“I think I'm really drawn to extremes as a writer,” says Emma Cline. “Extreme situations or extreme characters, because part of me just wants to know, what is it like? What is the human experience of that like in that moment?”
Cline is video calling me from Brooklyn where she is visiting a friend. She is softly spoken and pensive – in a good way – good-naturedly apologising for not being in the sunnier climes of her native California; a state she may be perennially associated with, thanks to her 2016 debut The Girls and her follow-up collection of short stories, Daddy, both of which delve into the icy shadows of the golden state – the extremes.
It was The Girls which firmly established Cline as one of the most exciting new literary talents. The novel was a New York Times bestseller and one of the most talked-about books of the year: an eerie depiction of one lost girl’s Californian summer in 1969 as she finds herself embroiled with a group that may or may not be inspired by the infamous Manson Family. She was in many ways an inheritor of Joan Didion’s style and subject matter; a writer who herself covered the Manson murders in 1969 and who was also drawn to ‘extremes’.
Cline’s long-awaited second novel, The Guest, is no different. Swapping California for The Hamptons, it follows Alex, a mysterious sex worker who is, in Cline’s own words ‘Mr Ripley-ing’ her way through East Coast fine society. Set over one claustrophobic summer week, the narrative follows a woman on a survival mission, as Cline draws the reader into Alex’s increasing desperation, like an agile – often amoral – rat stuck in a maze.
“Alex was the starting point for the novel, which I then built around her,” Cline explains. “I knew I wanted her to be different to Evie (The Girls’s protagonist) who was only fourteen and still very much at the mercy of outside forces. I wanted to write a character who at least presented herself as somebody who was in control of every room she walked into.”
The tragedy of Alex is, of course, that she is no less at the mercy of outside forces than Evie. In this way, Cline calls both novels explorations of the limitations of female power in a patriarchal world. Forced to hustle her way through a relentlessly cruel coterie of characters and situations, as an outsider gaining an aerial view of the Hamptons set, Alex is both imbued with the power and powerlessness that situation affords. “This is a beautiful place that's still so controlled by certain power dynamics and old ideas,” says Cline. “I was really curious about what would happen to a character in that community who really didn't belong? How would they move through that world? I realised that there is a weird power that you get when people don't really see you, either – they kind of fill in the blanks about who you are. You could be anyone.”
Alex, as is expertly illustrated by the nature of her career, is an adept shape-shifter. She becomes whoever she is needed to be by the person she is with. Cline’s mastery of this narrative is how much she sits back and allows us to experience Alex in this way – never quite one thing or another, a woman so up to her neck in her own self-delusions and finely crafted personas that she might, in the end, have no idea who she really is.
We return again to Cline’s self-confessed darkness. She is, contrary to her own personality, which is warm, humble and sweetly-funny, not a happy writer. “Oh, for sure,” she laughs again. “The fiction I like is when our darkest impulses, the things we try to keep other people from knowing about us, are explored. I think that’s the most interesting place to drop into someone's mind.”
She is after all, the writer who got into the mind of Harvey Weinstein for her acclaimed New Yorker short story ‘White Noise.’ Set over one sleepless night before the final day of his trial, she afforded him snapshots of both empathetic humanity and grotesque barbarism. Overall, it was another masterful example of Cline’s ability to sit back and present her literary monsters to us without judgement.
There are myriad more characters like this in Daddy, many of them specifically navigating a post #MeToo landscape: disgraced magazine editors, Hollywood bosses having affairs with their nannies, privileged men abusing their privileges and, frequently the women they are involved with. In what feels like a redundant question to ask the woman who set her first novel within the cult of Charles Manson, I ask her if she is drawn to anti-heroes.
“Yes, I've grown to distrust tidy narratives or endings or any kind of character arcs,” Cline laughs. “I don't want to kind of write a thesis about power and you know, have it all very clear who's good, who's bad, like, this is the moral takeaway. I’m grateful that fiction is free from that. It is an almost amoral space where you can work things out – even dark things – safely and creatively and trust your readers to experience it and come to their own conclusions.”
What remains consistent between Cline’s three main literary outputs thus far is her indefatigable sense of style. She is that curious thing – a writer who manages to write novels as though they are short stories, infusing a near 400-page book with the heady atmosphere of a four-page yarn. “I’m glad you said that,” she smiles. “I’m always trying to see how I can maintain that kind of emotional tone, that 'vibe', over longer prose, because often a novel can feel much more surgical than a short story – there are so many parts you have to be in control of!”
Cline pulls this off perhaps because she is so led by imagery. What began The Guest, Cline tells me, was: “This image I had of a woman being out in the ocean. There are people waiting for her onshore and she has this feeling that as soon as she goes back to land, she is going to be in some horrible trouble. So, she is wishing she could kind of stay out in the ocean forever.” Indeed, what that single snapshot became, was an entire novel about a woman treading water, trying frantically not to drown.
Whatever Cline does next, and she is currently writing what she enigmatically calls “something,” there is no doubt it will be as eerie and compelling as what she has penned thus far. Oh, and undoubtedly a little extreme.
The Guest, by Emma Cline (£18.99, Vintage) is out now.
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