Vale American writer Paula Fox

The New York Times has just announced the death of American writer Paula Fox.

“Paula Fox, a distinguished writer for children and adults whose work illuminated lives filled with loss, dislocation and abandonment, conditions she knew firsthand from a very early age, died on Wednesday in Brooklyn. She was 93

Ms. Fox wrote a half-dozen novels for adults and more than 20 books for young people. What united her output was a cool, elegant style that was haunting in its pared-down economy; minute observation; masterly control of tone and pacing; and an abiding concern with dissolution — of family, of home, of health, of trust. Her characters are complex, self-contained and often withdrawn, but their ruminative interior states lend the narratives a quiet luminosity.”

I remember interviewing Paula Fox in 2004 when she was  84, and had just been rediscovered after thirty years in obscurity:

Paula Fox had a turbulent childhood after she was rejected by her mother and then handed to a variety of carers. At 20 she gave up her own daughter for adoption. This she reveals in her memoir, Borrowed Finery, in which her cool observations of her early life were published last year. She went on to write controversial but award-winning children’s books as well as autobiographical novels.

Now she’s enjoying a revival, as her adult fiction is championed by a new generation of American writers like Jonathan Franzen, who read her 1970 novel, Desperate Characters, in passing and then realised that he ranked her above Roth, Bellow and Updike. Others have compared her with Kafka, Chekhov and Flaubert. Yet, until they were recently reissued in the United States with specially commissioned introductions and much fanfare, the last of her adult novels had been out of print since 1992, and most of her earlier books had been unavailable for decades. So when we tracked Paula Fox down to her home in Brooklyn and convinced her to come to a Manhattan studio in 2004, we were keen to speak to this woman whose work shows a remarkable ability for observing the important moments, or at least making seemingly unimportant moments full of portent. She arrived in the heat of the afternoon describing the journey uptown, and especially a rather bad-tempered woman holding a fan in the stuffy subway. It seemed almost like the beginning of another short story. Here’s my  conversation with Paula Fox, recorded in 2004 and originally broadcast on the Radio National program Books & Writing.

Paula Fox: Yes, well, I hoped it would be a small stick of dynamite. But life is made up of very small things that happen. Some of them are dreadful and some are joyous and some are boring, you know…a bomb goes off and eight people are suddenly dead and there’s a woman with a fan on 68th Street or wherever the hell we were and you know she was fanning away and those eight people are lying dead around a crater in Iraq, and it seems to me that you can start anywhere and still end up around that crater or on that platform.

Ramona Koval: Can you remember how that book came about? How Desperate Characters

Paula Fox: I sort of remember. I think that there was a man who came around and said his name was Alvin Weinstein, he had dark skin, and that struck me as being very strange.

Ramona Koval: Because he had a Jewish name?

Paula Fox: Yes, exactly, and he was black. And he asked if he could use the phone. So I said, ‘Sure,’ you know and so he used the phone and then he left, and a cat scratched me and I thought, ‘What if it had bitten me?’ And then one morning I looked out the window, very early, six o’clock, and I saw a drunken man lying on the sidewalk and a child’s truck was next to his head. So I put it into the book, and I didn’t realise how much the book was adding up to, if you know what I mean. It added up to a kind of explosion of very small things which I set moving. So I can’t tell you any more than that about it.

Ramona Koval: But you, perhaps, didn’t even know what they were adding up to when you were putting them together.

Paula Fox: Well, actually I didn’t know, I really didn’t. Someone said that style is a philosophical observation, so that various people notice different things, and what I notice has its own telling force, and what somebody else notices probably has its own telling force too, but I’m a writer, so I tend to use all these things to put into my books. I’ve written 30 now, so I think probably that I’m going to write one more and then I’m going to stop. I’m working on it now, in fact.

Ramona Koval: Why do you think you should stop?

Paula Fox: Oh because I’m so old. But apart from that, I’d really like to take a trip somewhere, or do something that isn’t work because I’ve worked for the last 45, 50 years on writing alone. So it would be fun to do something else, even though it isn’t fun to write, it’s sometimes fun.

Ramona Koval: Your memoir, Borrowed Finery—that stops a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Paula Fox: Yes, well, I’ve just sold a book about a year I spent in Europe right after World War Two, in 1946, and it goes between London and Paris and Warsaw and Spain. I had a very interesting time there and it stayed with me because, although I forget peoples names (although I still remember yours, Ramona)…

Ramona Koval: Good! Excellent work.

Paula Fox: Right…I forget everything up to three weeks ago, you know, everything that happened in the last three weeks, I’ve forgotten now. But I don’t forget anything from my wasted youth.

Ramona Koval: Well, it wasn’t wasted, of course, because…

Paula Fox: No, I see that. I realised as I said it that that wasn’t the right word.

Ramona Koval: Because in Borrowed Finery, you describe being scratched by a cat when you were a girl. There was a fight between a German Shepherd your parents owned and a cat.

Paula Fox: Oh yes, and I still have the scar.

Ramona Koval: And you say, ‘My heart thudded, my vision narrowed to the two animals; one helpless, the other made monstrous with rage. I grabbed the cat. In its terror it scratched my hand.’ And then you go on to say that you attended to yourself because you were bleeding but there was nobody in the house at the time, and that you didn’t report it to your parents when they returned to the house from ‘wherever they’d been’, you said. And that tiny little paragraph tells us a lot about what kind of a child you were, that you were kind of abandoned by your parents…

Paula Fox: Yes, I was.

Ramona Koval: …and that you didn’t feel that you could report to them that you had been in pain.

Paula Fox: No, I didn’t feel that, and in fact I used to tell very lurid stories to people about my childhood to people, and I realised that they looked pained, and I also realised something else, that sometimes people with ordinary parents and an ordinary life, unlike mine which was not ordinary, more conventional I should say, that they could suffer too, as much as I had. So I thought, we all have the plate in front of us that is our life, and we have to eat it or die because it’s what we’re nourished on, is our lives. I think that I avoided self-pity and sentimentality about it because I didn’t feel that way about it.

Ramona Koval: Your own writing is so clear and pure. You have a way of distillation which is original and devastating, and it’s there in the memoir too where you, as a child, are so accepting and non-judgmental about what’s really an abandonment of you by your parents. Do you think that the ways in which you must have been used to thinking about the world while you were a child enables you to write?

Paula Fox: Oh I think so, I think so. I remember having what I suddenly felt was a thought but I can’t remember it at this minute but I remember any other time. But I think I was about four or five, and this thought came to me, and I recognised it as a thought. So I think, probably, the kind of observation and what it all adds up to for me is that I really feel that if we’re very fortunate we have moments of pleasure and delight in our lives, but most of it is trouble from the very beginning.

Ramona Koval: I was thinking about the kind of emotional temperature of your childhood, and in a sense, because nobody really took responsibility for you in that way that a mother or a father should or can, you’re always a little bit apart from everybody.

Paula Fox: Oh yes, I think I jumped out of the goldfish bowl, and there I was looking at it from the outside. I spent some time with my grandmother, my Spanish grandmother, and she was a kind of strange, helpless person but I spent about two or three years with her, so I did have some kind of remote family life. Then my parents were divorced when I was 12, 13. I didn’t care. It was not a big event for me, the way it can be in many children’s lives, you know, their parents are parting and they really are damaged and wounded and it takes them a long time to recover, if they do. But I think perhaps it was a different time, and there’s a certain strength in customary visions, and the vision at the time, when I was a child in the 20s, was not what it became in the 60s. You know, the phrase ‘self esteem’, it wasn’t around. ‘Closure’ was not around…we spoke better English then.

Ramona Koval: Thank God.

Paula Fox: Oh thank God. But, you know, psychologising of life. I think William Butler Yeats said, ‘Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible.’ Isn’t that lovely?

Ramona Koval: You talk about your father and your mother in Borrowed Finery, and you say, ‘What I was sure of was that fate had determined that her presence’ (which was your mother’s presence) ‘was the price I had to pay in order to see my father. But when I did see him, his behaviour with me-playful, sometimes cruel, a voice of utterly inconsistent and capricious authority-confirmed my uneasiness, my ever growing sense of being an impostor outside life’s laws.’ And somewhere else you call yourself a nomad. This must have made you into a writer, I think.

Paula Fox: I used to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. I used to teach a class, it was called a writing class but I don’t think you can teach writing, any more than you can teach a voice, except that the voice has a certain technique and you can play scales and you can develop a voice and so forth, but the voice has to be there to begin with. So I think all you can do with a writing class is to encourage people or discourage them as the case may be—but I didn’t do much of that but comfort them—it’s a very hard life and everybody can use a little comfort. So I tried to comfort my students, and they were grown up young men and women, and I would give them various assignments but I wanted to see if any of them had the writer’s voice. Some of them were very observant and some were very felicitous with the language, but I only found two in the eight years I was there whom I would have judged to be writers. Some of them were competent, as I said, and some were adequate and some were hopeless as writers. They weren’t hopeless as veterinarians or doctors but as writers, they were.

Ramona Koval: What is the element of that voice?

Paula Fox: I think if you’re a storyteller, you begin very early telling stories, and you read. I remember when I was seven or eight living with my grandmother that I used to read to little children. She lived in an apartment house and it had a back hall door and there were cement steps there, and I used to sit on the steps and read to this little group of children that would come. They were always younger than I was, and one day I started to read Treasure Island and I looked up and they had all gone. My audience had left. But I think that that kind of feeling about stories is inborn and that I had it. Of course there are wonderful stories in the world. I’ve just read one by Maeve Brennan called A Visitor, and she wrote short stories for the New Yorker, wonderful stories about Dublin; she was a short story writer. Anyhow, she knows all the elements—fog and a mouse peeping under an old chair in Dublin and an old woman sitting on the chair, unaware of the mouse, you know, it’s like being a singer and it has a kind of music in it. I don’t know what it is. It’s a mystery to me after 45, 50 years.

Ramona Koval: You know, some of your paragraphs are stories. Can I read you one of your own paragraphs here?

I had a brief disastrous marriage to an actor I had met at International House. He had come to California on a ship. He was part of the crew, what was called then an ‘able bodied seaman’. It was his regular work. He was almost twice my age. He said we’d better get married and I could think of no alternative, though I didn’t like him very much.

Paula Fox: Yes, that’s a whole novel.

Ramona Koval: What is that?

Paula Fox: Well, I mean, it’s what I remember. But I have a certain way of putting it that is full of silences, yes…

Ramona Koval: But very expressive silences.

Paula Fox: Yes, I think so. The words in a certain way, the selection of language has everything to do with the silences that exist in between the words, the quality of that silence, and I think that I’m moderately good at that.

Ramona Koval: Did you actually work on that paragraph much, or did it come out like that?

Paula Fox: No, it just came out that way. I had been in Jerusalem, in fact, three years earlier and someone attacked me and I spent a month in the hospital as a consequence. In fact, it was the first day we were there, my husband and I, and we were walking with an Israeli friend very late at night. We were staying, both of us, at a place for scholars, to which we each had a fellowship, and a man had mugged me, in effect, and knocked me to the stony ground. It was very late, and our Israeli friend looked for somebody with a cell phone and then the ambulance came…so that was the first day in Israel, and I had inter-cranial bleeding, and so it took me a year to get to a point where I could read again. I literally couldn’t read. Then I read a book about the brain right away, and I learned there was a composer that had been assaulted the way I had, and when he came to consciousness again-which was about eight months later or something—he had lost the ability to read music. And I thought how extraordinary that is, when you think that there’s a part of the brain that can learn to read music and that it can be taken away from you.

Anyhow, then we came back to this country and I spent another week in hospital here, and it took me a year to learn to read again, and then I began to write Borrowed Finery. It took me three months to write the first ten pages because I could only write a few sentences a day. So I must have thought my mortality was grinning at me, I must have come up against it in Jerusalem, which is where, of course, a lot of people learn of their mortality.

So it took me three months to write ten pages which I then sent off to the Three Penny Review which is a publication in this country that has a lot of nice literature and poetry in it and so forth, and they published it. So that’s how it started, and I think I wrote it without…I mean, I wrote it very slowly but without struggling over sentences, is what I’m getting around to saying. It just seemed to come to me in a certain way, like a small wave breaking. There were many waves of course, as many waves as there are pages, and they broke against my consciousness, and so I would find myself working very slowly because I didn’t have the physical or psychological strength to work long hours. Now I have it, but I didn’t have it then, and that was in 1996, that was eight years ago, but I have some damage still to the frontal lobes, so every now and then I can’t speak for a minute, or something happens like that.

Ramona Koval: Well, I’m glad you’re not having those effects now because it’s splendid to be talking to you. That idea, that a man says, ‘We’d better get married,’ and you can think of no alternative, though you didn’t like him very much-that’s a very polite upbringing you’ve had.

Paula Fox: Well, I think that I thought that my father was right, that you had to do what men said. My father had said that once, and then he took it back the next day, but that stuck with me. I think anybody that asked me anything, I had to do, you know? So when Howard, which was the name of this guy, asked me to marry him, I remember going to a Los Angeles courthouse and marrying him. I think it was that very day he went back to New York where he was shipping out. He was a member of the National Maritime Union, and it was during the beginning of the war, so I found myself at a bus station with him…I don’t know if it was the same day we were married, but I know what you mean about that strange sentence, ‘I couldn’t think of an alternative,’ and that was the story of my young life, mostly, until I was 23 or 24, and then I went to Europe, and that made me realise that I could make choices, and so I did after that. A few, anyhow.

Ramona Koval: The end of this book…I mean, suddenly there’s a kind of shock because you say, ‘When I was two weeks away from my 21st birthday, I gave birth to a daughter.’

Paula Fox: Yes, that’s right, and I’ve known her now for 13 or 14 years because she sent me a package…she lives in Oregon and it came on a Saturday from Federal Express, and I thought it was from a school because a lot of children wrote to me in those days, and I still get the occasional letter, but I thought it was a teacher who’d sent it because it was a very large package. So I opened it and it said, ‘Go slow,’ and I knew it was she, and I called up to my husband, Martin Greenberg, ‘She’s found me.’ Because I’d told him about her, and he came running down the stairs and we both looked at the note which said, ‘Go slow,’ and then I read the letters.

Ramona Koval: How old was she when she…because you’d adopted her out…

Paula Fox: Lets see…oh she was an infant, she was just born. I had no money, and in those days you could be very poor and broke, as you can be now but in a different way than then, and I couldn’t think of any way…and I was advised by the doctors to put her up for adoption, and then ten days later I changed my view and I went to one of the doctors, whose name, I remember, was Wheelwright, and I said, ‘I want her back,’ and he said, ‘It’s too late,’ and of course it wasn’t because in California, then (she was born in 1942, I guess) the law was that you had a month in which to change your soul or your mind, and the doctor was lying to me. So I didn’t find that out until many years later.

Ramona Koval: And how old was she when she contacted you?

Paula Fox: I think she was in her late 40s, and she’d suddenly…she had not wanted to before but that October of the preceding year she had gotten up one morning and said, ‘I’m going to find her.’ Then she did, and of course since she’s a therapist it was relatively easy because she was able to get all kinds of records and whatnot. Then we met three months later…

Ramona Koval: You met in the city that she was born in.

Paula Fox: Right, in San Francisco. And we both laughed, and it was a wonderful, freeing, liberating kind of thing. So I’m very grateful to my life which gave me another chance.

Ramona Koval: When you think of yourself as that young girl, what do you think of now when you look back?

Paula Fox: Well I just remember how desperate I was, and how long the labour was, it was 36 hours, and then they brought the babies, and they were bringing Linda forward to me, she’d just been born in the morning at 5am or something, and the nurse suddenly said, ‘No, not that one.’

Ramona Koval: You weren’t able to hold her or to see her.

pf; No, no. So, you know, I suffered a lot. I couldn’t bear it; but when I went to the doctor, Wheelwright, I remember saying that I wanted her back, and him saying, ‘It’s too late,’ and then I just sat there with horror, and then I just got up and went away. So that was that part of my early life.

Ramona Koval: In a sense, Paula Fox went into hibernation, in a way, for the last 30 years, and now you’ve been rediscovered. How does that feel?

Paula Fox: Well, you know, I was a very well-known children’s book writer, and I won a lot of prizes, including the Hans Christian Anderson Award which I went to Europe to get, and the Newberry Award for one of the books I wrote, The Slave Dancer, and I won another Newberry with the One-eyed Cat. So that meanwhile my novels were going out of print, and then Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay in Harpers magazine, and he mentions…I’m a kind of motif all the way through the article, which he said was the longest they’d ever published. So I was a kind of a frail ghost at the outskirts of the essay. But he said he’d found a coy of Desperate Characters at Yaddo, which is an artists’ retreat in New York State. So my young editor, who himself is now a writer, wrote to him after he read that article to get my address, and he wrote to me and the same day I sent him the paperback copy of Desperate Characters, which had been reissued twice by a small publisher in Boston called David White. A week later he told me that the committee which reviews these, at Norton, was going to publish Desperate Characters…was going to re-issue it.

After that, all my books were re-issued, and each one has an introduction by somebody, and so there I was. The Europeans who’d known about my children’s books and the Koreans and so forth, all began to re-issue my novels. They’d been published in France, three of them, but now they’re going to re-issue all six of them, and the memoir. So they’ve gotten a lot of attention everywhere. The attention made me very self-conscious for a while, and if you know how you sound, God help you… I remember reading about Virginia Woolf when she found herself looking for her name in the paper, she realised what trouble she was in. I just felt so self-conscious I just couldn’t work for a year or two. Now I’m no longer so self-conscious, so I’m able to work—because you have to lose yourself in order to write because there’s no vanity in it, I mean, not for me there isn’t. You have to listen to that interior voice, which is silenced by a certain amount of clamour. So, that’s my story.

Ramona Koval: Paula Fox. Her books, Desperate Characters, The Widow’s Children and Borrowed Finery are published by Flamingo. And listeners might also remember a film of Desperate Characters which starred Shirley MacLaine and was made in 1971.


Desperate Characters
Paula Fox
Harper Collins, 2003
ISBN 0-007-15038-5
Borrowed Finery
Paula Fox
Harper Collins, 2003
ISBN 0-007-13723-0
The Widow’s Children
Paula Fox
Harper Collins, 2003
ISBN 0-007-15037-7

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