|Mandy Berman, photo by Martin Bentsen|
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Perennials, and why did you choose to set it at a summer camp?
A: Perennials began as an idea during the first year of my MFA program. The first workshop piece I wrote in the program was a short story about a 30-year-old camp counselor, Mo, who also happened to be a virgin. Characters like Rachel and Nell showed in Mo’s story, and I began to feel that I wanted to explore them more in depth, too.
Eventually, the project became about a whole cast of characters at Camp Marigold, a fictional sleepaway camp in the Berkshires, over the course of one summer. By the time I had written nine characters, the overarching narrative of the whole project began to feel much more connected and novelistic than if they were stand-alone stories.
I really liked the idea of writing a novel that took place at a summer camp because camp is such a perfect breeding ground for fiction. So much happens there in a contained period of time – characters develop rapidly and so the plot, too, unfolds quickly. With adolescent girls in particular, the changes that happen to them over the course of one summer can be dramatic.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I didn’t know the novel was going to end the way it did until about halfway through the writing process.
Once I figured out the ending, I realized this was no longer a collection of stories, because it said something bigger about girlhood, adolescence, and the loss of innocence in a way that applied to every single one of these characters. Plus, it was such a major event that the ending felt much more novelistic than the ending to a single character’s story.
Q: How was the title selected, and what does it signify for you?
A: I wanted a title that would both reflect the natural and summer-like aspects and also say something bigger about the nature of girlhood and adolescence. The campers at Marigold return year after year because nothing ever changes; it’s a time capsule for their youth.
But the title is tongue-in-cheek, and bittersweet in a way, because of course things do change – these girls develop, and grow up, and we learn by the end of the novel that nothing about their camp experience, or their youth, can last forever.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: Top 5: Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham, and Jeffrey Eugenides.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a companion novel to Perennials. It follows Fiona two years after Perennials ends, during her senior year at college, and focuses on her development into adulthood after that fateful summer.
We also get a glimpse into the lives of Fiona’s best friend at college, a visiting professor, and his wife, whose stories eventually intersect with Fiona’s in unusual and surprising ways.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I wrote Perennials largely because I wanted another book about the complicated inner lives of women and girls to be out in the world. I’m always looking for books like these; as far as I’m concerned, there are never enough. So I hope my novel makes women of all walks of life feel recognized, and I hope they may even see a glimmer of themselves in some of these characters.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb