Author Camille Perri On Her Debut Book — & Why Women Need To Talk About Money

Photo: Penguin Random House.
Let the record show that Camille Perri never embezzled thousands of dollars from a major media conglomerate while working as an assistant to Esquire's editor-in-chief.

But the idea did cross her mind.

One day back in 2009, she was entering her boss' expenses into an online system when she remembered her student loan payment was due. Perri pulled up her account, and something clicked. "I saw those two windows, side by side, and it put into perspective for me how little my debt actually was, in the larger scheme," Perri told Refinery29 over the phone. "And yet, this was a number that was so debilitating to me. I thought, Oh man, if only I weren’t an honest person."

Fortunately for Hearst, Perri plays by the rules in real life. But in her imagination — well, that's another story. Literally. "I thought, What a great idea for a novel," she went on. And so it was: The Assistants — her book about a 30-year-old assistant who filches corporate funds to pay off her student loans — goes on sale May 3.

We spoke with the newly minted novelist (and former books editor at Cosmo and Esquire) about moral ambiguity, debilitating debt, and why it's more important than ever to talk about money — especially for women.
The character you created, Tina Fontana, is sort of a modern-day Robin Hood. But she also does a really unethical thing — and yet I can't help but root for her. Why is that?
"I wanted to make it kind of vague, in terms of the morality. The opportunity comes to her by mistake — it falls into her lap. It’s very hard to put a face on it and to really say anybody is going to be hurt by her taking the money and using it to pay off her debt. It was the equivalent to if an ATM spit out too much money. And are you going to feel sorry for Chase? I mean, I wouldn’t.

"Still — you might still feel guilty because of some moral code. But I wanted it to be a situation in which a good person with good, solid, morals might still understand why she did it. And of course, you want her to do it when she's debating, because there's a real 'what if?' fantasy there."

Do you think that rooting for Tina says something about where we're at as a culture right now?
"My goal when I was writing the book was that it would ultimately spark conversation about living in a country, as we do right now, [where] hardworking young women who often do have student loan debt, who tried to make all the right decisions, [now find ourselves] in this situation.

"There’s something about the American dream that is broken right now. Look at this election cycle. Look at what we’re talking about: inequality, this new gilded age, this unprecedented inequality in terms of wealth. So what’s fair? What’s fair when you think about government sanctioned inequality — when secretaries are paying more in taxes than the CEOs they work for who are billionaires. It gets very gray."

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?
"One thing that's interesting about student debt for undergraduates is that we are so young when we make that decision: Our frontal lobes aren’t fully formed yet when we’re signing our lives away. I just want to contribute to this conversation. The book is entertainment — I’m not making any political claims in it. But I want it to be a gift — a treat — for all of the other women who were in similar positions to what I was in, when I felt so very frustrated‚ to mirror back in a way that wasn't tragic, and even optimistic.
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Photo: Ash Barhamand.
"But I think the best thing that could come out of it is that if people maybe even consider that their student debt is not their fault. People can feel guilty — it's in the shadows. I was very ashamed about the debt I had from student loans. And it's not shameful. We did the right thing. We did what we were supposed to do. But I think we could be better energized to pay attention to the politics of why we're in this state.

"Student debt is part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s part of Bernie Sander’s campaign. Pay attention to what politicians are saying about student debt and how it applies to you, because young people are a powerful voting block. Be part of the conversation as much as possible and have your voice heard."

How do you think women especially can take the stigma out of talking about debt?
"Things like Glassdoor are great. Airing it out is great. We need to talk about money. One big thing that happened in relation to this subject was the Sony hack, when it revealed that all these big stars like Jennifer Lawrence were being paid less than their male colleagues. It fostered this conversation: People are really coming around to talk about money, talking about what they are paid. Women have had it so deeply ingrained in us that it's not polite to talk about money.

"It has to be mentioned too that, in the publishing world, we're coming from a place of privilege: If we're here, we've already made it. And so it's difficult to talk about money because you already feel self-conscious. And you don't want to feel ungrateful — that's another particularly female thing, not to want to seem ungracious.

"But raising awareness and speaking about money in a way that gets it out of the shadows — that's the only way we'll see any progress, really. We can't be embarrassed to talk about money anymore. We can't afford it."

The Assistants, a Penguin Random House book, comes out on May 3, 2016.

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