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NPR Arts & Life

Camille Perri Talks Breaking The Rules To Get Ahead In Debut Novel, 'The Assistants'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So much money flows through multinational corporations like the one Tina Fontana works for in New York City. And she's in a position to know exactly how much. She is the assistant to the CEO of Titan Corporation. His name is Robert Barlow. Tina's the one who files expense reports for the receipts falling out of his Armani suit jackets, little records of luxuries she cannot even imagine on her meager salary.

Then one day, with just the click of a mouse, Tina inadvertently ends up with a tiny fraction of Titan Corporation's billions, $19,147 in her pocket. And that's where things get complicated. That is the plot of the new novel by Camille Perri. It's called "The Assistants." And Camille Perri joins me now from our studios in New York to talk about it. Hi, there.

CAMILLE PERRI: Hi, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Thanks for being with us. Let's be clear right from the get-go. Tina is stealing from her boss (laughter). This is not - it may have been an accident the first time the money wound up in her account, but this is a pretty intentional kind of conspiracy here.

PERRI: Yes, it does spin out of control. Initially, it begins as a pretty honest mistake. But once she decides to cash that check, there's no turning back.

MARTIN: It's not like she wants to take this money and go, you know, buy a new leather jacket. She's got what she believes to be a moral cause.

PERRI: Yes. The money - she looks at it as it'll give her a clean slate. She has student loan debt. It didn't come from spending lavishly. It came from doing exactly what she was told to do, which was borrow money to go to the best college that she could and get a good education. So this money is almost the exact amount to a dollar of her student loan debt. And she begins to fantasize about what it would be like if that student loan debt had disappeared. How would that open up her life?

MARTIN: Not long after she starts this whole theft situation, she develops, like, a routine to submit fraudulent receipts to get more money to pay off her student debt. But a coworker figures it out. She figures it out that Tina's doing this. And she wants in on the action, right? She decides she wants to get a little piece of this. Tell us about this woman, Emily.

PERRI: Emily's the one that catches her. And rather than going to the boss or - and reporting this, she sees an opportunity for herself. And she says OK, you did this for you. Now you're going to do it for me. And that's really the moment when what happens really begins to spin out of control because Emily is a little bit - she's...

MARTIN: Emily likes money.

PERRI: Emily likes money, yes.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PERRI: Yes, she does. That's a fair way of saying it.

MARTIN: You worked as an assistant, right?

PERRI: I did. I was the assistant to the editor-in-chief of Esquire Magazine. And my experience as an assistant was really best case scenario. My boss was absolutely the greatest boss I could have asked for. But I think there's something universal about being an assistant, regardless of whether or not your boss is the greatest or a complete terror. It's a really unique relationship. You're intimately close to power, but you don't have any. You see so much money. You're just not making any.

I wanted this book to be a treat to all of the women out there who have maybe found themself in a similar situation as I was with the same frustrations I was feeling as an assistant with student loan debt. And I wanted them to just read it and get a kick out of it and maybe say oh, I'm not alone in feeling this way.

MARTIN: Camille Perri - her first novel is called "The Assistants." It comes out Tuesday. Camille, thanks so much for talking with us about it.

PERRI: Thank you so much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.