Emma Cline’s Brilliant, Dark Mind

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the winter of 2018, the novelist Emma Cline flew from New York City to Los Angeles to see a friend for what was supposed to be a three-day trip. A few months earlier, a judge had thrown out a plagiarism lawsuit against her. She kept putting off returning to New York, moving her plane ticket until, she says, “it was just like, oh, I think I’m here, and I rented a place.” She’s been living in L.A. ever since.

“I like that it has no context, really,” Cline says of the city, via a Zoom call from her home in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. “I think New York is all about context. L.A. doesn’t have that cohesion, which can be freeing in its way.”

New York had been a lot for Cline. Now 31, she achieved literary fame at a breakneck pace. Five years after graduating from Middlebury College, she became one of the highest-paid debut authors in history when she sold The Girls, a novel about a Manson-style cult, to Random House in a three-book deal, reportedly for $2 million. (Hulu is currently adapting it as a limited series; originally snapped up by Scott Rudin before the manuscript was submitted to publishers, it’s now being produced by Cline and Helen Estabrook.) Upon the book’s publication in 2016, critic James Wood noted that Cline had been “apparently fast-tracked by the Muses.” The bestselling novel went on to win a Shirley Jackson Award and is now available in over 40 countries.

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In hindsight, although Cline seemed in many ways cut out for literary stardom—she’s young, photogenic and disarmingly charming—she says she wasn’t entirely prepared for the spotlight. “I understood wanting to write a book,” she says. “I didn’t understand what that would mean in the broader sense.” Her success was complicated by a lawsuit filed in 2017, in which a former boyfriend accused her of plagiarism. Although the judge dismissed the case a little less than a year later, the episode took a toll on her. “It was obviously immensely painful,” Cline says, choosing her words carefully. “I felt like I wouldn’t be able to write again because it was so difficult.”

Cline’s fiction is full of binaries pressing up against one another: youthful promise and life’s realities; success and failure; darkness and humor; external beauty and internal rot. A typical way she begins a story is to describe a place that seems initially perfect, until a character quickly, sometimes shockingly, realizes otherwise.

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As one of seven children growing up in Sonoma, California, in what she calls a “hothouse environment,” Cline stood out from her siblings by becoming a professional child actress, appearing in a short film called Flashcards and a TV movie, When Billie Beat Bobby. On one of her yearbook pages, she declared her life goal: to become a movie star.

When she was 13, she met Rodney Bingenheimer, a then-55-year-old deejay, with whom she says she maintained a yearlong correspondence. “I wrote down my mailing address, vibrating with pleasure. Some girls, even at thirteen, probably knew not to do things like that. I wasn’t one of them,” Cline wrote in a first-person essay for The Paris Review Daily in 2014. “When I was offered any attention, I took it, eagerly. I look at pictures of myself at that age and wonder how plainly it was encoded in my face, the flash of a message: see me.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)