Camille Perri: An Interview on The Assistants

Camille Perri: An Interview on The Assistants

Hi Camille, can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel The Assitants?

It’s about a group of young female assistants who use their billionaire boss’s expense account to pay off their student loan debt. Rupert Murdoch is going to love this book, absolutely adore it.

And what about the main character, Tina Fontana? She is well-educated, bright, and gutsy. Why is she still an assistant at age 30?

I see Tina as fairly typical of her generation — she’s worked hard, tried to make good decisions, basically done everything she was told to do in order to be a successful adult, and yet she’s nowhere near where she thought she’d be by now. She’s very much an illustration of how I felt in my late twenties. Minus the stealing.

How does Tina, a “good” girl, first get involved in the scheme to skim money off her boss’s expense account?

Tina sort of gets involved in this by accident. Sort of. Ultimately she does make the (clearly unethical) choice to cash a check that comes to her through a misunderstanding, and to use that money to pay off her student loan, but she really struggles with that decision. It’s in no way easy for her to do something so dishonest. She convinces herself that it wouldn’t actually be hurting anyone to cash the check—certainly not the multi-billion dollar corporation it belongs to—and it would give her a financial clean slate, a second chance at her own life, which is a temptation I believe many people with debt can relate to.

Have you brought any of your own past work experience to the novel?

I began this novel while I was working as the assistant to the Editor in Chief of Esquire magazine. One day while doing his expenses I remembered that my student loan payment was due. Not wanting to forget to make the payment, I immediately logged on to my account and when I saw those two windows open side-by-side on my computer, something clicked. It hit me how this debt that had been weighing me down for so many years was, in the larger scheme of things, particularly in the context of corporate money, relatively small. I thought: Hmm, if only I weren’t an honest person. And then I thought: But what a great idea for a novel.

Do you think it is harder for this new generation to break in and move up the ladder in their chosen careers?

I’m sure every generation has faced its own unique challenges. I mean, it wasn’t so long ago that women weren’t allowed to wear pants and a black doctor was unheard of. Not nearly long ago enough. But I think what’s unprecedented for Millennials is the skyrocketing price of a college education, and the over-reliance on underpaid underlings once they do enter the workforce.

Are all of the assistants in the novel women, or are there men among the underpaid, over-educated characters in the novel?

All of the assistants in the novel are women because I wanted to focus on the female experience. But of course in real life male assistants might find themselves in a similar predicament, only with less pressure to wear high-heels and smile.

Tina’s boss, Robert Barlow, is in some ways a ruthless billionaire businessman, and yet Tina sees his good side, too. Why do you think he — and his real-life counterparts— are clueless about the plight of their underlings?

I knew early on that I didn’t want Robert to be a clear-cut villain. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just very rich and very successful and with that comes a certain tone-deafness to how regular people live their lives. But we’re all guilty of this in some way, of taking our own privilege for granted. Robert is simply a blown up (and hopefully comical) illustration of this.

As the writer, you don’t seem to make a moral judgment in the novel about Tina’s actions, leaving it to the reader to decide whether her embezzlement is serious or no big deal. Where would you come down on the situation if pressed? Is she justified?

I think the easy answer to this question is: No, Tina’s actions are absolutely not justified. Embezzlement is stealing and stealing is wrong. But living in a world as we do where corporations and the .01 percent enjoy a government sanctioned advantage over the rest of us, where secretaries pay more in taxes than the CEOs they work for, where Wall Street brought our economy to near total collapse only to be bailed out with barely any significant punishment or change as a result… It makes the answer far less black and white.

As a light-hearted look at a very important workplace issue, The Assistants seems to recall such groundbreaking comedies as Nine to Five and Working Girl. Has there been any interest in turning it into a film?

I take that as the highest compliment as those are two of my favorite movies from the 80s. There has been interest and I would love nothing more than to see this novel adapted for the big screen, but as of this moment no contracts have been signed. Stay tuned.

You were recently made the Books Editor at Large for Cosmopolitan. Was this “day job” a help or a hindrance when writing your own book?

I had already finished and sold The Assistants when I began working at Cosmo. So maybe get back to me with this question for my next book.

Are you at work on a second novel?

I am. But all I will tell you is that it’s got a lot more sex in it than this one.