“I think it’s pretty fun to drop into a consciousness that operates without the societal checks and balances,” Emma Cline told The New Yorker earlier this year. Indeed, the author’s work revels in probing the deviance latent within people: the lies to others, the justifications to oneself, the behaviors that go just too far. It’s something that shaded The Girls, her widely lauded 2016 debut novel about an antsy fourteen-year-old girl on the fringes of a Charles Manson-esque cult in 1969. Even beyond its pages, the novel made a splash, garnering an exceptionally high advance, instant grab for film rights (it’s currently in development as a limited series at Hulu), and a nasty legal dispute with a vindictive ex-boyfriend over copyright. In Daddy, her first collection of short stories, Cline conjures uneasy situations out of quotidian settings, underscoring the perverse nature that both surrounds and lies within us. The characters vary in age and circumstance but collectively feel themselves to be overlooked or misperceived—by their partners, their bosses, their families—and ultimately warp their actions in subtle but troubling ways. ELLE.com speaks to Cline about willful omission, binary thinking, and the narrative power of the unresolved.Many of these stories have been published before: three in Granta, two in The Paris Review, two in The New Yorker. What does it add, or solidify, to group these together now?In thinking about what stories to put in a collection, I’m basically looking for resonance: Are there themes, situations, or incidents that deepen by proximity to each other? Is there something about the tone or world of the story that interacts in some way with this other story? Even though these were written over a decade, I like seeing how much they echo or build off each other—it feels affirming that there is some subterranean consciousness at work in my writing, drawing me back to certain themes and concerns.
Why the title Daddy?The word felt apt as an ambient tone to set for the reader. “Daddy” has multiple shades of meaning and inflection: It’s a word that can be very innocent or freighted with psychosexual implications, can be both glib and serious, and I enjoyed that multiplicity as a way to talk about these stories, the family dynamics and gender relations at work here.A lot of the stories end abruptly, or have a sense of ellipsis in which unclear but obviously sinister things have happened. How do you use intimation as a writing device? Giving space in a story—either by eliding completely or keeping it vague—asks for collusion from the reader. If you leave a void, the reader rushes in to fill it. Especially when you are writing about extreme things, asking for that participation from the reader, even if it’s subconscious for them, can be an effective way of deepening the impact. For example, in “Northeast Regional,” you never know quite what the son has done to be expelled. But I think some readers will imagine for themselves what that might be, and it would be more disturbing to them than anything I could imagine. In terms of ending the stories on an uncertain note, that feels more true to how I experience the world—we don’t get these tidy narrative arcs in our own life, moments that we can tie off neatly with a bow. More often, life feels messy and ungraspable, hard to pin down. I like fiction that reflects that reality. There’s a lot of loaded discourse about what an author should or shouldn’t do these days. You’ve summarized your approach as “not thinking much at all about the implications of the story.” Has your take on author responsibilities shifted in the era of cancel culture?Fiction is so mysterious to me, and occupies a place of ambiguity. Dualistic thinking has an obvious and necessary place in so many parts of human life, but for me, less so in writing fiction. I think that’s a great blessing of fiction, the exploration of gray areas, or even the exploration of consciousnesses that we might find repugnant or immoral. Zadie Smith said it very succinctly in a recent essay: “The people we now cast into this place of non-interest were once the very people fiction was most curious about. The conflicted, the liars, the self-deceiving, the willfully blind, the abject, the unresolved, the imperfect, the evil, the unwell, the lost and divided. Those were once fiction’s people.”
“If you leave a void, the reader rushes in to fill it.”
How would you qualify your relationship to pop culture and gossip? There are barely-veiled references to American Apparel as a workplace, a celebrity breakup triggered by an affair with a nanny, an Oliver Sacks-esque persona, not to mention the more recent “Harvey” character in your story “White Noise,” which does not appear in Daddy. How do you decide what to extract, to make emblematic for your own work? It’s been an interesting question, how or when to utilize recognizable features of contemporary life. I always think, is this detail distracting, or is it necessary? I went through the same question when I was writing historical fiction, The Girls. Is this a detail I’m adding just because I came across it in research and want to underscore some idea of the ‘60s? If that’s the case, then it doesn’t have a place. It has to have direct resonance for the story. And each story has different boundaries around those kinds of choices. For “White Noise,” Harvey had to be Harvey. But in many of these stories, stories where the characters aren’t such totemic figures, I feel that being vague or not specifically naming the people/place can be helpful to conjure a more eternal mood.Pop culture can be a good starting point. Gossip or news stories—by necessity—flatten human beings into characters—the jilted lover, the villain, the home wrecker. Fiction is the opposite of those blunt archetypes. So sometimes it’s fun to drop into these moments—like a celebrity cheating scandal—and try to imagine what the actual lived experience would be for a person in that circumstance.There are instances where the violence of language is very stark: the father in “What Can You Do with a General” describes an actor as a “faggot,” the protagonist in “Northeast Regional” uses the word “cunt.” This language is used in situations that are not even particularly loaded. Can you elaborate on when this linguistic violence seems fitting?I’m certainly aware of what vocabulary is loaded, and am very careful about when I would ever invoke that kind of word—I never want to be gratuitous with language. When the father says “faggot” in the story, it’s supposed to feel jarring and violent, a reminder that, even as we occupy the self-pitying, sort of cowed mindset of this man, a man that might seem harmless, there is something truly ugly and dark that runs through his thinking. The casual invocation of the word is important, because it shows how deeply ingrained that kind of hatred is for this character. He says it without a second thought, because for him, it doesn’t warrant a second thought. Of course, the reader knows better.In a previous interview, you posited: “What if our moral boundaries are really just ideas about ourselves, abandoned under the right kind of pressure?” This malleability seems to underpin a lot of these stories. Can you elaborate on playing with these parameters?I’m fascinated in the gap between how people think of themselves and how they actually behave. And I feel like, in my short stories, I’m always looking for a situation or incident that puts pressure on that self-narrative of the characters. That lends itself to extreme moments, or moments of decision, moments when life offers you a set of choices. I think we all like to imagine that we would rise to the occasion, but I suspect that sometimes that isn’t the case. Did you have any writing rituals while writing these stories? I wish I had a more regular writing schedule, or good writing habits. Unfortunately, it’s usually an extreme: I’m either writing a lot, every day, to the exclusion of all else, or I’m not writing at all for long stretches of time. What have you been reading lately?I read Ninth Street Women, about painters in New York in the ‘30s and ’40s. A total pleasure to live in that world for a while, and see all these disparate lives threaded together. I just finished Lydia Millet’s new novel, which is excellent, and Jenny Zhang’s recent poetry collection, My Baby First Birthday—it’s perfect. Next up, Zadie Smith’s new book and Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot.
Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist based in Paris. She covers an array of cultural topics, including art, photography, fashion, literature, and feminism.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io