In an Emma Cline story, by the time the worst happens, you're grateful for it – anything to break that exquisite tension, anything to get you to the place where you're facing head-on the world as it burns. If the 28-year-old novelist has a signature, it's her ability to make dread feel gorgeous, even pleasurable. Her ecstatically received 2016 debut, The Girls, is infused with a luscious, almost erotic foreboding; you know something terrible is going to happen, and you luxuriate in the anticipation of it.
It's a rare gift to be able to make the inevitable feel mysterious, but one you really need if you're going to tackle The Girls' subject matter. Set in the summer of 1969, the novel tells the story of a California teenage searcher, Evie Boyd, who gets caught up with a cult that commits a multiple homicide in the Hollywood Hills. What could have read like a facile re-imagining of the Manson murders, perhaps America's most notorious crime, felt instead – in its intimacy, urgency and exploration of themes like the insidiousness of new-age culture and the cost of systemic patriarchy – very current. Though Cline says she wasn't aiming at the zeitgeist, she has just always been interested in communes, cults and the romanticism-gone-to-seed of that life. "It begins with an image of decay in the midst of a beautiful landscape," the author says of the images that inspire her stories. "Or something dark set against great idealism or purity."
Cline had no book deal when she completed The Girls in the summer of 2014. She had moved east from Sonoma – where she grew up the eldest of seven kids, six of them girls, on her parents' vineyard – to attend Middlebury at 16 and then Columbia grad school, and wrote the whole thing in a friend's converted garden shed near Gowanus in Brooklyn.
"I didn't really think much beyond the moment of finishing it," she says. "I sat in the yard for a little bit and really felt like, 'Oh, I just finished my novel. This is the last private moment I'll get with it.' That was probably my favorite part of the whole experience of having a book in the world." The manuscript sparked a bidding war, earning Cline a reported two-million-dollar, three-book deal with Random House. Its success positioned her as a kind of wunderkind, one of those rare oracles who seem uniquely tapped into the anxieties and ecstasies of their particular generation, like Bret Easton Ellis, J.D. Salinger or S.E. Hinton.
As such, on a book tour in Europe back in the summer of 2016, Cline – who conveys a measured seriousness in conversation, but also seems like she'd be fun to drink with – was regularly asked to weigh in on current affairs, which at that point meant the presidential campaign. "I thought it was very peculiar, because I'm a novelist," she remembers. "I had an opinion on Trump, but was it helpful?"
You can understand why so many wanted to hear her thoughts on the phenomenon of our almost mythically villainous president: The Girls explores how much of America's past has proven to be prologue, particularly as it pertains to being young and female in this country. (The issues of gender and power also attach themselves to an ongoing legal battle with an ex-boyfriend who claims Cline plagiarized sections of The Girls.)
But the author is not really into the idea of herself as a spokesperson for anything other than what you can read on the page. "I trust in my writing and not much else," says Cline, who is currently working on a few new short stories, and "circling around" a second novel. "I like to think the best of me is in there. Or that's the salient information."
Asked if she'd ever seen D.A. Pennebaker's Bob Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back, in which Dylan so masterfully parries journalists' questions about being the voice of his generation, she brings up another 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentleman … Mr. Leonard Cohen, which she watched "back to back" with the Pennebaker, marveling at "these two men on either side of being famous. Like, Leonard Cohen is not yet famous," she continued.
"He's just famous enough to still think it's going to solve all his problems. He's so happy to be having this documentary made about him. He's so preening it's really pretty unbearable. You can just see that he feels like it will be an upward trajectory, it's going to get better and better, and his problems will dwindle in relation to this experience. He has no idea what's coming." She laughs. "Bob Dylan has already had all of that. And he now has this terrible disillusionment, this awareness that it's just pain."