Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, reimagines a Manson-like cult from the perspective of a self-conscious adolescent girl.
Though you’ve thoroughly reinvented it, your plot clearly nods to the Manson Family and their murders. What drew you to that subject?
I’m from northern California and grew up hearing all those stories of communes and seekers—the Manson Family is such a huge part of California mythology. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter was in everyone’s house. We weren’t supposed to read it, but we did—it was endlessly fascinating, with some of the illicit thrill of pornography.
Tell us why you chose to focus not on Russell Hadrick, the cult’s leader, but on the women around him?
I think we all are sick of the charismatic sociopath by now. In contrast, I never felt I knew enough about the Manson women. I was probably 15 or 16 when I read Helter Skelter again, and a lot of the girls in the Manson story were only a few years older than I was at that time. I wanted to know more about their psychology, about what would lead these young women from “normal” families, who had been homecoming queens and straight-A students, into this horrifying other realm. No books really answered the questions I had about them.
Your protagonist, Evie Boyd, is 14 in 1969. The novel juxtaposes her experiences then with sequences from her middle age. Was that structure always part of your vision?
Yes. One thing about being a teenager is that you have absolutely no perspective on your emotions—there’s no edge. I wanted an adult voice that could comment and contextualize.
I also liked the idea of expanding the narrative timeline beyond a single, immediate event to see what the real echoes are. How does a tragedy reverberate decades later? The events of 1969 were a formative experience for her, but Evie also has to forge a life, and I wanted to see the way those earlier events might tint that later life.
Evie has an ambiguous relationship with the group—not quite either member or outsider. How did that play into your vision of the story?
I wanted to write a character who had a new perspective on a familiar story. What would it feel like to be on the periphery of a famously gruesome event but not have the comfort of a resolution, of being pronounced guilty or innocent? There’s a moral ambiguity there I find interesting. Nobody ever tells someone like Evie what their participation meant, so they have to struggle to form their own meaning. I read a lot about people who had spent time with the Manson Family or other infamous cults—in some ways, the defining event of their lives was just having been in proximity to history. That’s such an odd and interesting relationship to have to your own life, I think.