Perri Klass is one of those over-achiever types who can make a mere hard worker feel downright inadequate. Not that she means to; she just does. Listen as she ticks off her activities for the month of September, a month that the fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School has the nerve to describe as “fairly easy.” All she did was work about 400 hours at the Boston hospital to which she was assigned, write two magazine articles and a couple of book reviews. Oh yes, Klass adds almost as an afterthought, she also attended to the needs of her infant son, tutored several undergraduates and made a little progress on a new novel.
What Klass modestly fails to mention is how she occupied her spare time—such as it was. That was when she basked in the reflected glow of the praise being heaped on her first novel, Recombinations (Putnam’s, $17.95). The story of a sexy lab technician who reshuffles DNA molecules by day and a string of lovers by night, Recombinations has been hailed by critics, like Kirkus Reviews, as “a gem and an uncommonly good first novel. Klass has the wicked eye of an inspired cultural anthropologist.”
Klass, 27, first came to national attention in June 1984 when a story about her busy life as a medical student was published in Mademoiselle. Several months later she became the youngest woman ever to write the New York Times “Hers” column, a popular forum for female writers. Klass’ rueful tales about the trials of being a parent while undergoing grueling hospital rotations struck a nerve with the nation’s women. “Mothers everywhere sent it to their daughters,” notes Klass.
Although Klass’ name is well known in Manhattan literary circles, her colleagues at Harvard are, for the most part, unaware of her second career. “It’s virtually never happened to me that a doctor said, ‘I read what you wrote,’ ” admits Perri. But this lack of recognition doesn’t bother her. In fact, she says, “It’s a great luxury knowing that if I get badly reviewed I won’t walk into a room at the hospital and get hushed sympathy.”
One reason Klass has been able to achieve so much so fast is Larry Wolff, the man she has lived with for the past five years, and the father of Benjamin. Wolff, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard, helps out with their son’s care and the cooking. The couple has no plans to marry—Benjamin was given Perri’s surname—and seems oblivious to the conventional amenities of family life. “We have no desire for a car or a TV,” says Perri, who earns about $20,000 a year from her freelance writing, roughly the same amount Wolff gets as a lecturer. Nor are they inclined to give dinner parties, decorate, or clean their three-bedroom dormitory apartment in Cambridge. “We live life at a certain level of chaos,” she admits.
Klass’ childhood in Leonia, N.J. prepared her well for her dual career. Her father, a professor of anthropology at Barnard College, once worked as an editor of science-fiction books. Perri’s mother, an English professor at City University of New York, is the author of nine books, and her brother, David, 25, has written one. Sister Judy, 18, a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, also has literary aspirations. “In my family it’s taken for granted that everyone writes,” explains Perri. “It’s respected as something worthwhile to do.”
Klass wrote her first story at age 4—a three sentence tale about her family’s move from Vermont to New York. Even as a little girl she had a deep love of reading. “I was very eclectic,” Perri says. “I went happily from the classics to the backs of cereal boxes to Nancy Drew.” By the time she graduated from high school, she had won two national fiction prizes. A biology major at Harvard, Klass graduated magna cum laude and in 1982 and 1984 won prestigious O. Henry awards for short stories she had written.
When she finishes medical school next year, Klass plans to become a pediatrician. “One of the things I like about it is that kids get well,” she says. She also wants to have more children and write more books. Next spring Putnam’s will publish I Am Having an Adventure, a collection of short stories. Although she sometimes gets sleepy, Klass never seems harried by her triple role as mother, doctor and writer. The writing, at least, comes easy. She wrote Recombinations in just two months. “I don’t agonize over the typewriter,” says Klass. “I don’t have time.”