Paula Fox has led an unusual life. Born in 1923, the unwanted daughter of largely absentee parents, she spent her childhood in the care of a series of guardians, some more reliable than others. As a young adult, she held a variety of jobs with blips of education in between. She was married at seventeen and soon after divorced. Three years later she put her first child up for adoption. A second marriage ended when she was in her early thirties. It wasn’t until Fox was in her forties that she was able to devote significant time to writing.
From the beginning she has operated in two worlds, going back and forth between writing children’s books and adult novels. Her first adult novel, Poor George (1967), was well received by critics but did not fare well commercially. Desperate Characters (1970) and The Western Coast (1972) followed, along with a number of award-winning children’s books—Fox has published over twenty in the course of her career. Her fourth adult novel, The Widow’s Children (1976), was rejected by thirteen publishers before it was finally accepted by Dutton/Plume. Though she went on to publish A Servant’s Tale (1984) and The God of Nightmares (1990), by 1992 all of her adult novels had dropped out of print. And so they might have remained had not Jonathan Franzen happened upon a copy of Desperate Characters while at work on his second novel at Yaddo, a writer’s colony in upstate New York. Franzen was deeply impressed by the book, and mentioned it in a widely read essay that appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1996. This essay, in turn, was noticed by a young editorial assistant at W. W. Norton, Tom Bissell, who took it upon himself to champion Fox’s work and bring her books back into print.
This interview was conducted on three weekend afternoons at Fox’s home on a sycamore-lined street in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. On my first visit, she greeted me warmly at the door beneath the front stairs and at once led me back to the kitchen window to show me the garden, snow-blanketed on this winter day, as if it were expressly this that I had come to see. With her short white hair and considerable height, she is an imposing presence, but painstakingly courteous, and after a few awkward moments peering together out the kitchen window, she redirected me upstairs for a complete tour of the brownstone.
Fox lives with Martin Greenberg, her husband of forty-two years. A teacher and literary critic by profession, Greenberg has taught at the New School and the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University, and is a former editor of Commentary. The top floor is given over to their studies—his in the front, hers in the back. Fox is spry for her eighty-one years, and has no trouble negotiating the winding, Italianate staircase. Her study, a low-ceilinged aerie, faces west over the garden and the asphalt playground of a public elementary school. The typewriter, an IBM Personal Wheelwriter II, faces east, with a view of the slatted wardrobe doors. (“I couldn’t concentrate otherwise,” says Fox.) The south wall of the room is adorned with various awards she has received for her books (“my diplomas”), while the other is taken up by a bookshelf packed with foreign translations of her work.
Most of the interview was conducted in the living room on the second floor. Here everything feels very settled and in its place, from the framed drawings on the walls to the objets on the mantelpiece: a kind of quiet decorum reigns.
In conversation Fox is courteous and attentive. In her desire to be helpful she sometimes rushes in to answer questions before they are completely spoken. When she is finished, she often looks down at her hands clasped on her knees. Among the many surprising things about her is her great laughter: she rocks in her seat, her nostrils flare, and her characteristic watchfulness is briefly dispatched. It is hard to resist courting this laughter.
What were your beginnings as a writer?
It struck me very early. My father brought me a box of books once when I was about three and a half or four. I remember the carton they were in and the covers with illustrations by Newell C. Wyeth. Do you remember him? He was a wonderful illustrator of Robert Louis Stevenson and other books. Robin Hood. I remember how struck I was by the ending when Robin is supported by the window and shoots his last arrow. I was very affected by it.
Your father read these books to you?
No, no. He didn’t stay long enough. He only stayed for a couple of hours, then the cab came to get him. No, Mr. Corning read them to me, and then he taught me to read when I was very little. He had lots of books, children’s books and not so childish books.
Who was Mr. Corning?
He’d been a newspaper man in north Virginia, and he’d become a Congregational minister, and he had a beautiful church in a little village called Blooming Grove in upstate New York. When I was five months old, Mr. Corning took me in. I don’t really know why. I must have smiled at him or something. He was a lovely man. He was a strange combination—very playful, very funny, and he had a beautiful voice, and he was so good to me for those few years.
You know the Jesuits say, Bring me a child before it’s seven and I’ll see to it that the child becomes Catholic, or Jesuit, or whatever. Well, that was my first six years, and then at the end of that, my father sent for me. He and my mother were living in Hollywood. He had a play or two on Broadway. One of them actually ran for a year. That was a big, long run in those days too. So he went to Hollywood to work on movies, and then he sent for me. And that lasted about two weeks. When I got there my mother was . . . what she usually was, you know . . . beyond good and evil. She was an element of nature—bad nature. She said, Either I go or she goes. I wish my father had brought me back to Mr. Corning’s, but instead I spent nearly a year with a family in Redlands, California, and all I can remember was that there was a huge earthquake.
So you were in Redlands for a year and then you came—
Back to New York. I was there for a few months. And then I looked out the window one day and I saw a terribly mud-laden figure—my Spanish grandmother—coming up the long road to the house, and I knew the jig was up. I remember her saying, in broken English, She’s my blood. So she brought me back to Cuba. Then we had to leave Cuba when I was ten because there was a revolution. I remember we came in from the plantation to Havana, and we stayed at the Hotel Nacional, and the revolution largely consisted of some young boys throwing rocks at the hotel. I used to swim every day in the hotel pool and then one day the bell captain told me I couldn’t swim. I said, Why not? He said because the revolution is coming to the hotel today. I took everything as it came. Revolutions, earthquakes, whatever. And if the bell captain had dropped dead because somebody had shot him I would have looked at his body and I would have pitied him, but it wouldn’t have surprised me.
What about school?
Well, I remember a little high schooling I had up in New Hampshire. This was the longest time I lived with my father—four or five months. Ilya Tracy was the name of the English teacher I had in the first year in high school. School was very different then than it is now. We were taught Milton in the first year. We read Julius Caesar, and we memorized parts of it; it was a tremendous experience for me, all that. I felt like one of those savage children who come in from the forest, like Mowgli, the boy who was brought up by wolves in Kipling’s Jungle Book. But I could read. I did one semester and then part of another and then I was kicked out. I felt this terrible shame. I didn’t understand why. I thought it was something I had done, but then I found out later that it had been my father’s drinking. He’d end up flat-out drunk in these few bars in this very conservative New England village. I didn’t figure out what had happened until I went to Columbia in my late thirties and I had to send for my high-school transcript and I saw the As and Bs.
Anyhow, after that we came back to New York, the three of us. We went to live in one of those buildings on the West Side, and then he left town, my father, left me with twenty-five bucks and a case of beer.
What were you doing then?
My father had gotten me into the Art Students League, so I went there, and somebody there told me that I could be a model, so I went and tried to get a modeling job. But I couldn’t do it. I was embarrassed about being photographed. I was embarrassed at the agency because all these young girls looked like pancakes.