When Emma Cline signed her $2 million, three-book deal with Random House, back in 2014, at just 25, she had already written her Manson family–inspired novel, The Girls, and started work on some of the dazzling stories collected in Daddy. But it wasn’t until the native Californian went out to the Hamptons for the first time, in the summer of 2015, that The Guest, an incisive novel about an escort who masquerades as the girlfriend of an art dealer so she can stay at his beach house through Labor Day, began to take shape.
“I was just so struck by the specifics of this community,” Cline tells me from Silver Lake, Los Angeles, where she now lives. “Where I’m from, in Northern California, the water is frigid. There’s sharks and these rocky, dangerous cliffs. And then I went out East, and it was this really mild, lovely, almost surreal landscape.” It is a place, she observes, “that’s not really oriented towards temporary visitors or outsiders. Even the idea that you can’t park at the beach unless you have a residential-parking sticker. A certain slice of the Hamptons is designed either overtly, or in more sort of subtle, insidious ways, to kind of delineate who should be there and who shouldn’t.”
And who shouldn’t be there, of course, is Alex, Cline’s alienated and highly perceptive protagonist who already feels like she’s over the hill (at 22!) and resorts to increasingly desperate measures in order to remain salable in the competitive Manhattan escort market. “Alex got a series of laser treatments,” Cline writes. “Flashes of blue light soaked her face while she looked out of tinted medical goggles like a somber spaceman. In the meantime, she had her photos redone by a twitchy art student who asked, mildly, whether she might consider a trade for services.”
Alex drops her rates, waives references, and begins stealing cash and prescription drugs. Hopeless and alone at a bar after “a dead night, no takers,” she meets the considerably older and wealthier Simon. Alex sizes him up as “a civilian, someone whose self-conception wouldn’t include participation in certain arrangements. Those men weren’t a good use of her energy. But maybe that had been an error, her focus on more immediate gratifications—because where had that gotten her? She’d been overlooking the protection a civilian could offer. Something more permanent.” Or so she hopes.
Along with its metaphorically dark yet literally sunny literary forbears, such as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is set along the sparkling Amalfi Coast, The Guest is the kind of absorbing summer read one can easily devour in a weekend. In fact, the ideal setting for doing so might just be poolside in Southampton given that one friend even took Cline to visit the infamously exclusionary Southampton Bathing Corp., a fictionalized version of which made its way into the novel.
“This must be the club,” she writes. “A place she had never been, only heard about. The beach club was for the worst people, Simon said, a place where all their noxious allegiances to race and class could be laundered by nostalgia. They turned away most applicants. It occurred to her, remembering Simon’s disdain, that probably he had applied and been rejected.”
The Guest could theoretically be read, at least in part, in order to try to figure out which actual Hamptons locales are the model for Cline’s fictional ones; it is a game that Cline has purposely chosen to make difficult. “As soon as you start being overly specific,” she says, “you blot out a lot of space in the reader’s brain, because they’re filling it in with ‘O.K., this is a Rothko’ or ‘This is X place.’ So I’m always playing a little bit with how much specificity I let in.”
One bit of specificity that Cline won’t let in—to our interview, that is—is whose house she stayed in on her visits to the Hamptons. “I mostly stayed with artist friends,” she says vaguely. When I later ask if what I’ve heard is true, that she stayed with 79-year-old art dealer Larry Gagosian, who owns the Gwathmey-designed Toad Hall in Amagansett, and with whom she has recently started a publishing venture, Cline doesn’t reply. But regardless of where she stayed, Cline was surely a better houseguest than her protagonist.
After Alex commits a small, or maybe not so small, infraction at a dinner party, Simon kicks her out of his house, thereby setting her on her antihero’s journey through the various beaches, restaurants, and share houses of eastern Long Island. If the idea of a summertime odyssey across a rather small geographic distance is making you think of John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” it is in fact one of the works that Cline had in mind while writing.
“A certain slice of the Hamptons is designed either overtly, or in more sort of subtle, insidious ways, to kind of delineate who should be there and who shouldn’t.”
“That story had just always stuck with me,” she says. “It’s such a strange story, and it’s kind of unlike a lot of other more straightforwardly realist stories that Cheever wrote.” Part of what appealed to Cline about “The Swimmer” was “this character kind of thinking that they can go on forever in this way, and then the estrangement of finding out that he’s ended up far afield from reality.” No spoilers here, but an interesting dénouement awaits Alex too, though, in her case, at a Labor Day party back at Simon’s.
“I’m really drawn to characters who find themselves at an extreme,” says Cline, “whether it’s an extreme of behavior or an extreme environment, and I’m interested in following them in these situations that, to me anyways, are morally ambiguous. I just have an aversion to books, or any work of art, where I feel like I’m meant to learn something, or that there’s a kind of thesis that’s being conveyed to me, or that there’s some pre-digested sense of a question and the answer. I think I’m a lot more interested in the question.”
The question—or, in this case, questions—concerns “value and transactions and power,” says Cline, and Alex’s profession “puts a very fine point on those questions. She is acquainted with a world in which sexuality has explicit value, and the performance of gender is very literally a performance.”
Alex, Cline says, “is circling around these ideas of female agency and what it means to be a subject or an object. Is there a weird power that can come from casting yourself as an object? It’s a lot less uncomfortable if female sexuality is empowered, and the character is the subject of their own narrative, rather than having a character who’s very consciously in some ways self-objectifying and getting a real power from that.”
For Cline, these same questions about sex and power have not only animated her fiction but, unfortunately, thanks to a notorious campaign against her by an ex-boyfriend, her life as well. Cline was a 20-year-old student at Middlebury College when she met 33-year-old writer and teacher Chaz Reetz-Laiolo, back in 2009.
After they broke up and Cline got her book deal, Reetz-Laiolo accused her of plagiarism, claiming that she had used spyware to access his e-mail. Worse still, Reetz-Laiolo hired the law firm of take-no-prisoners litigator David Boies, who once represented Harvey Weinstein, to sue her as well as her publisher, Random House, and Scott Rudin Productions, which had purchased the screen rights to The Girls. (In June of 2020, Cline would publish a remarkable New Yorker short story called “White Noise,” in which she seemed to mainline Weinstein’s stream of consciousness as he anxiously awaited his verdict on rape charges.)
Cline, together with Random House, and her agent, the Clegg Agency, simultaneously sued Reetz-Laiolo, alleging that he had been physically abusive to her during their relationship, a claim which he denied. They also alleged that Reetz-Laiolo had been threatening to share naked pictures of Cline as well as private details from their relationship with the public, and that Reetz-Laiolo was “prying into and exploiting Cline’s sexual history to threaten her, even going so far as to make the false and absurd claim that she was an ‘escort.’” As for the allegation that she had used spyware to steal his work, Cline asserted that she had used it to keep track of him because she thought he was cheating on her.
In the end, Cline and her team felt vindicated when a judge dismissed Reetz-Laiolo’s claims of plagiarism. Subsequently both parties dropped their lawsuits. The whole traumatic experience seems like it could be grist for a novel. And who knows? Maybe, one day, it will be.
“I just have an aversion to books, or any work of art, where I feel like I’m meant to learn something, or that there’s a kind of thesis that’s being conveyed to me.”
In 2020, after 10 years of living in New York City, Cline bought a house in Los Angeles, and while her initial intent was to be bi-coastal, along came the pandemic, and so she gave up her rental apartment in Brooklyn. “I’d actually never lived in L.A. before,” she says, “but I liked it, and I kind of liked the contrast with New York.”
Like Joan Didion’s character Maria in Play It as It Lays, Cline even enjoys the driving. “That is the one thing about California that I really missed living in New York,” she says. “I find driving to be really conducive to writing. I think through problems with my work.” Not that she, like Didion’s Maria, enjoys freeway driving. “That’s next-level,” she says.
Cline, who is the second of seven siblings, grew up on a vineyard in Sonoma, and did 4-H at her neighbor’s farm. Not that Cline or her family were your typical country folk. Cline was a child actress. Her parents were real estate entrepreneurs, who renovated and flipped both the estate in Cortona, Italy, where Under the Tuscan Sun was filmed, which they turned into a small hotel, and the Dillon Beach Resort, in Sonoma, which is the only privately owned beach in California. They also bought and restored several old buildings in the small town of Tonopah, Nevada, where Cline’s maternal ancestors once lived.
Although Cline’s family was not religious, she went to a local Catholic elementary school in Sonoma and then on to a “weird mix of a hippie high school and a prep school. They were trying to be an East Coast prep school, but it was very much a Northern California kind of school with ultimate frisbee and knitting.”
Now, all these years later, Cline is enjoying what she describes as L.A.’s domestic milieu. “People are kind of hidden away in their houses,” she says, whereas “in New York you’re part of the fabric of life as soon as you walk out your door.”
In spite of the relatively quieter life that she’s been leading back out West, Cline has nonetheless immersed herself in the L.A. art scene. “I think it’s so nice to be in a world that’s not your own,” she tells me. “You don’t have any skin in the game. You can enjoy the good parts.”
That said, Cline now does have some skin in the game, thanks to Picture Books, a new imprint that she launched together with Larry Gagosian in December 2021. “The Picture Books project came out of feeling like there was this gap in publishing,” Cline tells me, “like there wasn’t really a good home for novella-length work right now.” Reflecting back on the interesting experiences she had had writing catalogue essays—essentially working to translate the visual medium into text—for artists such as Walton Ford and Louise Bonnet, Cline came up with the idea of inverting the process. What if “that traditional thing of a writer writing a catalogue essay was kind of flipped and the artists made a piece based on the writing?”
With traditional publishing, Cline says, “you’re kind of like, ‘O.K., how is this book cover going to read on Amazon?’ It felt really valuable and positive to offer a different experience for writers where it’s about creating this beautiful object and giving it this aesthetic weight.”
So far, Cline has published four novellas with Picture Books, pairing the work of writer Ottessa Moshfegh with artist Issy Wood, Percival Everett with Richard Prince, Sam Lipsyte with Jordan Wolfson, and Lydia Millet with Genieve Figgis. Print runs are limited to 2,500 copies, and the books are sold at, among other places, Skylight Books, in L.A.; Karma Bookstore and Gagosian Shop in Manhattan; as well as at Koenig Books, Claire de Rouen, and the Gagosian Shop in London. Publishing a novella with Picture Books, however, does not preclude a writer from also publishing it elsewhere. “That was really important to me,” says Cline. The next Picture Books project will be a short novella by Joy Williams accompanied by the art of Walton Ford.
Given how visual Cline’s own writing is, it should perhaps come as no surprise that she has already sold the screen rights to The Guest, which is currently in development at Anonymous Content with Sara Murphy, who produced Licorice Pizza and If Beale Street Could Talk.
Cline herself, meanwhile, is already at work on her next novel, which she is “pretty sure” is going to be set in L.A. “It’s nice to have something else going on as a book comes out in the world,” she tells me. “There’s kind of a place to put your brain.”
Johanna Berkman is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL. You can read her profile of Jumi Bello, the writer whose plagiarism scandal rocked the publishing world, here