The acclaimed author took an uncharted course at the University of Iowa


At 41, Melissa Febos is now an accomplished author, associate professor of English, and member of the prestigious Masters of Fine Arts faculty with UI’s acclaimed non-fiction writing program. (Photo provided)

IOWA CITY — From crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard her sea captain father’s massive freighter to snuggling up with book after book in her former Cape Cod home, the University associate professor from Iowa, Melissa Febos, charted her own academic path.

She didn’t confine her teenage education to the four walls of a classroom. In fact, she refused.

“I don’t know where that kind of determination or arrogance comes from,” Febos said. “But I’m grateful to my younger self for having it.”

At 41, Febos is now an accomplished author, Associate Professor of English, and member of the prestigious Masters of Fine Arts faculty with UI’s acclaimed non-fiction writing program.

His published work includes the memoir “Whip Smart”; a collection of essays, “Abandon Me”, LAMBDA Literary Award finalist and Publishing Triangle Award finalist; and her most recent collection of essays, “Girlhood,” which became a national bestseller.

This most recent collection in which Febos uses her experience of 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 release another collection of Febos essays titled “Body Work.” And, among her many awards and grants, Febos was named last Tuesday one of 35 writers for 2022 to receive a $25,000 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She was among more than 2,000 applicants this year for the competitive awards.

With or without the praise, however, Febos said she never imagined doing anything else.

“I basically planned to be a writer when I was a kid, which is really weird and not required of all writers, certainly…but I was a very specific kid,” she said, recounting his obsession with reading and writing and self-identifying as a writer at the age of 10. “It seemed very clear to me that this was the only thing I could imagine doing for the rest of my life.”

“Flying Fish and Porpoises”

From his quaint hometown of Falmouth, Mass., Febos grew up in a storybook family — with a mother who worked as a psychotherapist and a father who went on long voyages as a sea captain.

“But it was also wonderful because it meant we were exposed to global issues and artifacts in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t have been,” she said. “When I was a kid, I would have been 8 or 9 years old, my whole family went on a trip on one of the freighters he was the captain of.”

Febos, his younger brother and his mother met their father in Egypt and boarded his massive ship before heading to ports in Algeria and Morocco and crossing the Atlantic to Florida. They endured a fairly intense storm which Febos remembers as somewhat frightening.

“I remember when we boarded the ship I noticed all the beds were bolted to the floor,” she said. “But we saw flying fish and porpoises, … It was pretty amazing.”

Given Febos’ focus on literature—coupled with her willful and stubborn nature—she made the unusual and drastic decision to drop out of high school at age 15.

“Not because I was hurting, but because it didn’t feel like the best route to what I wanted to do,” she said. “So I dropped out of high school and homeschooled.”

The move came after her mother noticed she seemed unhappy.

“I was like, this isn’t working for me. I’m bored and there are other things I want to do,” Febos said, explaining why she didn’t enjoy the typical high school experience.” I was a very artistic and oddly driven teenager. … I was a really intense person. I was queer and really political, and I didn’t feel like there was room 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 quitting.

“I was like, okay, I’m going to give up. But I would like to continue using your library,” Febos recalled.

At 16, she got her equivalency degree and started taking night classes at Harvard University — to show colleges that she could get good grades and take full courses. She received her undergraduate degree from Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York and earned a master’s degree in writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

“And I published my first book shortly after graduating,” she said.

“I did not regret it”

Febos met his now-wife Donika Kelly — an acclaimed poet — in 2016, and they didn’t have to look to leave New York. But when two positions appeared at UI, known worldwide for its writing programs and MFA in creative writing, the couple decided to move to the Midwest in July 2020.

“I don’t think I would have been interested in coming alone,” Febos said. “But she and I talked about it for a long time and decided we were interested in seeing what it was like here.”

Kelly is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at UI, specializing in poetry and gender studies in contemporary American literature. And although they arrived in the middle of a pandemic, with online classes and professors expressing concern about COVID-19 precautions on campus, Febos said she has a deep appreciation for the State – noting a fondness for the little things and the big things it offers.

“Once I’m done being thrilled to have a driveway, a dishwasher, and not having to haul my groceries home on my back – like those luxuries – I mean, honestly, I don’t ‘m still not used to it. It’s so amazing,” she said. “There’s just kind of an ease of living in a smaller place.”

But, conversely, Febos found its grand opening enchanting.

“I was immediately struck by the hills and the sky, the enormity of the sky,” she said. “When we first moved here, I was content to go for leisurely runs for hours on the way to the river. And I felt so lucky to be here.

Considering everything she had been through in pandemic-ridden New York City, Febos said, she was thrilled to be able to be outside.

“The summers here are so beautiful and warm, lush and green,” she said. “Moving across the country to a whole new place in a pandemic is really, really difficult in every way you can imagine. But all things considered, I was surprisingly happy here. I haven’t regretted it for a moment. I’m really happy to be here.

And so while nothing is guaranteed — especially in these times of a pandemic — Febos said it views Iowa as a long-term business.

“I kind of take it day by day,” she said. “But that’s my hope. I really hope to be here for a while.

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