Medium: As a kid, what did going to work look like in your family?
Camille Perri: My father came to this country [from Italy] when he was 18. He was a tailor who worked at a dry cleaners, then in Men’s Suits at Macy’s. My mom was a library clerk. My sisters are older than me, so I saw them working a couple of jobs at a time, while they went to school; then they graduated to become an accountant and a teacher. We’re all worker-dogs — I’ve had a job since I was 12 years old, selling socks at the flea market. In the summers, I had two jobs.
Was there any first-generation pressure to become a doctor or lawyer?
The pressure was to do something practical: accountant, teacher, librarian. I wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t raised to understand that it could be a career. So I thought I would become an English teacher, which seemed like a great job if what I really wanted to do was write. Then, in 10th grade — as soon as I was old enough to get my worker’s permit — I became a page at the East Meadow Public Library and realized I would rather be a librarian. Which was just the Camille-iteration of what my sisters had done: get a solid, dependable career with health benefits where I could pursue my dreams on the side.
What did you do after college?
I went straight to Queens College to get my Master’s in Library Science. With all my student loan debt, I didn’t have the benefit of time off. I worked full-time behind the reference desk in the East Meadow Library as a librarian trainee, like an apprenticeship. I was getting a little bit of tuition reimbursement and my student loans were deferred, but I was earning around half of what an actual librarian made.
Were you writing?
I was commuting an hour and a half, each way, in rush hour traffic. There was not a lot of writing getting done. But at the library, if I worked a weekend day, I would get a day off during the week. So I’d write the entire day while everyone else was at work. When I graduated, I took the hours I’d been spending in class and doing my homework and used them to work on writing a book.
What were you working on?
I had taken a lot of Young Adult librarianship classes and read a lot of YA while in school because I’d thought I could get a specialization to be a young adult librarian. I ended up writing a YA novel, but it’s in a drawer. Nothing happened with that.
Was there anything else you read in library school that helped your writing?
One of the books I encountered in library school, that I probably never would have picked up on my own, was Stephen King’s On Writing. There is a sentence that I copied down and stuck on my nightstand, something along the lines of: “If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to write, I’m giving it to you right now.” I’m paraphrasing, but I took it to heart. My girlfriend at the time was one of the first people to really believe in me, so when she got a job in San Francisco, she told me to come with her and just work on my book. That was the first time I was given permission to just write, the first time in my life that I didn’t have a job. I wrote for eight hours a day every single day, and learned that I have the discipline to spend a whole day writing.
Were you making progress?
Six months later, we broke up. I moved back to Brooklyn without a job, a car, or any money. I worked as a super in exchange for cheap rent on a crappy little ground-floor apartment with rats in the walls and cockroaches. I had to sweep and mop and take care of the garbage and shovel snow in the winter. I went back to being a librarian one night a week at the Great Neck Library, which, if you’re familiar with The Great Gatsby, is one of the Eggs. And I was picking up shifts at the East Meadow Library, too. But not full-time at either. Post-San Francisco, I was insistent that I would only work part-time and write with regularity.
I moved back to Brooklyn without a job, a car, or any money. I worked as the super in exchange for cheap rent on a crappy little ground-floor apartment.
Did any of that work give you health benefits?
No. That was the biggest challenge. But I was a librarian, so I was on top of this shit. I found out that I was making so little money that I qualified for — it would be what Obamacare is now, but back then it was poor people’s insurance. It was very limited. I also tried getting food stamps and signing up for those rent-controlled building lotteries. I had embraced the idea that I was going to be broke forever, that I’d never own a home, and would live this starving artist existence. Of course, my family thought, “Camille’s lazy. She thinks she’s too good for full-time work.”
Was all this sacrifice working? Were you writing?
I was writing all the time. I had a novel and was trying to get an agent. I was sending out short stories and getting rejections. I was going through all those steps people go through when they think their first manuscript is “the one” when in fact they are five manuscripts away from “the one.” And I kept journaling, which was probably the most valuable thing that I did.
Why do you think that?
Journaling taught me to keep getting my butt in the chair. Writing at the same time every day is a great way to train your body. When two hours have gone by and you’ve written all these [journal] pages, there is a feeling of elation and habit that is very easy to transfer to working on your novel.
You eventually left the library. Why?
I felt like I didn’t have a foot in the publishing world. I needed to do something to get in the door, so I interned at [the literary magazine and small press] Open City and read submissions at The Paris Review. I was too old to be an intern, but I was willing to do that work for nothing because I felt it was my opportunity to see how stuff works. I ended up as a fiction intern at Esquire and when I finished, I left them my resume. I told them I was a librarian who knew how to research, fact check, and copy edit. Months went by, maybe a year. When the economy collapsed in 2008, Esquire did away with the fiction assistant job. They needed someone to triple-hit as the fiction assistant, copy editor, and assistant to the editor-in-chief. So, I quit being a librarian and took a pay cut to work at Esquire after I said that I would never work full-time again.
You were working on the ‘The Assistants’ while you were working full-time as the assistant to the editor-in-chief. How were you structuring your writing days?
I became an assistant to David Granger in 2009, the same year I got the idea for The Assistants. Every single moment of free time, I was writing. Weekends, nights. I saved up all my vacation days so I could have full weeks of writing.
How did working in publishing help your novel?
While I was at Esquire, I met the author Anna Godbersen. She had been writing YA for Alloy [a book packaging unit of Warner Brothers]. I’d already sent them my novel, which they declined. Anna generously gave me an hour over coffee and told me, “I’ll make an introduction for you and see what happens. I can’t guarantee anything.” So in 2011, I put what was The Assistants in a drawer and left Esquire to ghostwrite for Alloy. I think I wrote four books for them from 2011 to 2013. It was very fast and a great experience, sort of writer’s boot camp for me.
What did you learn in “writer’s boot camp?”
Alloy would give me very detailed outlines, which are hard to do well. But when you get those beats right, the actual writing is all the fun stuff. So I learned to work from an outline, which I still do today. I learned I could produce copy on a deadline and make edits under an even tighter deadline. I could write in someone else’s voice and not be precious. I was okay throwing away a couple of days work and starting over. And because none of what I wrote had my name on it, I didn’t have the anxiety I would if it were under my name.
When you came back to ‘The Assistants’ after ghostwriting, were there any problems you could immediately spot and solve?
The Assistants wasn’t my reality, but the feelings were real. I was in my thirties and working as an assistant in the post-collapse economy. I had all this student loan debt and no one wanted to buy my novel. I felt as if I’d made a lot of mistakes, and I was angry and frustrated and felt really beaten down. But if I had kept the book close to my experience, it would not have been an enjoyable read for anyone. A lesson I took from Alloy was to make the novel one you could describe in one sentence. So when I came back to The Assistants, I realized it was a heist. A revenge fantasy. It was also was a comedy. The first versions had been really angry. I was modeling it on Fight Club. But when I came back, I realized it wasn’t Fight Club, it was Nine to Five. Once I figured that out, the voice came together and everything opened up.
And once everything “opened up?”
Well, I was really freaking broke by this point. I had burned through my Alloy money and was slinging espresso for 10 bucks an hour and freelancing at Esquire, just cobbling it together. I’m 30 at this point and it’s getting scary. It’s not cool anymore to be bohemian. Now, I’m just a loser. I had about two or three months of money left, so I knew I’m either going to get an agent and make this happen or I’m getting a regular job. Once I got an agent, I thought, “Okay, this is going to happen.” But when we sent out the manuscript, it was rejected by everyone except for one editor, who was willing to look at a heavy rewrite. I did a whole rewrite in three months and she bought it. But it took another two years for the book to come out.
I was too engrossed in the books editor work to get any writing done. I’d shot myself in the foot.
Did you have to go back to slinging espresso?
In the time between selling The Assistants and publishing, I got a call from Hearst asking if I’d be interested in a full-time job. I didn’t say this out loud but the only job I was interested in was books editor at Cosmo. When I found out that was the job, my jaw hit the desk. I went in for the interviews and, once again, I took a perfectly solid full-time job with health benefits and negotiated it down to freelance where I could come or go as I pleased. I was there about three days a week. I was supposed to be writing When Katie Met Cassidy, but I was too engrossed in the books editor work to get any writing done. I’d shot myself in the foot — I ended up putting in so many hours that it was practically charity work, but I don’t regret it because I enjoyed that year so much.
Do you write full-time now?
I’m a full-time earning writer and it’s amazing. But I owe it to your readership to be honest; I get my health insurance through my wife, a corporate lawyer. If she did not have such a stable job, I would feel less secure. Because earning from writing is not stable. You’re going to have good years and bad years, a lot of which depends on the market.