what’s working and what’s not.”
I was a big reader and I think a lot of that came from being one of seven children – reading and writing was something I could do on my own, and was a way to carve out a private space amongst all those kids.
Growing up in a large family, Cline spent much of her childhood engrossed in books and her appetite for fiction was wide and varied. “I was a big reader and I think a lot of that came from being one of seven children – reading and writing was something I could do on my own, and was a way to carve out a private space amongst all those kids,” she says. “I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and Anne of Green Gables. As a teenager, I was lucky enough to have a writing teacher who gave me books of contemporary short stories. It was helpful to realise that people were still writing books, that it wasn’t just novels written a long time ago. In high school, I loved Lorrie Moore and Stephen Millhauser – very different writers, but similar in that they each have a very recognisable mood and tone: almost theatrical.”
Like the book’s protagonist, Cline hails from northern California. Although unlike Evie, her upbringing was comfortable, thanks to her family’s farms and vineyards, including the 350-acre winery, Cline Cellars. (Her paternal grandfather was Valeriano Jacuzzi – yes, he of the hot tub fame.) “The landscape in Sonoma is beautiful – rolling hills and oak trees and vineyards,” she says. “There’s a mix of winemakers, foodies, dairy farmers, old hippies, and tourists. Because I was part of such a large family, things were chaotic but interesting – life was never boring.”
The leftovers of the 1960s are still so much a part of the collective consciousness of California, especially where I’m from. I noticed that women and girls of that era were often relegated to bit players in narratives with men at their centre.
According to Cline, the inspiration for The Girls was borne from her desire to see life in the swinging sixties from a female perspective. “The leftovers of the 1960s are still so much a part of the collective consciousness of California, especially where I’m from,” she says. “I noticed that women and girls of that era were often relegated to bit players in narratives with men at their centre. I wanted a way to engage with those western myths in a way that wasn’t familiar, and to do so through the lens of girlhood.”
In researching the book, she was able to find plenty of source material close to home. “It’s such a fascinating moment, and there are so many great books and movies and interviews from that era,” she says. “A lot of it was also just proximity and family history: my parents were around the same age as Evie in 1969, and I grew up hearing about California, and their memories and touchstones. Having so many younger sisters definitely influenced the way I write about teenage girls, but nothing is directly taken from my own life.”
I’m very happy ceding control of the whole realm of the film project to other people.
Naturally, the film rights for The Girls have already been snapped up. Producer Scott Rudin (Angela’s Ashes, Steve Jobs, The Social Network) will be at the helm and Cline is fine taking a back seat: “I’m very happy ceding control of the whole realm of the film project to other people.”
So what about the difficult follow-up to one of this year’s most anticipated debuts? “I’m in the early days of a new novel, and have been working on a handful of short stories,” is all Cline will say for now. She’s probably one of the very few people who won’t be reading The Girls on the beach this summer. In its place, her personal recommendations are Homegoing – “an amazing and important novel by Yaa Gyasi” and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler – “a lush, intense book set in a New York restaurant”. Or you could just read The Girls like everyone else.
The Girls (Random House, €17.99) is out now.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our September issue, out Saturday September 3.
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