These are heady days for Emma Cline, a Sonoma native currently being hailed as an important new voice in the literary world.
Many Sonomans know Cline, 25, as one member of a large and successful family: There’s her father Fred Cline, a Jacuzzi heir and proprietor of Cline Cellars; her mother Nancy Cline, co-proprietor of the winery as well as the Olive Press; and six brothers and sisters.
But in New York, Emma Cline is known for being awarded the prestigious Plimpton Prize for Fiction, a yearly honor given by the Paris Review magazine during its Spring Revel celebration.
This year’s event was held on April 8, and “We flew to New York City to be with Emma while she got the award. It was so exciting,” said Nancy Cline, who spoke proudly of the literary giants – Frederick Seidel, Lydia Davis and others – congratulating her that night.
“I had strangers coming up to me and telling me how brilliant my daughter was,” Nancy Cline said. “It was perfect New York, it was wonderful, all the dynamic literary people.”
Cline won the award for her short story “Marion,” about two girls spending a hot summer in a rural commune. In it, 13-year-old Marion and the 11-year-old narrator experiment with cigarettes, sexual desire and other grown-up things, and wind up causing some mischief.
“I was thinking about that time in adolescence when the adult world is oblique, a kind of puzzle, and you discover it is both more ordinary and more confusing than what you imagined,” Cline told the Index-Tribune. “I was also interested in the relationship between female friends of slightly different ages, of what power dynamics come into play, particularly set against the murky politics of commune living.”
Twelve years ago, when Cline herself was just 13, she was walking through the Plaza in downtown Sonoma when she caught the eye of an older man – and the relationship that followed, while platonic and mostly harmless, seems to have had a lingering influence on her writings.
The man was Rodney Bingenheimer, “a peculiar icon of the ’60s and ’70s,” as Cline put it, who was quasi-famous for his music connections and who apparently was in town for Sonoma’s film festival. Bingenheimer flattered Cline, promising her he’d make her a star. A yearlong correspondence began between the two, which Cline writes about in “See Me,” an essay recently published by the Paris Review.
Later, after the relationship had petered out, Cline came to see it as an older man taking advantage of a teen girl’s neediness – a theme that echoes within “Marion.”
In the essay, Cline writes of giving Bingenheimer her address during their first encounter on the Plaza. “Some girls, even at 13, probably knew not to do things like that. I wasn’t one of them. 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.”
In the essay, Cline also writes about her interest in the notorious Manson family – an interest that has been developed into an upcoming novel. Nancy Cline said that book is in the final editing stages, and that this month’s award has helped it along in a big way.
According to the magazine’s website, “The Plimpton Prize for Fiction is a $10,000 award given to a new voice from our last four issues. Named after our longtime editor George Plimpton, it commemorates his zeal for discovering new writers.” It also comes with a less immediate, but much more valuable, benefit: the attention of major publishing houses.
“It’s really this cool award,” Nancy Cline said. For her, nothing meant more than to hear “what it means to the Paris Review to be able to find a writer out there like Emma.”
Asked what qualities led to her daughter’s success, Nancy Cline said, “If I would attribute it to anything she’s just extremely cerebral, she’s bright, and has a sense of responsibility in her life.”
Editor’s Note: This story was modified from its original version.