Emma Cline: ‘We are forced to imagine what’s going on in the minds of men’ | Emma Cline

4

theguardian

In the many photos of Emma Cline that appeared in the media in 2016, when her hugely successful first book, The Girls, was published, she tended to look both severe and fragile, guarded yet also exposed. Not since the publication of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth in 2000 had a young woman made such a splash with a debut literary novel and, as with Smith, people were as fascinated by the author as they were with her book. Cline, then 27, was paid an almost unprecedented $2m advance, and the film rights sold before the book was even published. She was photographed in Vogue, interviewed by the New Yorker, feted everywhere. Yet she always looked like she was holding her breath, as if she was watching something terrible approach on the horizon. So I’m a little surprised to be greeted by a relaxed and smiling young woman on my computer screen when Cline, now 31, and I connect by Zoom.

“I’m editing a novel that I wrote last year, but only in fits and starts. I haven’t been working in a concentrated way, and I’m very jealous of people who have been. I just feel tremendously stupid, like I’ve lost all personality,” she laughs, when I ask how she’s been spending lockdown. “I was hoping to turn in a final draft by the end of the summer, but time has gone so sticky.”

Cline is talking to me from her home in Los Angeles, where she’s been living on her own for the past five months, since moving from New York in March. “Which was a very strange time to move. I’d been in New York for nine years, and I love it so much, but it’s also a place where you’re very aware of [everyone’s] social context, professional context. That can be what’s so wonderful about it, that you have this cohesive experience of living when you’re in New York, and in LA it’s much more choppy. But it’s also free of context in a way I really like,” she says. As in The Girls, with its woozy yet precise evocation of 1969 Los Angeles, Cline has a way of describing things that feels both elegantly casual and satisfyingly beady.

We are talking today ahead of the publication of her first collection of short stories, called Daddy, although none of the stories in the book has that title. “The word has this very innocent sweet meaning, but it has also come to take on all this cultural baggage, this weird psychosexual identity stuff about power dynamics. I see [those subjects] coming up in my own work, over and over again.”

In The Girls, Cline fictionalised the Manson family, focusing – as the title suggests – on the women, rather than the male cult leader. In Daddy, Cline turns her attention mainly to men. The stories were written over a decade, but she realised when editing them together that the overall theme in the book is “the twilight years of a certain male figure”, she says. In the opening story, “What Can You Do with a General”, a formerly violent father, now wearied with age, endures the disrespect of his adult children. (The title comes from a song of the same name, from the 1954 film White Christmas, about the irrelevance of a retired army general.) In “Son of Friedman”, a former movie executive faces the disappointments of his older years, including a more successful friend and a disappointingly unsuccessful son:

It was almost embarrassing how fervently George had believed that everything would continue to get better and better, life a steady accrual of successes, of moments becoming only more vivid and more pleasurable. Then George got divorced and moved to New York, after which his career slowed down, gradually and then all at once.

In “Menlo Park”, Ben, who has been publicly shamed for something unspecified, attempts to start over as a ghost writer, using prescription drugs to forget about how he destroyed his own life.

“That was one of the last stories I wrote and it probably feels the most connected to things that happened recently,” she says, referring to the #MeToo movement. “It wasn’t a conscious thing [to write about men], but I think it’s a function of living in this society, you’re forced to imagine what’s going on in the minds of men,” she says.

The stories are largely told from the male perspective, so the reader is privy to how they view their behaviour: “When [the waitress] retreated, leaving Richard alone with his son and the crying girl, it occurred to him, with the delayed logic of a dream, that the waitress must have thought he was the bad guy in all this,” a father thinks in “Northeast Regional”, after bullying his teenage son’s girlfriend in a restaurant.

“I think just living life as a woman, you get a pretty good sense [of how men think], unfortunately,” Cline says. Yet she presents her male figures without judgment. “I’ve always been interested in the stories people tell themselves, how they see themselves. That’s something that’s been more in the air recently, as men especially have had to apologise publicly and present their self-narratives. I’m not interested in excoriating my characters, where you and the reader can feel some moral superiority to them. I’m trying to replicate something of their inner lives. I always go back to my own consciousness, what it feels like to be inside a head, and I want to give everyone the benefit of having that totality,” she says.

Cline’s generosity towards these men is especially remarkable, given that she has written about her own experiences of being sexually harassed: the writer who groped her after she won a literary prize, the photographer who harangued her to pose on a bed until she started to cry, the boyfriend who choked her during a fight.

“I think with the violence I experienced, physical or another kind, if you extract a moral from it, it almost validates it as something that had a bigger meaning, something that followed logic, and if there’s one thing I know about humans, it’s that they don’t follow logic.” Instead, she says, people act in ways “that are motivated by aggression or fear.” She has no time for the currently popular theory that to write about such men accords them a dignity and attention they don’t deserve.

“Reading and writing are not endorsement. I keep going back to curiosity, and the idea that you wouldn’t be interested in how these men think of themselves is very bizarre to me, especially when the culture is fascinated by these men.”

Cline plays on this cultural fascination most obviously in a story that isn’t in Daddy, but was published by the New Yorker in June: “White Noise”, which fictionalises the inner life of Harvey Weinstein the night before his trial verdict. At first, Weinstein seems simply pathetic, padding about on his own in the dark, imagining his triumphant comeback. Then he remembers how he used to bully people into giving him things they did not want to give: “Some people resisted, some people did not. Some people went still, unmoving; some people started laughing, out of discomfort. He enjoyed it all, even these milder victories – it was like different flavours of ice-cream. And, ultimately, he was always sated, the other person breathing hard, squinting, shifting, some new shame in her face.”

One of the lawyers who worked for Weinstein was the American attorney David Boies, who helped Weinstein hire private investigators who went on to dig up dirt on his female accusers to discredit them. Boies was also the lawyer for an ex-boyfriend of Cline’s, who in 2017 accused her of plagiarising his work in a draft of The Girls. In May of that year, Cline received a 110-page draft complaint, with Boies’s name at the top of it, which included 13 pages of private conversations between Cline and former partners, as well as intimate photos of her. They had been taken from an old computer of hers that now belonged to the ex-boyfriend, and the lawyers claimed they contradicted Cline’s account of how she had been treated by him during their relationship.

There was a breathtaking irony that an author whose debut novel was about how men exploit women should then herself be exploited in this way. Eventually, the private sexual details were removed from the complaint, and in 2018 a judge dismissed the allegations of plagiarism. “There was never any period of [The Girls’] publication where [the case] wasn’t happening,” Cline says, which at least partly explains her look of strain in the photos from that time.

This is the first big interview Cline has done since the case was dismissed, and her hands fidget as she senses the topic coming, but her voice remains steady. She says the Boies connection had nothing to do with her interest in Weinstein, but agrees the allegations against her “broadened my understanding of how dark things can be”: “If you’d asked me before, does that happen still, that you could weaponise things like that against a woman in this moment, I would have resisted that idea. So to see it play out was very surprising and obviously painful.”

Using a woman’s sexual past against her is always meant to provoke shame, and I ask Cline if she felt that, or if she was able to see it at the time as an outrageous abuse of power. “Whatever traits push you to being a writer are probably connected to being hypersensitive and feeling like you’re open to the world. So in no way did I feel well protected. It was very hard not to experience it like a total assault,” she says.

‘When I was editing all the stories together I did think: Oh shit, is my worldview this bleak?’ Photograph: Brad Torchia/The Guardian

Cline loathes the cliche that the experience might have made her stronger – “I feel like that’s a way of retroactively validating it” – but she does feel that it taught her something: “I’m no longer attached to the idea of having a certain kind of response from other people to my work.” Being publicly accused “forces you to carve out a space where you feel solid about yourself and your work, and I feel like I’ve got there”.

Cline was born and raised in northern California. She was the second of seven children, and she makes an apologetic laugh at the size of her family. “My parents come from big families, but I wonder about it so much, what it must have been like to have seven children in 10 years,” she says. Growing up in such a big family had obvious effects on her – an interest in group dynamics, a need for her own space – and also less obvious ones.

“We were an unwieldy group to take out in the world, so we never went on vacation. By default, we were quite isolated in our family unit, and that led me to reading and wondering so much about what the world was like, and what other families were like, and that led to acting,” she says.

Cline appeared in short films when she was younger, “but writing always felt much more natural to me”, she says. “I went to a very new school which was very open to contemporary fiction, and my success rate on reading the classics is still very low. Instead I read Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill and Steven Millhauser – things I could connect to. And that made writing feel a lot more possible as something I could do.”

While studying at Columbia she wrote a short story, “Marion”, which appears in Daddy, and which won the prestigious Plimpton prize from the Paris Review. Then she wrote The Girls. It looked, from the outside, like an effortless sunny rise to literary glory. Until, suddenly, dark shadows loomed.

Daddy is very different from The Girls, its style more crisp than the earlier novel’s dreaminess. But it does share with its predecessor a feeling of dread: in every story, there is a heavy sense of a shoe about to drop.

“When I was editing all the stories together I did think: ‘Oh shit, is my worldview this bleak?’” she says with a laugh. “It’s definitely not how I experience life moment to moment. But do I see things that lead me to believe that often the forces behind how we live our lives are ominous, or have a quality of darkness? That checks out to me.”

Daddy is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Source link

Comments are closed.