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IOWA CITY — From sailing across the Atlantic Ocean on her sea captain dad’s massive cargo ship to curling up with book after book in her old Cape Cod home, University of Iowa associate professor Melissa Febos charted her own academic course.
She didn’t confine her adolescent schooling to the four walls of a classroom. In fact, she refused to.
“I don’t know where this sort of determination or kind of arrogance came from,” Febos said. “But I’m grateful to my younger self for having it.”
At age 41, Febos today is an accomplished author, associate professor of English and member of the esteemed master of fine arts faculty with the acclaimed UI non-fiction writing program.
Her published work includes the memoir “Whip Smart”; an essay collection, “Abandon Me,” a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist and Publishing Triangle Award finalist; and her most recent essay collection, “Girlhood,” which has become a national bestseller.
That most recent collection in which Febos uses her experience coming of age as a touchstone for common experiences among young girls in America has received rave reviews from the New York Times, Book Review, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, NPR and others.
On March 15, Catapult will publish another collection of Febos essays titled, “Body Work.” And, among her many awards and fellowships, Febos last Tuesday was named one of 35 writers for 2022 to receive a $25,000 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She was among 2,000-plus applicants this year for the competitive awards.
With or without the acclaim, though, Febos said she never fathomed doing anything else.
“I was basically planning to be a writer when I was a child, which is really weird and not required of all writers, certainly … but I was a very specific kid,” she said, recounting her obsession with reading and writing and self-identifying as a writer at age 10. “It just felt very clear to me that that was the only thing I could imagine doing for the rest of my life.”
‘Flying fish and porpoises’
From her picturesque hometown of Falmouth, Mass., Febos grew up in a family worthy of storybooks — with a mom who worked as a psychotherapist and a dad who’d be gone on long journeys as a sea captain.
“But it was also wonderful because it meant that we were exposed to global issues and artifacts in a way that we wouldn't otherwise have been,” she said. “When I was a kid, I would have been 8 or 9, my whole family went for a voyage on one of the cargo ships that he was captain of.”
Febos, her younger brother and mom met their father in Egypt and climbed aboard his massive ship before hitting ports in Algeria and Morocco and trekking back across the Atlantic to Florida. They endured a pretty intense storm that Febos recalls as somewhat scary.
“I remember when we boarded the ship I noticed that all the beds were bolted to the floor,” she said. “But we saw flying fish and porpoises, … It was pretty amazing.”
Given Febos’ single-minded focus on literature — paired with her strong-willed, stubborn nature — she made the unusual and drastic decision to drop out of high school at age 15.
“Not because I was doing poorly, but because it didn't feel like the best route to the thing I wanted to do,” she said. “So I dropped out of high school and home-schooled myself.”
The move came after her mom noticed she seemed unhappy.
“I was like, this is not working for me. I’m bored, and there are other things I want to be doing,” Febos said, explaining more about why she wasn’t enjoying the typical high school experience. “I was a very artistic, weirdly driven teenager. … I was a really intense person. I was queer, and really political, and it didn’t feel like there was space for that in my high school. So I wanted to go somewhere where there would be.”
The family visited a guidance counselor who offered a few options, including dropping out.
“I was like, all right, I’m going to drop out. But I’d like to continue to use your library,” Febos recalled.
At 16, she got her equivalency diploma and started taking night classes at Harvard University — to show colleges she could get good grades and complete course work. She earned her undergraduate at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York City and got an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
“And I published my first book shortly after I graduated,” she said.
'Haven't regretted it’
Febos met her now-wife Donika Kelly — an acclaimed poet — in 2016, and they weren’t necessary looking to leave New York. But when two positions popped up at the UI, world-renowned for its writing programs and MFA in creative writing, the couple decided to make the move to the Midwest in July 2020.
“I don't think I would have been interested in coming by myself,” Febos said. “But she and I talked about it for a long time and decided that we were interested in seeing what it was like out here.”
Kelly is an assistant professor in the UI English Department — specializing in poetry and gender studies in contemporary American literature. And although they arrived in the midst of a pandemic, with courses shifting online and faculty voicing concern about COVID-19 precautions on campus, Febos said she’s formed a deep appreciation for the state — noting fondness for the small and big things it offers.
“Once I sort of got over being thrilled by having a driveway, a dishwasher and not having to carry my groceries home on my back — like those luxuries — I mean, honestly, I'm still not used to it. It's so amazing,” she said. “There's just sort of the ease of living in a smaller place.”
But, conversely, Febos has found its vast openness enchanting.
“I was immediately struck by the rolling hills and the sky, the enormity of the sky,” she said. “When we first moved here, I would just go for these hourslong, leisurely runs on the river path. And I just felt so lucky to be here.”
Given all she had endured in a pandemic-wracked New York City, Febos said, she was thrilled to be able to be outside.
“The summers here are so beautiful and hot, and lush and green,” she said. “Moving across the country to a brand-new place in a pandemic is really, really challenging in all the ways you would imagine. But all things considered, I've been surprisingly happy here. I haven't regretted it for a moment. I'm really glad to be here.”
And so while nothing is guaranteed — especially in these pandemic times — Febos said she’s viewing Iowa as a long-term endeavor.
“I’m sort of taking it day by day,” she said. “But that’s my hope. I definitely hope to be here for a while.”
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