Richard: I don’t think I’ve ever been around this part of Pimlico – have you stayed here before?
Emma: No, this is my first time. I was walking around the neighbourhood earlier trying to pick up the vibe, but I couldn’t get a good read.
R: Pimlico’s odd. I think it’s for people who work in London Monday to Friday and then flee to Surrey at the weekend. You’re from California, right?
E: Northern California, Sonoma County, near the Bay area. It’s such a strange little place too. I mean, the 1960s are still alive and well there: communes and weirdo shamans still exist in the hills. There’s a real sense of freedom too, which I love.
R: Can you remember when you first became aware of that counterculture?
E: It was just so in the air when I was growing up that I didn’t even realise it was strange until I left California. Then it was like, Oh, so you guys didn’t do knitting at school? But I do remember reading about the Manson family. Reading was one of the few moments I had to myself. I come from a big family; there are seven of us – we’re like our own little cult! There was this one book where the author basically wrote down every piece of gossip he’d ever heard about the Mansons, totally un-fact-checked, just all the rumours – I loved it!
R: Fun idea for a book!
E: I know, right? Sometimes rumours can tell you more than the truth. One of the stories that stuck with me was about a girl who was involved with the Manson family, she wasn’t one of the key members, and her mother had given Charles Manson permission to pick her up from school – she’d even given her a note! I just love the idea of this girl who didn’t know that Charles Manson was Charles Manson yet and was on the periphery of this crazy situation – what would that mean for the rest of her life afterwards? I even wondered if she’d look back on it fondly. That’s kind of where The Girls developed from. I like to start with something small, an image or a thought and grow it from there. It’s a bit like how Joan Didion writes.
R: Really, is that what she does?
E: She’ll pick out this one object and you suddenly realise that’s the key to the entire scene. It’s all located in this one detail that she notices. It’s like that for me too – not that I’d compare myself to Joan Didion – building up the tone, the atmosphere and beginning to think, what’s the larger story? I was drawn to the idea of a story that didn’t have a moral. It was just the way this woman thought about a particular moment in her life and she didn’t learn anything from it. I think that’s what life is really like: we keep repeating the same shit, don’t we?
R: How was the experience of writing your first published novel?
E: I had to completely disconnect from everything to do so. It was the only way that book was going to get written. I went off-grid and lived in a shed in the backyard of a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn for two months during a desperately warm summer in 2014. I had a hot plate in there and survived on miso soup and quesadillas. The final two weeks of writing were particularly intense. I just worked and worked and then handed it over to my agent.
R: What was it like finally leaving the shed?
E: It was a difficult adjustment: Oh, God, I have to return to the land of the living. I became a bit antisocial because I’d lost contact with my family and friends. But it was probably the purest creative experience I’ve had. I don’t think I’ll write like that again though; it’s not very healthy, is it?