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Listen Emma Cline reads from 'The Girls'
Jun 10, 2016
Listen Emma Cline reads an early chapter of 'The Girls'
Jun 10, 2016
Twenty-six-year-old Emma Cline recently became a publishing sensation when a bidding war erupted over her debut novel, "The Girls." Expected to be one of the summer's hot reads, it's the story of a 14-year-old girl embroiled in a Manson Family-like cult.
The book is set to be released Tuesday. Twin Cities book fans will be among the first in the country to hear Cline read when she visits Minneapolis Wednesday.
Cline said that after growing up in northern California, it just makes sense she would write a story like "The Girls," steeped as she was in what she calls the California mythology.
"Of which cults and communes are a big part," she said. "Still."
And of course she knew the story of the Manson Family, which stunned and terrified the world when its messianic leader sent his young female protégés to commit brutal murders. Cline had heard that tale told many times.
"But I felt like the women involved, and the girls, their story hadn't been told in a way I found interesting," she said. "Or fully human."
She also wanted to explore the moral ambiguity of someone on the periphery of sensational killings — "how it might feel to have had this brush with infamy," Cline said. "And how you would make sense of that for the rest of your life."
"The Girls" isn't the story of the Manson family. It's another story. It's about Evie, a bored 14-year-old in 1969. The story starts on a sticky summer day, when Evie notices a small gang of unkempt girls walking through the park. They seem carefree, almost feral, and Evie desperately wants to be like them, especially their leader, Suzanne.
Later, after the chain on Evie's bike breaks, the girls pick her up in their bus. They have been scavenging food for the commune, led by a would-be musician called Russell. He holds the girls in his thrall.
The girls begin to absorb Evie into their group.
I looked to Suzanne — even our brief history seemed to ratify my presence among them — but she was sitting off to the side, absorbed by the box of tomatoes. Applying pressure to the skins, sifting out the rot. Waving away the bees. It would occur to me later that Suzanne was the only one who didn't seem overjoyed to come upon me, there on the road. Something formal and distant in her affect. I can only think it was protective. That Suzanne saw the weakness in me, lit up and obvious: she knew what happened to weak girls."
Evie's obsessive and ambiguous relationship with Suzanne is central to the story. As Evie falls under her sensual spell, Suzanne does things that could be seen as selfless — or deeply selfish. Years later in the story, Evie is still trying to work out which.
Cline said it was useful to be able to switch between Evie as a girl and Evie as a woman, looking back.
"The thing about 14-year-olds is that everything is very black and white and there really is no room for gray areas," she said. While Evie at 14 is in the moment, Cline said that could be stifling as she tried to tell the story.
"Having an older voice gives you some perspective and allows Evie to be more thoughtful about what was happening, in a way that a teenager might not be," she said.
Cline said it was important that the book end ambiguously. In later life, Evie comes across a young woman who may be about to make some bad decisions of her own. But Cline doesn't want it to appear that Evie has learned anything from her experience.
"I find that more frightening, in a way, than books with a clear moral," she said. "Because I think that's more realistic to how evil operates, or how we experience the things that happen to us."
Twelve publishing houses bid on the manuscript for "The Girls," and the book has appeared on many newspaper and magazine summer reading lists. Cline will begin riding the publicity wave with her Talk of the Stacks appearance at the Minneapolis Central Library Wednesday evening. She's trying to keep it all in perspective.
"I try to think of all the stuff, all the noise, as not really being my business," she said. "I feel that my business is to write another book."
Which, with her new multi-million-dollar three-book contract, she is now doing.