I was fortunate enough to snag a moment with Mandy Berman prior to the release of her first novel Perennials. Her debut deftly combines the simplicity of summer camp with the complexity of adolescent emotions, friendship, and femininity. For my full review click here.
I was so impressed with the variety of narratives in this story and the inclusive nature this brought to the book. Was this influenced by personal philosophy?
I tend to be a very character-driven writer, and I started with the idea that I might write a series of stories about different characters at the same sleepaway camp. Over time, though, it became clear that this project was begging to be a more cohesive, chronological narrative rather than divergent stories. I’m not sure it’s a personal philosophy so much as what I felt this book really needed was a diverse cast of characters, as a way to paint a well-rounded picture of this one particular summer.
The experiences of the younger characters in Perennials (2000’s Rachel and Fiona and then her sister Helen) are achingly relatable, it is safe to assume some of their stories feel that way to you, as the author?
There is an aspect of me in all of the characters in this novel. I find it sort of impossible to write characters without including myself in there, in one way or another. It’s so important to me that my characters’ motivations feel honest and true, and the best way to ensure that is if I’ve experienced similar emotions or situations myself.
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
I worried so much when I was younger (still do!), so I would advise my younger self to stop fretting and enjoy girlhood. I was in such a rush to grow up.
Would you give that same advice to girls in the current generation or would it need tweaked given our current social climate?
I think this probably applies even more now. I don’t think it’s generational that girls are in a rush to grow up – it’s always been that way. But I’m constantly worrying about the outcome our new president will have – and is already having – on young women. Not only is the new government explicitly policing women’s bodies, but there’s the fact that we have elected a Sexual Assaulter in Chief. As a country, we’ve voted someone into power who has expressed a blatant disregard for the lives of women, for their existence as anything aside from sexual beings. He only sees women in relation to what they can do for him. It really scares me for our future.
I saw that Kirkus Reviews likened your novel and writing style to that of Judy Blume. Did you read her novels and if so were they in any way an inspiration for Perennials?
That was such a huge moment for me. Judy Blume is one of my heroes. She writes about the inner lives of young women with so much acuity and grace, and still has this amazing knack for telling affecting, page-turning stories. Summer Sisters was one of my favorite books when I was a teenager, and the complex relationship between Vix and Caitlin certainly came to mind more than once as I was writing Perennials.
Did you attend a summer camp as an adolescent?
I did! I went to a camp in the Berkshires for four summers, from ages 11-15, and then returned again as a counselor for one summer when I was 19.
As a camp goer where would you find yourself spending the most time? With the horses or by the lake or somewhere else?
I actually am not a rider – I’ve developed a newfound interest in horses as I’ve gotten older. They are a wonderful symbol for an adolescent girl’s burgeoning sexuality, so I thought they’d be a perfect element to include in the novel. I actually loved mountain biking when I was a camper, which I couldn’t quite find a place for in the book. I also spent a lot of time in performing arts, and was in a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like Matthew is in the first chapter.
Do you have a new book in the works?
I’m working on a companion novel to Perennials. We’ll get more of Fiona, two years later, during her senior year of college. I’m trying to put my own contemporary and female-centric spin on the “campus novel,” which is a genre that has actually been dominated by mostly male writers in the past.
What have you read lately that inspired you?
Two novels I’ve recently loved are The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker (a new debut) and Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (a classic I’d never read before). I also reread A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, which I hadn’t looked at since college. It still feels just as revolutionary and important.
What do you hope readers take away from Perennials?
I wanted to write a book that spoke to the duality of the pains and joys of female adolescence and the fraught nature of female friendship. I wanted to write about the complicated ways women feel about their bodies while living in a world where their bodies are constantly appraised; their jealousies of and competitions with one other; and the myriad of complex feelings they have on any given day, of embarrassment or selfishness or sexual desire or insecurity, but are so seldom welcome to express. I wanted to capture the underbelly of being a girl or a woman of any age, and how the internal experience so often contrasts with the external appearance that we craft for ourselves. Mostly, I wanted to write a book that makes its readers ache with recognition. It was rare for me growing up to read books that I felt captured my own experience of girlhood and adolescence, and I wrote Perennials in an attempt to remedy that.
Having throughly enjoyed Perennials I would say Berman’s intended take away is spot on. Don’t miss out on your chance to experience this first-hand. Enjoy!