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The summer must-read books to bring to the beach

June 27, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
It’s one of the great pleasures of lazy, hazy days on the beach or in the backyard: finally opening that book you’ve been meaning to get to. The NewsHour kicks off a week’s worth of summer reading suggestions, starting with Emma Cline’s much-anticipated debut novel, the Charles Manson-themed “The Girls.” Jeffrey Brown speaks with the author.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to one of summer’s great pleasures, tackling that book you have been meaning to get to.

Tonight, we begin a week’s worth of suggestions, beginning with one of the most eagerly anticipated debut novels of the year. In the first of a three-book deal with Random House author Emma Cline writes “The Girls,” the story of a charismatic Charles Manson-like figure, and the young women who were under his control.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with Cline at the recent BookExpo America in Chicago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us first — tell me first, where did the idea come from? Was it something always in your head?

EMMA CLINE, Author, “The Girls”: I’m from Northern California, where the book is set.

And I sort of grew up hearing all about the California mythology, sort of all the Manson stories, the communes and cults that are very endemic to that state. And so I really wanted some way to engage with it in a new way that wasn’t like the stories I had heard, which focused on the men. I was always more curious about the women involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is a lot in just what you said.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: So, let me go back first. The California mythology.

EMMA CLINE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re young, but, for you, these were myths.

EMMA CLINE: Right.

Both of my parents are Californians. They were the same age as my main character in the ’60s. Both lived in California. So I think, for them, these events were really cultural touchstones. So, growing up, I heard a lot about them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how much did you know? In detail or just sort of out there?

EMMA CLINE: First just generally, and then in detail. I think everyone that I know, anyway, sort of had that experience of reading “Helter Skelter” as like a teenager.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Manson story.

EMMA CLINE: Yes, and sort of feeling that it was a sordid, exciting thing that you were just drawn to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

EMMA CLINE: So, maybe when I was a teenager, I got more into it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when did you actually start writing it?

EMMA CLINE: I started writing it maybe four years ago now, but I was always sort of circling around the same ideas, always interested in communes and sort of extreme living situations and extreme moments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why?

EMMA CLINE: I think it’s what I like most reading about in fiction, sort of the edge of human experience, and I think communes sort of bring out the best and worst in people.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what kind of research did you do then? Did you go live on one?

EMMA CLINE: Sort of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

EMMA CLINE: I lived in a collective in college. It was very mild. Very nice.

But, no, I mean, I did research before I even knew it was research, just because it was something I — I was always interested in that era and sort of memoirs from that time. And there is so much of the ’60s still left over in California. We never quite recovered from the ’60s, so it’s lots of leftovers.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you start writing, do you set all the research aside, or do you keep it sitting there to use details?

EMMA CLINE: Yes, definitely, it’s like taking in so much information and then trying — just forgetting about that and trying to get at some tone that feels truthful.

I’m not so much interested in factual truth. This is not a Manson novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

EMMA CLINE: It’s sort of taking a germ from the Manson — and then really transposing that into something else.

And I hope this story is — stands on its own enough that it’s not seen as Manson novel, because, to me, it’s really the cult and the crime at the center, it’s not what the novel’s about. To me, it’s more about relationships.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, and it’s about the girls, the name, right, which is what you…

EMMA CLINE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to come back to what you said earlier.

EMMA CLINE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That you were not so interested in the ways these stories are normally told, which is through like the madman or the charismatic man.

EMMA CLINE: Right. Right. Yes. Exactly, which is such a familiar story.

Like, oh, he’s a charismatic sociopath, so like everyone is drawn to him. And to me, Charles Manson and people like him are actually pretty one-note, especially as characters in a novel. They’re sort of everyday psychopaths.

And I’m not — there is no ambiguity there for me. But the women, many of whom were homecoming queens and straight-A students, who end up following someone like that, to me, that’s where the story was.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because that goes to your — what you were saying about kind of the good and bad, or the extremes, that somehow people get thrown into it in a way they never would have expected.

EMMA CLINE: Right. Right. Yes.

I was thinking about it recently, because I had read a story about the sort of teenage girls in Europe who run away and join ISIS.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

EMMA CLINE: And it’s something that’s still — it’s still happening in these other ways.

It’s this strange combination of innocence, you know, teenage girls, and then this extremely, like, horrifying realm that you can’t understand what the draw is. And I wanted to sort of really get down to a granular psychological level of what is drawing girls to this sort of dangerous group.

JEFFREY BROWN: So then how did you create these characters? I mean, given that, you were trying to give them sort of a normal upbringing, right? Yes.

EMMA CLINE: Right.

It’s sort of trying to figure out what could be the milieu that someone is coming from where this other group starts to seem magnetic? And that’s like maybe there is trouble at home or — and I think all teenagers have that desire to be seen and known. And if you feel like you aren’t being seen, and then there is someone who does see you or feels — you know, you feel yourself reflected back, I think that’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. Yes.

So, because this is your first novel, I mean, you are clearly — you were clearly learning as you wrote it, right? Is that fair to say?

EMMA CLINE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what was the — I think people would be interested in what was the hardest part of — was it plotting, was it character? Was it — what was it?

EMMA CLINE: I mean, the whole thing was a struggle, and only, like, in the last week was I, like, oh, this is a book. but up until that last week, I was, like, this is a mess.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? You had a moment where you said, finally, this is a book?

EMMA CLINE: Yes, there was a moment when it felt like a book to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did that mean?

EMMA CLINE: I don’t know. I could see it. Sort of it, it had a completeness, whereas before it was sort of, you know, loose.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, what’s next? Are you working on…

EMMA CLINE: I’m working on a novel. I’m still in the early days of it, but I’m very happy to be on to something new.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are?

EMMA CLINE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it coming easier this time or is any…

EMMA CLINE: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: No.

EMMA CLINE: That’s what I thought. I thought, if you it did once, then you sort of knew how to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now I know how to do it.

EMMA CLINE: But I feel like, every new book, you know, you’re struggling anew, which — yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, happy struggle.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is “The Girls.”

Emma Cline, thank you so much.

EMMA CLINE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You can watch many more of Jeff’s author interviews from BookExpo America and other book festivals. You will find those at the Web site, PBS.org/book-view-now.



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