Perri Klass: Modern-day Renaissance Woman

33% mother, 33% doctor, 33% writer. 100% woman.

Houghton Mifflin

33% mother, 33% doctor, 33% writer. 100% woman.

Shannon O'Connor

BY SHANNON O’CONNORContributing Writer

Perri Klass swept into the faculty dining room in a whirlwind of chaos. She didn’t know that she was right on time, as the class in which she was supposed to give her reading was just about to start. But she still managed to be surrounded by a throng of admirers hanging on her every word who did not seem to mind one bit that they kept everyone upstairs waiting.

Dr. Klass is an unassuming person, full of quiet grace and humor. She read her story “Intimacy” from her collection of short stories, Love and Modern Medicine; a book full of insight on the human condition. After the reading, some of the audience members commented that it seemed different when she read it, that her voice brought more levity to it.

After she read from the book, she took questions from the audience. One person asked about dealing with the death of a child in the story “Rainbow Mama” as compared with the way Charles Dickens and Lousia May Alcott handled it in the nineteenth century. Dr. Klass answered that child mortality was extremely commonplace in those days, and most everyone had experienced it. She said that she had gotten into more depth about the death of a child in her novel Other Women’s Children, and she even quoted one of Charles Dickens’ letters in the book.

Dr. Klass said that she gets a lot of her material from her experiences working as a doctor at Dorchester House and Boston Medical Center. She said, “I’m not a very interesting person. If I’m alone in a room, nothing really happens in my head, unlike Dickens, if he were alone in room a universe would expand.”

Dr. Klass said that she does not have that much time to write, since she is busy as a doctor and a mother. She said that she writes whenever she can, which is usually in the summer. She mentioned that since medical training is so intense that most doctors get the spark squeezed out of them in the process.

She said that medical students read literature differently than students of writing. She said that students of the humanities are in some ways much smarter than doctors in the training they receive. She related a story about a workshop of medical students who were trying to analyze her book, Other Women’s Children. They were debating over whether or not the right treatment was given to the child, and she just wanted to scream at them, “I made the whole thing up!”

Dr. Klass, however, does more work than writing and working as a pediatrician. She is also the president of a foundation called Reach Out and Read, which is a nonprofit group that gives free age-appropriate books to preschoolers at child doctor visits, mostly to low income families. The program is in all 50 states including Puerto Rico and Guam, and most recently opened its newest center in Las Vegas. Dr. Klass said, “It was very exciting to go to Las Vegas. Most people don’t think of it as a center for child literacy, but most of the jobs are in hospitality, and near the poverty level. Those people have kids, too.”

As well as all her other positions she holds, somewhere in her hectic schedule, Dr. Klass finds time to be the chairperson for PEN New England, which is a non-profit literary organizations for people involved in letters. There are different chapters all around the country, but the New England chapter is one of the most active.

Perri Klass is a writer, a doctor, and a mother. Her writing touches the heart and her characters could all be people we know. Spending an afternoon listening to her talk about writing and her life, all in the audience were inspired by the duality of her strength and gentle tone.