Summer Camp Is a Microcosm for Life

Mandy Berman on the literature of sleepaway camp, taking girlhood seriously, and canonizing Judy Blume next to Philip Roth

Mandy Berman’s debut novel, Perennials, opens with Rachel, age thirteen, trying to wake up her mother so that she can be driven to summer camp. Soon, we arrive to Camp Marigold, in the Berkshires, and meet Fiona, Rachel’s best “camp friend.” A book that tracks a summer in a sleepaway camp might sound like a saccharine beach reach, but Perennials is far from sweet. Berman tackles the changing female body, power dynamics in sex, and the pain involved in going from a girl to a woman. Soon after arriving at Camp Marigold, the novel jumps forward six years to give us insight into the lives of many people from the Marigold days: young campers, the director, Rachel’s struggling single mom. Perennials is about camp, but camp turns out to be more than just a place to spend the summer.

I recently met up with Berman in Brooklyn, where we discussed writing about the female body, turning a string of short stories into a novel, and why Philip Roth’s masturbation scenes get taken more seriously than Judy Blume.

Michelle Lyn King: I was thinking of your book yesterday because I heard a Brooklyn Heights tween in CVS discussing how one of her friends didn’t want to be in her cabin at sleepaway camp and she was really upset about it. She was so hurt.

Mandy Berman: Oh no! That’s a real issue. That’s a legitimate issue.

King: It was! She was really hurt. It reminded me how camp is this microcosm for…life. Okay, so, why don’t we begin by talking about how the book began? I know you went to Columbia’s MFA program. Did you start it there?

Berman: Yeah, I did start it there. I basically wrote it throughout the two years that I studied there. It started as a collection of linked stories. I knew that I wanted to write something in a camp world because it was something about that this idea — like you were saying — of the microcosm that really appealed to me. This sense that so much tends to happen there within such a short period of time. It’s really kind of this pressure cooker. I thought it would be a really perfect setting for fiction. Mo’s story was the first one I started writing. There was someone I knew when I worked at summer camp who had a similar story, who was a woman in her 30s and was a virgin. I was really curious about how a person gets to that place in their life and how things turn out that way for them, so I took that and ran with it. From there, all these different characters were appearing, like Rachel appeared, and Nell, and then Fiona appeared when I wrote Rachel’s story. I actually kind of worked backwards, in a way. With every workshop [at Columbia], I was essentially workshopping what was a different story and then they eventually became chapters.

Author Mandy Berman. Photo by Martin Bentsen.

King: That’s really interesting. I love that. I want to talk more about camp. Obviously, this is fiction and I don’t assume what happens to these characters happens to you, but I do assume you went to camp…

Berman: Yeah, I did. Yeah, I went to sleepaway camp for four summers, so from when I was 11 to 15 at Camp Sloane, which is in The Berkshires in Connecticut. So, same kind of setting. And then I went back for one summer when I was 19 as a counselor. I was there both of those ages that I write about. The 13-year-old summer and the 19-year-old summer were both formative for me.

King: Why is that? Other than those being really formative years, in general.

Berman: There was something about camp being the kind of place where you could try things out for the first time. It felt like a safe space to be able to figure out who you were, away from the “real world.” Middle school, where everything is…you know. I was bullied a lot as a kid. Camp was a place where I could get away from that. I could figure out another aspect of myself. I could try out being more outgoing, more friendly, less afraid to speak my mind. It was also a place to try out experiences for the first time. The first place to kiss a boy. You know, I feel like I might’ve even been a bully-er. I was a completely different person at camp. I took on a leadership role there. It was trying things on for size.

King: Yeah, you really get to be whoever you want at camp. There’s no one to fact-check you. I’m thinking of how in her Manhattan school, [the character] Rachel isn’t that experienced compared to her other city friends. But then she comes to camp and she’s the girl from the city, one of the more experienced girl, especially compared to Fiona.

Berman: Yeah, and in comparison to Fiona, Rachel is able to see how Fiona sees her and she seizes on that. I think there is power in being the girl from the city, who has seen a little bit more of the world. Things start earlier there. I think she uses that to her advantage.

King: Let’s talk about their friendship a bit. I haven’t really seen a female friendship written about in this way, mostly because they’re not part of each other’s “real life.” It’s a really specific type of friendship. They can tell one another things that they might not tell their friends who are in their day to day life. For example, Fiona tells Rachel that she wishes [her sister] Helen had never been born, and Rachel tells Fiona things about her dad that she doesn’t tell her friends back home. It seems like you get to be this other person, yes, but also you get to be the most pure version of yourself. You can tell people secrets and know they’re not going to tell everyone at school because they don’t know anyone at your school. I’m interested in hearing how you developed their friendship. There’s so much there. There’s a really intense power dynamic, the most obvious one being that Rachel is more outgoing. Guys naturally like her more. But Fiona has this family that Rachel really craves. I’m thinking of that moment when it’s Visiting Weekend and Rachel is so excited because her mom bought her all these snacks at CVS and then Rachel gets a horse. It’s this, Oh, fuck moment. Rachel realizes Fiona is always going to be able to one-up her when it comes to money and family.

Berman: Right. And then later in that chapter Rachel sneaks out to see Matthew [the guy Fiona likes]. I think the reason that chapter is so important is that it’s a pattern we then see for the rest of their friendship. It’s Rachel’s first moment of realizing, Okay, well, I might not have money and I might not have this nuclear family, but I have power over men and this is the way I’m going to use my power and then I’m going to withhold it from Fiona because that’s another form of power. So, there’s definitely that. There’s also…so much for Fiona is a given. It’s actually quite hard for her to see the ways in which she’s privileged and lucky. She doesn’t really have a lot to compare it to, except for Rachel. That moment where she goes to Rachel’s apartment [in New York] and she’s like, You only have one bedroom? That’s not the world she grew up in. She grew up in Westchester. Her whole life is very much life the family that she grew up in. I don’t think she quite realizes until she makes a friend like Rachel that those things aren’t a given. Those things are actually privileges and they’re something to be grateful for. I don’t think she even knows to use that to her advantage because she doesn’t realize it’s something she’s been given, and so she ends up playing the victim a lot because, as far as she knows, she is. In her sphere, she’s the middle child. She was kind of neglected and less good looking and less outgoing. I think Rachel forces her to see something outside the scope of herself.

King: For sure. Fiona doesn’t have the best image of herself at all. How females consider their body plays a large role in this book. Within the first few pages Rachel gets her period for the first time and is like, I didn’t know it could be brown. That really stuck with me. And then when Fiona goes to college and gains weight and feels so uncomfortable in her body. You write about women’s relationships to their body in a really honest way. I would love to hear how you considered women and their bodies when you were writing this book. That’s a terrible way to phrase that. I hope you know what I mean…

Berman: [Laughs] I do. And that was something that was really important to me in terms of writing a narrative about young women. Your body and your changing body is such a huge part of your life. How the outside world reacts to these changes that you have no control over winds up being so formative. You experience the male gaze for the first time. It was important for me to talk about the changing body in an honest way because so often we don’t. I don’t want to stay destigmatize because I don’t think it’s something that needs to be destigmatized. I think it’s just something that I wanted to talk about in the way that it had happened to me. It’s just a part of life. We talk about men’s bodies. You read early Philip Roth and he’s going on and on about the way he masturbates. Those things are so part of cannon and we don’t really get that in the same honest, unapologetic way for women’s bodies. And then with Fiona’s weight gain, that was something that happened to me. Gaining the Freshman Fifteen. It’s something that’s talked about and joked about a lot, but it was such a huge moment for my insecurities, for my self-confidence. Seeing your body look different than you’ve ever seen it before. I remember when I lost that weight and went back to school sophomore year, all the extra attention that I got and how easy that was to get. It’s so fucked up and fascinating at the same time. I think every woman goes through it in one way or another.

“You read early Philip Roth and he’s going on and on about the way he masturbates. Those things are so part of cannon and we don’t really get that in the same honest, unapologetic way for women’s bodies.”

King: Absolutely. When you wrote that Fiona wanted to tell people, This isn’t actually me. I was like, YES. I broke out in acne my sophomore year of college after basically never getting a breakout before, and I remember feeling like I wasn’t in my body. I was just constantly aware of my body in a way that I had never been, and felt ashamed for that, but couldn’t really help it. I find that a lot of books — even books that do write about women in a complex way, even books by women — kind of avoid writing about the body because it’s such tricky territory. I think sometimes…I don’t want to speak for all women here, obviously. I’m speaking about my own experience. I think it can be difficult to admit that gaining weight or breaking out in acne or whatever made you feel really bad and insecure. But that’s a lot of people’s experience. That was my experience. I was so glad to see it written about.

Berman: Oh, good. I remember there were some notes in workshop [about this]. Fiona’s body stuff used to be more pronounced in the first draft. The way the scene in the hotel room ended was with her throwing up originally, and a lot of workshop notes were, No. It’s too much. We read enough about about bulimia and eating disorders and it sort of borders on trite. And while I ended up taking that out, I ended up taking it out for different reasons. Not because eating disorders are trite, but because something less strong ended up feeling more powerful. Her running her hands under hot water ended up being weirder and more memorable than making herself throw up. But it kind of bummed me out that everyone thought writing about eating disorders was trite and bordered on YA. Everyone was like, Yeah, it’s really hard to do this without it getting too YA, too Lifetime movie. That sucks.

King: That absolutely sucks. It makes me mad. I have to say, before I read this book I expected it to be just about the best friends, about Fiona and Rachel. I don’t want to say it’s marketed in that way —

Berman: It is.

King: Yeah. Well, there have been so many books about female friendship that have come out in the last few years — I hesitate to phrase it that way because obviously they are also about a hundred other things and each one is very different — but I understand it’s a buzzy phrase. I think Rachel and Fiona very much are the beating heart of this novel, but there’s a lot more happening here. The first time I read the book, when it shifted to Denise [Rachel’s mom] in her car driving back from sleepaway camp, I was the tiniest bit thrown. I was like, Oh, wait. I thought we were just staying with the best friends. I thought we were just staying with these girls. That’s when I understood that the book was going to open up and give us insight into all these different characters. I know a little bit about that that decision, based off you talking about starting the book off as a linked collection, but I’d love to hear a bit more about how you decided to focus in on these characters. Were there characters that you thought you were going to focus in on or maybe you did write and then they were cut?

Berman: The one character I cut was Mikey. It was just too hard to write a twelve-year-old boy. It sounded so silly. I couldn’t do it. It sounded so juvenile. It just didn’t work. I was trying to write about his obsession with comic books and I was like, You know, this just isn’t going to happen for me. [Laughs]

King: Oh, yeah. I could never imagine what goes on in a twelve-year-old boy’s head. [Laughs] Truly, who knows?

Berman: But, yeah, as far as the form goes, it started that way. All these different narrative perspectives. I think it’s marketed the way it is because it’s easy for people to understand just one storyline, like just in terms of picking up a book and buying it. But I’m really interested in how different people react differently to the same events. So, over the course of one summer, you get so many different people’s internal experiences. Ostensibly, all the same things happened that summer, but the way that they all experienced those things are completely different. For example, the Jack chapter, which is probably the most different —

King: Yeah, I want to talk specifically about him.

Berman: Yeah, his chapter was one of the earliest I wrote. [SPOILER] I just felt like Rachel would definitely sleep with an older guy. It just felt like what she would do. So, I thought, why don’t I just write this guy’s story and see what comes out? The way that I write is I don’t outline beforehand. I just sort of discover as I do, and I was just really drawn to writing everyone’s experiences. Everyone came in at different times. Helen actually didn’t come in until much later. Shira was another one who came in early. I wanted to know what the experience was like for someone who wasn’t white to come to this predominately white camp. I wanted that voice to be in the book. I just kept being drawn to different people. I’d start with one story and be drawn to a character that showed up in that story. Rachel and Fiona’s mothers were much later voices. I didn’t want the whole book to feel too young. I wanted it to be more well-rounded. It was a good challenge.

King: That’s interesting that you say Helen didn’t come until much later, because [SPOILER] her death is the thing that will ultimately end up defining that summer for all those people. Everything else sort of pales in comparison, especially for Fiona and her family. So, when did she come in?

Berman: She…I think probably when I started writing Fiona’s chapters. Helen showed up at the dinner table scene, and then I was like, Oh, well, she’d most likely go to this camp, too. I think I had already written Shira at this point and was like, Well, they’ll be around the same age, so why don’t I put them together? And I’ll put them in Rachel’s tent. It was a way of condensing all those stories. And then it just…it sort of hit me that Helen was the martyr of the story, that she needed to die, and that she needed to die before her first period. That was so important to me. That became what interested me the most, writing a narrative about a girl who is still a girl. I wanted at least one of those. Writing that was…it was fun and it was sad, but getting to write about all these things that she was doing for the first time, I felt like we needed that younger spirit.

King: And she still has this darkness to her. I’m thinking of when she’s at a birthday party and she eats another slice cake, because she knows she can and she knows it’ll make the adults jealous. She can eat two slices of cake and not gain a pound.

Berman: Yeah. She has some rebellion to her. She sneaks over with Mikey at one point to go to the shed. She’s at this point where she’s starting to play with all the different ways she can rebel and test her limits.

King: Which is what camp is for, in a way. I want to talk more about Jack [the camp director]. Let’s begin by you talking about what your character development was like for him. It would’ve been so easy for you to make him into this incredibly sinister, predatory man, and it’s much more complex than that. He understands that he’s just a conquest for Rachel. He understands their power dynamic.

Berman: I definitely struggled with that for a long time, how to not make him a cliche, especially because he’s the only male voice. I didn’t want him to be “the bad guy,” because even though he is a bad guy, I wanted you to feel for him until the very end. Going into his family was certainly important in that regard. Learning that he had been heartbroken and that he didn’t have a much of a relationship with his son. I actually probably did the most research for that role. Just like…what do camp directors do during the year?

King: What do camp directors do during the year?

Berman: They raise money, basically. But a lot of camp directors do just live year-round at these places. I thought there was a lot of opportunity for loneliness there. I think loneliness tends to be a pretty good motivator for almost anything. Writing about his background story allowed me to recognize the things that were a bit more tender and sad about him.

King: Yeah. He’s almost too sad to hate. He’s…

Berman: He’s pathetic.

King: Yeah, he’s pathetic. I want to talk about the sexual assault, and how you went about writing that. I reread that scene a few times and would be really interested…I imagine it was a difficult scene to write. It seems like you were…I don’t want to use the word careful, but it seems like you were in control of the scene.

Berman: The most important thing to me is that it was ambiguous. That readers were left feeling uncomfortable about it and not quite sure how to take it. I wanted it to be a slow-burn over the following chapters. The ambiguity and the drunkenness was really important to that, but I think that writing a character…I wouldn’t necessarily call Rachel promiscuous but I would call her in control of her sexuality. I wanted to write someone who would maybe, in previous narratives, be dismissed as a slut or “asking for it.” I wanted to explore how that happens, the ways that young women’s lives are so complicated that it’s not just a matter of asking for it. It was important to me to have a nuanced portrayal of it.

King: Yeah. That makes sense. And I feel like the kind of people who use phrases like “she was asking for it” are also the people who say, If she knew him, it doesn’t count. And Rachel admits, he was her friend. She liked him. They hung out together.

Berman: Yeah. There’s such a fine line. She knows him. They’re both wasted. She’s letting him walk her home. She doesn’t push him away, really. But she is clearly too incapacitated to sleep with him and afterwards it’s clear that it’s not what she wanted. That situation is a little microcosm of what we as women experience every day.

King: We keep going back to this word microcosm, and that’s really what camp is. I was reading some of the Amazon reviews and you tweeted one —

Berman: Dark and creepy! [Laughs]

King: [Laughs] Right. As if that’s a bad thing! I think a lot of times when people hear a novel is set in a sleepaway camp, they might thing, That must be a really fun book.

Berman: Totally. And it’s being marketed as a summer read. Yeah. I’m sure there will be more people who think they’re picking up a light-hearted beach book and might be unpleasantly surprised. As a woman writer, I think you’re always going to get a lighter treatment than you might want. If you’re a woman writing about women and writing about women’s inner lives, it’s not always seen as serious as you want. I hate to keep going back to the Philip Roth analogy.

“As a woman writer, I think you’re always going to get a lighter treatment than you might want.”

King: I am happy to talk about Philip Roth for three hours.

Berman: I love Philip Roth for many reasons. I’m probably not even well-versed enough in his work to be talking about him as much as I am, but I guess I’m talking more about the treatment of his books versus the treatment of books about young adolescent women. We just don’t have those as serious members of the canon in the same way Portnoy’s Complaint is. Books like that, for me at least, are Judy Blume books. And those are considered fluffy, but books like Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret? and Summer Sisters were so formative. They were one of the first things that reflected back on me as I was growing up. All of those books that were young adult, “girl” books were so real and beautiful and moving and important to me, and they’re not considered serious literature.

King: Absolutely. This is a book that takes girls and girlhood seriously. One scene that really stayed with me is when Mikey and Shira go out on the canoe and when they come back late the counselor asks where they were. Mikey lies and when the counselor asks Shira if he’s telling the truth, you write that Shira understands the rules are different for boys —

Berman: For white boys, especially.

King: Yeah. Can you actually talk more about Shira’s character? She’s this outcast in many ways.

Berman: It was important to me that the book was not one note in a lot of ways. I didn’t want it to be one note class-wise. I didn’t want it to be one-note with gender, with sexuality, with race, with age. Any of these things. I wanted so many different varieties of voices. So, it made the most sense to me to have one non-white character. I wanted to pull out of scope for a little bit, and I think Rachel does some of this, as well. She’s obviously from a different class than Fiona and Helen are, but I wanted to shed some light on some of the ridiculousness of this camp world and the insular nature of it. Some of the irony of it, as well. The fact that these kids who come here every summer to ostensibly be in nature actually have no interest in boating or hiking or swimming in the lake. They just want to go to the dances and get dressed up and gossip. I thought Shira was a really good example of someone who just wanted to be outside. I think of her as pre-sexual. She’s not really interested in boys yet. She just wants to have new experiences in a way that a kid might, especially a kid who has spent most of their life in a small apartment in the Bronx. That was a difficult one to write. I will say that Victor LaValle, again, was hugely helpful with this. He’s black and I’m obviously not. He was…he helped usher me through these double-standards in terms of the way Shira might need to protect herself and react in that experience and the way that Mikey wouldn’t have to. Being new to this camp but also being a girl of color who is genuinely more afraid, with good reason, of getting in trouble. Of becoming the scapegoat. So, even though it kind of tears up the relationship between Mikey and Shira, she needs to do it in this moment of self-preservation. And later she gets really homesick because she just wants to be a kid again. She’s faced with this really adult decision that she instinctively knows to do, but isn’t really ready for.

King: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you want to talk about?

Berman: One of the most important things to me writing this book was that I wanted the experience that I had to be written down. I haven’t read enough of them.

King: Like what?

Berman: Well, when we were talking about women’s bodies. Your changing body and the way the world is reacting to it. But just the complexity of female friendships. How they can be simultaneously be so loving and so…girls can be so loyal to each other and have a deep connection that is only possible between two girls, especially of that age, but also with just such an ability to be cruel to each other, too. To pick and pick and pick at these little things until they grow into a lifetime of resentments and insecurities and issues with other women. I wanted to explore how that duality is possible.

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