Emma Cline’s writing career took off in 2014 when, at age 25, she sold her debut novel, The Girls, to Random House in a seven-figure deal. Back then, Cline’s main credentials were an MFA—she had just graduated from Columbia—and a Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review for her short story “Marion” (since collected in her second book, Daddy).
Now she’s a respected novelist about to publish her second novel and third book, The Guest (Random House, May). Like her past work, The Guest grapples with themes related to coming of age—namely the mingling loneliness, wonder, and danger of being on the cusp of adulthood.
Speaking via Zoom from a friend’s house in Marin County, Calif., Cline says of “Marion,” “It was totally the origin for The Girls.” The story follows a preteen who befriends an older girl and hangs out with her on a weed farm. Cline refined “Marion” in grad workshops, learning from writers such as Deborah Eisenberg and, in the process, fulfilling her long-held desire to write about her home state of California.
The Girls, about a cult modeled loosely on the Manson Family, takes place mainly in 1969 in the California city of Petaluma, which is near San Francisco but psychically removed from the Haight’s hippie bustle. In it, a bored and neglected 14-year-old Petaluma native latches on to a group of older girls living on a communal ranch after one of them takes her out there to visit. A critical and commercial hit, the novel was shortlisted for several prizes and won the Shirley Jackson Award.
“I was always drawn to this idea of a heightened closed community, and of that age when you first start to come up against the adult world,” Cline says. With her youthful energy and easy laugh, she seems to hold that age close. She wears a dark brown beanie and plain matching sweatshirt; white earbud cords coursing next to her blond braids give her the look of a student Skyping in the corner of a library. At the same time, she has the poise of the successful writer she’s become, balanced with a jokey self-awareness whenever she articulates an abstract “stoner thought” about what makes for good literature.
Despite the familiar themes in The Guest, its compressed timeline is a stylistic departure. Over five days, a 22-year-old woman named Alex seeks to extend her stay in Eastern Long Island after she’s put out by her host. As in The Girls, a loss of innocence, desire for acceptance, and self-delusion drive the story—but Alex, unlike the 14-year-old Evie, has already learned the ways of the world. When the reader meets her, she’s just taken a break from sex work in Manhattan, where the job is no longer earning her a passable living.
Compared to Evie, Alex does have more agency. Still, she’s in dire straits, her roommates in the city having kicked her out of her apartment for failing to pay rent. A “civilian” named Simon has been putting her up at his place on Long Island. He’s not a client, but their relationship feels transactional. She puts effort into sex, and he buys her expensive dresses and takes her out to fancy parties. But after some missteps on Alex’s part, he sends her packing.
Cue the self-delusion: Alex decides Simon wants her back in five days for his Labor Day party, and she proceeds to con her way through the next several nights with a series of strangers, drawing on her innate understanding of what people want.
Tonally, The Guest echoes Cline’s other work. There’s a dreamy quality to Alex’s perceptions and logic, which, thanks to a swimming pool featured in almost every scene, recalls John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” Cline perks up at the mention of Cheever’s short story, about a drunken middle-aged man named Neddy who thinks he still lives in his old house with his family and decides to journey there from a party across town by swimming through a series of local pools.
“I find it so disconcerting, the moment where he goes home and it’s all boarded up and he’s looking in the windows and it’s empty,” Cline says. “It’s this nightmare logic where you’re suddenly so far away from the life you thought you were living.”
Though Alex is much younger than Neddy, Cline sees a parallel. “There’s something about being in your early 20s,” she says, “the first time you come up against the feeling that things might count—that you can’t go on like this forever.”
Cline thinks the pared-down approach to The Guest was a reaction to her debut. “I had written a book that covered a great time period, back and forth in terms of present day and the past,” she says, adding that the dual timeline in The Girls allowed her narrator, Evie, to reflect on what made her hang out with a murderous cult. “Evie was very passive—someone whom the world acted upon. For The Guest, it was a lot about how I could limit the world and maintain the tension of a short story with a character who wasn’t experiencing themselves as a victim.”
Alex’s class consciousness, which signals when she should be of service and when to take advantage, highlights how she lives in a world delineated by wealth. “It’s a false reality,” Cline says. “Alex is somebody who is brought here specifically to prop up this fantasy. It allows people to believe they live in a world that they don’t actually live in.” Joking that she might be starting to sound like a stoner, she adds, “Like, it’s all fake, man.”
Cline says that when she writes, she’s not usually conscious of where the project is going, but looking back on The Guest, she’s aware of how her work has changed. She acknowledges someone else could have added “trauma math” to The Guest (“You know, this character was abused, or experienced X or Y”) to explain Alex’s manipulative and self-destructive behavior. But that kind of story doesn’t interest Cline. “The more I read and write, and the older I get” she says, “the more pushback I feel against tidy explanations for anything—especially human behavior.”
The lack of explanation in the book feels thrilling compared to so much contemporary fiction, as if Cline is breaking a cardinal rule. It’s a risk that pays off. The blank canvas allows readers the opportunity to reflect on the familiarity as well as the weirdness of Alex’s actions and experiences.
Discussing “The Swimmer” again, Cline explains why she’s drawn to fiction that leaves space for the reader to wonder why a character is the way they are: “I’m drawn more and more to narratives that, even if they’re drawing a circle around a person’s life, they’re not saying this is the entirety of this person’s story.” Catching herself drawing a circle with her fingers, she jokes that she’s sounding like a stoner again. “It’s inside the circle, man.”
Cline is open and generous in discussing her writing and her passions for reading and art—she gets excited talking about Picture Books, the publishing project she runs for the Gagosian Gallery, which pairs fiction by authors such as Sam Lipsyte, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Joy Williams with contemporary artwork—but she’s less keen to talk about her success. “I feel like anything in that realm has very little to do with me,” she says. “The writing is my business, and that’s where I get the most charge and pleasure.”
In Cline’s view, creative people must figure out how to protect themselves so they can be “vulnerable on the page,” or undertake the “very embarrassing and exposing work” of making art. For her, that means not worrying what people will say about her work. “It just isn’t helpful information to put in the brain.”
Having survived a major debut and all its attendant scrutiny, Cline still takes pleasure from writing, finding new problems to solve and new projects to focus on. The end is nowhere in sight.