Class Act

Introducing: award-winning writer and teacher Rebecca Skloot.

I'm one of those people with a ridiculous amount of energy," Rebecca Skloot says, and she means it.

Skloot, who is in her first semester teaching creative nonfiction in the MFA program at the University of Memphis, moved here from teaching jobs at New York University and the University of Pittsburgh, and already she's got energy (and ideas) to spare. She's rethinking the university's River City Writers Series of visiting authors. She's overhauling the creative-writing program's website. She's working, in partnership with the University of Mississippi, to move an important writers' conference from Maryland to the Mid-South. And she's preparing her first book for publication sometime next year.

In addition to all this, she's teaching at national writers' workshops, participating in discussion panels across the country, contributing to two blogs — one for the National Book Critics Circle, where Skloot is a board member; the other at — and maintaining an award-winning career as a freelance journalist. This is a far cry from the years she spent financing college and graduate school by working, according to her Web site, in "emergency rooms, neurology labs, veterinary morgues, and martini bars."

"I just don't sleep," Skloot admits. "That's the thing."

It's a good thing for this writer, whose focus is the intersection of science and everyday life. It's meant an award in 2004 from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for her essay "When Pets Attack," which appeared in New York magazine. It's meant an article in The New York Times on Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died in 1951 but whose cell line, which helped lead to a polio vaccine, survives to this day. It's meant pieces written for The New York Times Magazine (including one on the latest in veterinary care: goldfish surgery). And it's meant a monthly column on pet care in Prevention magazine and contributions to O: The Oprah Magazine and Popular Science.

You may have also seen Skloot on the PBS program NOVA ScienceNOW. Or read her book reviews in the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. Or come across her reprinted work in Best Food Writing 2005, Best American Travel Writing 2005, Best American Essays 2005, in addition to Woman's Best Friend: Women Writers on the Dogs in Their Lives and In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.

But what is this term "creative non-fiction"? Sounds oxymoronic. It isn't. Skloot explains:

"It's the booming creative-writing field right now. It's in high demand in writing departments nationwide. But people hear the term 'creative nonfiction,' and they think, Oh, it's a writer being creative with the facts.

"That's not the case at all. Everything that falls under the creative-nonfiction umbrella — newspaper and magazine articles, personal essays, memoirs, literary journalism — is true. The 'creativity' part has to do with how a writer presents the facts, and that can include elements of fiction writing, such as 'seeing' scenes and using dialogue."

In short, according to Skloot, "Creative nonfiction applies to any nonfiction that's written well."

It's a lesson she's eager to teach her students. And there's another lesson to teach — one, to Skloot's way of thinking, that is usually overlooked in university writing programs: How To Earn a Living. Again, according to Skloot:

"In academia, people don't like to talk about the market side of writing.Yes, writing's an art. But it's almost a faux pas to talk about the networking side of things, the business side. That's often the place where I start! Besides learning how to write, you need to learn how to present yourself as a writer. You need to learn how to talk to editors and publishers."

So that's what Skloot's doing: She's showing her students, in a class called "Literary Programming," how to meet with publishing professionals, propose articles and book ideas, conduct interviews with other authors, and give public readings.

And if you, the reading public, think you're being left out, think again. For this fall's River City Writers Series (which concludes on November 15th with a reading by poet C.K. Williams at the Pink Palace), Skloot thought outside the box — the on-campus classroom. In October, she scheduled appearances by memoirist Joyce Maynard at the Holiday Inn University on Central and by novelist Charles Baxter at the Galloway Mansion in Midtown (home of Jan Coleman, a graduate of the U of M's writing program herself and today the program's administrator). She wants the series, which is free and open to the public, to be more community-based, more accessible, more inviting — in a word: fun.

"When you're at a reading, you want to be in a beautiful place," Skloot says. 'You want to 'feel' the art. You want people to have the opportunity to mingle, talk."

Talk they will when Skloot and others rechristen Baltimore's Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers Conference. It's about to become the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, and it's being held next February in Oxford, Mississippi. In 2009, the annual meeting of writers, agents, editors, and publishers moves to Memphis, a transition that Skloot calls big — a big project to organize and a huge project in terms of the national attention the conference will bring to Memphis and the Mid-South.

It's also the conference that, in 2006, brought Rebecca Skloot to the attention of Kristen Iversen, who also teaches creative nonfiction at the U of M. The department was looking nationwide for an additional writer, Skloot was looking for a full-time teaching position, and when Iversen mentioned Memphis, Skloot remembers thinking, "Well, maybe. That could be interesting."

And it has been, not only for Skloot, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, the daughter of nonfiction writer, novelist, and poet Floyd Skloot, but also for the man in her life: short-story writer, novelist, in addition to actor, David Prete. He's teaching at the U of M too. He's also mounting a one-man show at Playhouse on the Square this month.

How does Memphis suit Skloot so far?

"I'm loving it!" she says. "David and I have a house we really love and a backyard that my dogs are thrilled about. We're also into food, so that's one of the first things David and I had to check out and ask ourselves: All right, what's the restaurant scene in Memphis like? The restaurants are great! We're just starting to figure out the music scene."

No need, however, for Skloot to figure out the city's summers. They've met.

"I moved here at the beginning of June, and my introduction to Memphis was one of the hottest on record! So I stayed in my office writing, finishing up on my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. There wasn't much incentive to leave the house. I'd just moved from New York City. New York in the summer gets hot. When I arrived in Memphis, I thought, How bad can it get? Friends told me just wait."

But if you can't wait to hear of the authors soon coming to town and sponsored by the U of M, here's the list as it stands: novelist Percival Everett, essayist Anne Fadiman, and poet W.D. Snodgrass. Best-selling novelist Jonathan Franzen as well, Skloot hopes.

"Jonathan's a friend," she says. "I've written him. I know he's coming to visit. He's got a place to stay. I'm going to rope him into doing a reading."

What about Floyd Skloot, the man who introduced his daughter to the writing life?

"I'm roping him too!"


Shelf Life

Sign In, Please: John Grisham's newest isn't a thriller, but it's still a tale of misadventures — comic misadventures when a former American football star moves to Italy to play for the Parma Panthers. The title of the book is Playing for Pizza, and local readers wanting a signed copy (sorry, no personal inscriptions) need to act now. Copies at Burke's Book Store are limited. But what if you're out of luck and Burke's runs out? Hold on. In early December, the store will be taking orders for autographed copies of Grisham's latest legal thriller, due in January 2008. At the time of this writing, the novel was untitled, but one thing's for sure: To reserve a signed copy, you'll need to prepay or order by credit card. Call Burke's at 901-278-7484 or visit the store at 936 S. Cooper. 

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Related Stories

A Tour of the Local Music Scene

November 12, 2015 03:37 PM

Changes Are in Store at Indie Memphis

October 28, 2015 02:36 PM

Celebrating the 2015 Ostrander Award Winners

October 28, 2015 02:06 PM

Add your comment:
Edit Module


Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Related Articles

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags