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Write What You Know: Emma Cline, Charles Manson, and "The Girls"

Amazon Book Review: Emma ClineOne of the things I'm going around saying to anyone who will listen is that The Girls by Emma Cline (pictured at right) is a very good novel, better, in fact, than I might have thought it would be, given the hype and the subject matter and the youth of its author. Not that I have anything against young people, mind you (Cline is in her 20s). I just am skeptical about how assured they can be as writers. (Who was it who said you have to live a life before you can write about one?) Add to that that Cline's novel centers on Manson cult, and the late 1960s, and my skepticism increased: she wasn't even born when these events took place! I'd say. "How can she write about it?"

Well, not only does Cline write extremely (not to say creepily) well about an era that I remember, if a little fuzzily – I was younger than her character Evie Boyd during that fateful summer (but not by much) – but I've also come to realize that my doubt that she could is pretty silly. Who says a writer has to live through a time to have perspective on it? The world is full of "historical novels" about bygone decades and generations by authors who never lived through them: I'm looking at my shelves full of The Paris Wife, Euphoria, and many other books that get their time and place and characters exactly right. This is because a writer – a good writer – can read and research and talk to people who were there, and then cull the emotional truths and put them on the page. And if she's any good at all, the emotional truths will be universal and timeless; the era is just the wrapping.

In The Girls it's a mighty fine wrapping – and I'll bet Cline looked at a lot of pictures, read a lot of books and talked to her mother-figures (or maybe grandmother-figures?) to gauge the zeitgeist of the era. She did have pitch perfect descriptions, of the clothes, of the way of speaking, of the tenor of the times. And it might have been harder for her than, say, for Robin Wasserman, another author whose book about teenage girls I loved; Wasserman's Girls on Fire is about Kurt Cobain obsessed girls in the 1990s, an era she at least was alive for. But either way, the writer's job is the same: getting the details right might in fact be the easy part... it's finding their center and their importance that matters. Both Cline and Wasserman are stars at that.


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