Author Camille Perri Discusses Debut Novel


Perri's debut novel hits shelves this May. (PHOTO BY BRIANNA GOODMAN/ THE OBSERVER)
Perri’s debut novel hits shelves this May. (PHOTO BY BRIANNA GOODMAN/ THE OBSERVER)

By Camille Perri
282 pp. Putnam. $25

An underpaid, well-educated executive assistant drowns in student debt while her multibillionaire of a boss drops $8,900 to settle an argument about peppers. This is the backdrop for Camille Perri’s debut novel, “The Assistants,” out this month. But what happens when that assistant uses her boss’s expense account to pay off her student loans?

Tina Fontana is the sarcastic protagonist of this quick novel that details a 30-year-old assistant’s journey from obedient aid to slick embezzler. Much of the novel draws on Perri’s own experience as assistant to the editor-in-chief of Esquire—though, rest assured, Perri did not file false expense reports to pay back her loans. The idea for the novel arose one day as Perri marveled at the juxtaposition of two windows open on her computer: one, her boss’s expense report, and two, her own student loan payment. In the midst of her book’s publication tour, Perri spoke to me over the phone about the novel, becoming an assistant and advice for graduating seniors applying for assistant positions.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Observer: While reading your novel, I was thinking about stories like “The Devil Wears Prada” which revolve around female bosses and higher-ups bossing around their female assistants. What made you decide to go with the dynamic of male bosses and female assistants?

Camille Perri: The book came largely out of my own personal experience as an assistant, so I think I saw the boss as a powerful man first off because I worked for that man. But also, though in movies we do see these powerful female bosses and oftentimes they’re villains, my personal experience in terms of women that I know who are assistants is that more often than not they are working for men. I wanted that gender dynamic in there to give the book that little bit of feminist energy.

Observer: The circumstances within the novel—underpaid female assistants using their wealthy male bosses’ expense accounts to pay off student loans—have the potential to interact with different “isms,” like classism, socialism and feminism. Did you intend for this novel to address any of these social issues and if so, in what way?

CP: I definitely did set out to write a socially-conscious novel, but I knew that from a publishing standpoint and a marketing standpoint and in trying to get the book sold that it wasn’t the greatest tactic to make that first and foremost. So, I really wanted to write a socially-conscious novel in chick lit clothing—where it would be a fun, commercial read that’s really a treat, something really enjoyable and accessible, and that has this deeper meaning beneath that. I kind of wanted to Trojan Horse the politics into people’s homes through this fun, slick book. I love books and movies and television shows that do that.

Observer: Something that surprised me in the novel was how fond Tina was of Robert Barlow, her boss. Especially given his power and wealth—and the low salary that he pays her—I was expecting her to be more resentful. Why is she so easy on him? What’s the psychology behind that?

CP: I didn’t want to make Robert a straight-up villain, because I thought that would be way too easy. I wanted their relationship to be more complex and nuanced. From my experience, the assistant–boss relationship is a really intimate relationship. You are really involved in this person’s life. Robert is a billionaire on this super, super high level. He’s a ruthless businessman, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s good to Tina. He doesn’t abuse her. She’s not paid well, but he’s just out of touch in the way that people who have lived with tremendous privilege are out of touch with how regular people live their lives. They are tone deaf, but they are not necessarily evil. I think in a sense we are all guilty of this on some level. We all enjoy a certain amount of privilege—I mean, Tina is a white woman who is well-educated. If student loan debt is your problem, you have already made it in a sense. So I think on that level it’s just not recognizing your privilege. That’s really what I was trying to get out there.

Observer: You were an assistant yourself while writing this book. For all the graduating seniors out there, can you tell us how you got that job as an assistant after you graduated?

CP: I always sort of knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I also knew that I needed to have a practical job. So, I graduated from NYU and then went right to grad school at Queens College. I got my master’s in library science and then worked as a librarian in the town where I grew up. I was trying to write and submit stories and get an agent and all of that, and I hit a point where I felt like, well, I didn’t have an MFA, I didn’t really have any contacts from the book world. I felt sort of out of touch with how that whole thing worked.

So I started volunteering and trying to get internships wherever they would have me. I interned as a reader at “The Paris Review” and then at a literary magazine called “Open City.” I stumbled into an internship at Esquire as the fiction intern during the summer. I bumped my librarian hours down to part-time to do these internships, which were unpaid, and what I actually had to do, which was very shameful to me at the time, was to move back home.

When I left Esquire, I left them my resume and said, “Hey, if anything comes up I can freelance, I can do copy editing, I can do research.” A few months later I got a call from my friend [at Esquire] that David Granger [the editor-in-chief at Esquire] needed an editorial assistant. I took a pay cut to take that job, which is nuts—I already had a master’s degree, I was just nearing 30 and my family thought I was nuts. But I wanted to give it a shot, and I have to say I’m not sorry at all.

Observer: Because you were an assistant while writing this book, readers will likely equate you with Tina and David Granger, your former boss, with Robert. Were you nervous about that? Were you worried about how Granger would receive the book?

CP: I was nervous about that. Even though it’s not based on David Granger, I knew that people would automatically make that leap and think it was him. So, very early on, I actually had given David the manuscript for him to look over. I gave him veto power and said, “Hey, if any of this hits too close to home and you want me to change anything, I’m giving you this chance now.” And he didn’t. He got a real kick out of the book. The things that are David in there are weird gestures and things only someone who really knows him would pick up on, so mostly he’s just really proud of me. He’s been unbelievably supportive.

Observer: A lot of graduating Fordham students—myself included—are applying for assistant positions now. Should your book serve as a word of caution? Is there any advice you’d like to give students interviewing for these positions?

CP: I don’t think the book should serve as a word of caution. I think there’s something hopeful about the book. The women characters, these assistants, they form a bond, a kinship. When you’re in these entry-level jobs just out of college, it’s really important to network with your peers and make friends, because you’re all going to be moving up together. As you get older and you’re hitting more of a mid-level and upper-level strata, it’s going to be those relationships that come back around where people will go to bat for you, or make a recommendation for you. It’s important to keep a sense of community, which is difficult because a lot of these positions are so competitive, especially if you’re in an internship with someone else and you might sort of be pitted against one another. But I think it’s really important to be above that.

A huge piece of advice I would give to anyone starting out is, regardless of what your position is, always take the opportunity to make a good impression on everybody. Learn people’s names, say good morning, greet them at the water cooler. Just be a presence. Let them know that you are someone to be counted on if something comes up and they need someone in a jiffy. After I was no longer an intern or assistant, when I would see these younger people coming in, sometimes if they had a bad attitude or seemed pissed off to do stuff that they thought was below them, people noticed. People do notice that, so I would try to fight against that urge even if you’re feeling frustrated.

Observer: Do you have an assistant now?

CP: [Laughs.] No, I’m not quite there yet. That would be ironic, right? I don’t know if I’ll ever have one—although I would maybe have an assistant to help me with social media, because I’m not good at that. I just read an article that there’s a new freelance title coming up called millennial consultant, and these people are making a lot of money just consulting on behalf of millennials to these companies because that’s who people want to reach. It’s such a coveted demographic. I’m aged out of being that but oh my goodness, if I were in the Class of 2016 at Fordham, I would pursue being a millennial consultant. Know your power, millennials! Know your power!