The lives of Perri Klass, physician, writer, mother

April 24, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

WHEN YOU READ about Perri Klass -- pediatrician, novelist, unmarried mother -- you're impressed, maybe awed.

But when you talk with her -- a professional woman with a high-profile avocation, a family and a cold -- she doesn't seem overwhelming. "I'm a pediatrician and I have a couple of kids. I know lots of pediatricians who have a couple of kids," says Klass, 32, during a telephone interview from her office at Boston City Hospital, where she is a research fellow working with pediatric AIDS patients.

Of course, Perri Klass has a couple of published novels, too. And more than a couple of bylines in The New York Times. And a couple of degrees, including one from Harvard University Medical School.

"You sort of fit in the things that are important to you," she says.

Klass will speak about two of those things: writing and medicine and "how the two are related" in a public lecture tomorrow night at the College of Notre Dame. She will also talk Friday about women's careers in medicine at a Towson State University women's studies class.

"Writing and medicine do mesh very easily for me," says Klass, whose most recent novel, "Other Women's Children," focuses on a woman pediatrician struggling to balance the demands of home and hospital.

"Writing is a very flexible thing. When you are not writing, you are living a life and that's material" for writing, she says, adding that she can stop writing for months at a time and then start again without losing ground.

Klass, who comes from a family of writers, says she has "always written." But it was not until she was immersed in medical school that she published anything -- or had reason to believe she ever would.

"Toward the end of my first year of medical school, an editor at Mademoiselle suggested that I write an article for the magazine about being a woman in the first year of medical school. I had never written anything like this before and I more or less blundered my way through it," Klass writes in "A Not Entirely Benign Procedure," her memoirs of medical school published in 1987.

Since that article, in the early 1980s, Klass has published plenty, including four books: the memoirs; her first novel, "Recombinations," in 1985; a collection of short stories, "I Am Having An Adventure," in 1986, and her second novel, the well-received "Other Women's Children," last fall. She also wrote the "Hers" column in the New York Times in 1984, as well as countless other newspaper and magazine articles.

"I am a curiosity" among physicians and among writers, says Klass of her overlapping careers. "It's a little strange sometimes."

But not strange enough to change.

"I don't think about cutting out writing . . . or medicine . . . or children," she says. Klass and Larry Wolff have two children, a son, 7 -- born in the middle of Klass's second year in medical school -- and a daughter, 20 months, born just after Klass finished her residency in pediatrics.

Klass and Wolff, a professor of European history at Boston College, have lived together many years but have never married. "It's gone along fine this long," she says.

Klass seems to relish the many different roles she plays, but she rejects the notion that she is a role model for other women: "That's sort of like being on trial."

There is no secret to the way she operates, Klass says. "It's a matter of temperament. There are people who need to feel they are doing one thing; some careers demand it. When you decide you want to do more than one thing, you start juggling and balancing."

Klass's life is a "chaotic environment" that includes several out-of-town speaking engagements a month -- her children sometimes accompany her -- an irregular schedule at the hospital clinic and a family of night-owls that finds quality time late into the evening. Klass writes "around the edges," she says, sometimes calling on her medical school training that prepared her to write all night when a deadline demands.

"I think I thrive on that," says Klass. "There are a lot of different ways to set up your life. I just live some other version."

Perri Klass will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday in Fourier Hall Lounge at the College of Notre Dame. The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, phone the college at 435-0100.

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