Paula Fox is most famous for her novel Desperate Characters, which finely fillets the mores and anxieties of urban intelligentsia. We could stop right there, except that she is also the author of five more fine novels for adults (including Poor George, The Widow’s Children, and The Western Coast), twenty-odd novels for young people (including the Newbery winner The Slave Dancer), and two very engaging memoirs of her early years (Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter). Any of these would confirm her status as a writer of the very first order.
In her books, Fox has a nearly endless capacity for sympathy and understanding, but also for something harsher that looks at times like cruelty. It isn’t. The worlds she describes are not neat moral universes, and her characters, never purely this or that, are often put through painful paces. Children are kidnapped, orphaned, and cast out into the world with no assurance of safety; grown-ups are as likely to hurt as to help. Running through almost all her books is the harsh birthing of adult consciousness, and this is equally true of her work for adults as of her children’s books. Fox is terribly honest, and sometimes that means being honest about terrible things.
I visited Fox at her Brooklyn home a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings and a few days before her eighty-fourth birthday. On the way there, I stopped at a flower shop, and on the florist’s suggestion, I picked up some daylilies as a hostess present. This turned out to be a lucky good choice, as Fox had a vase full of nearly wilting daylilies in her kitchen. She put the fresh flowers in water, and we sat down to talk.
I. SENTIMENT AND SENTIMENTALITY
THE BELIEVER: This is a thrill. I’ve read many of your books, and now I get to meet you. One thing I’d like to ask—I only came by your work at the turn of the millennium, when a lot of your novels were reissued. I wonder if you could talk about that?
PAULA FOX: I can tell you literally what happened. Jonathan Franzen wrote a piece for Harper’s. We already knew each other for a couple of years, but he had been teaching at Swarthmore, and he wrote me a note saying that he had found Desperate Characters and he would like ten copies if I had them. So I called my daughter who lives in Portland, and she went to Powell’s, the famous bookstore, to see if she could find Desperate Characters. She sent them directly to Jonathan. And then he came up to New York, and he was gradually beginning to gather materials for the article. I was sort of like a motif going through it, in a large symphony where there were other instruments. But he was persistent. Tom Bissell, who was an editor at Holt, wrote to me after he read the article. And that same day I sent him my last copy of Desperate Characters, by return mail. He read it and thought it was OK, so he presented it to the board and then they decided to publish all of my novels that were out of print. Gradually, people wrote prefaces to them, and Jonathan Lethem wrote the preface to my first novel, which was called Poor George. He’s a very nice man, a great writer.
So that’s how it started. I was suddenly “taken up,” as they say. And then, fortunately for me, I was dropped within a year. Because when you get taken up, something happens to you. You become self-conscious, and that’s very bad for writers. And for anybody. Virginia Woolf used to say she knew she was in trouble when she started looking for her name in the newspaper. You become outside yourself. You’re not the person, the writer, the painter, so forth, who works without thinking—you think about too much outside of the work. You think about yourself, but it’s not the self that works well.
BLVR: But while this was going on, and even before, you had a parallel career, writing children’s books.
PF: I had been writing children’s books—I’ve written twenty-two books for children, and many of them won prizes—in fact, I won the Hans Christian Andersen medal, and that was pretty steady. It was a source of income, and a certain kind of audience response. Children would write me, “Dear Ms. Fox, I just read One-Eyed Cat. I like Judy Blume much better than you.”
PF: I just sold The Slave Dancer to China two days ago, isn’t that exciting? I’m really surprised that it sold there. Anyhow, I had a reputation in Europe, but I didn’t know I was going to get in on China.
BLVR: Well, it’s a big market.
PF: When I call AOL, it’s always somebody from India that answers, you know? I like to ask them, “Where are you?” “Bombay.” Anyhow, that’s how it all began. But I had something of a kind of minor reputation in this country. And I was published in France. The French published Desperate Characters and The Widow’s Children. They got very good reviews, but they were considered caviar for the general, they appealed to very few people. Which is true. And now I’m at work on a novella. The book concerns a Cathar heretic and is set in the south of what was not yet France, Languedoc, in a village in the Pyrenees. It takes place in 1371 AD.
BLVR:A very good year.
PF:A very good year… for wine!
BLVR: Thinking about literary reputation, I’m interested in what happens to a book after you’re done with it, after you’ve sent it off into the world. What’s your attitude toward this thing you’ve made?
PF: Well, you know, I’ve had a very rough time of it, in my writing life. Three of my books, The Western Coast, A Servant’s Tale, and The Widow’s Children—between the three of them I think I racked up two years of rejection from publishers. A Servant’s Tale and The Widow’s Children got most of them. A Servant’s Tale was rejected by seventeen publishers. The Widow’s Children was my third novel from Harcourt Brace. I sent it to my editor there, and he said, “This is the best novel you’ve written, but you have a really bad track record.” Meaning, I didn’t sell vast numbers of books. Not even little vast numbers. So then I looked around for a publisher for a year and a half, and finally I found one, a lovely man named Henry Robbins, from E. P. Dutton, who died in the Fourteenth Street subway station, I’m sorry to say. But he published The Widow’s Children, and it got a review in the New York Times by someone I had known for two years. And you’re not supposed to know the person you’re reviewing. She said the book lacked a certain kind of human warmth, and that it was very sentimental.
BLVR: I don’t think of your books as being at all sentimental. It seems like the inverse would be true—that there’s a human warmth and sympathy for the characters, but also that you’re not afraid to have things go very badly for them.
PF: Yes. Well, I think that’s called sentiment, as opposed to sentimentality. You know, it’s like when you go to a very bad movie and somebody dies, and you cry, and you come out and you say, “What a wonderful movie!” [Laughs] That’s a good definition of sentimentality.
BLVR: So that’s caviar for the masses. Or fish sticks.
BLVR:But it’s interesting to me—in both your children’s books and your novels for grown-ups, what you do to your characters. Sentimental is not at all what you’re after, and in fact, I was struck in reading The Slave Dancer and Monkey Island and some of your other children’s books, how your characters go through very hard times.
PF: Did you read One-Eyed Cat?
PF: I think the cat in the story has the strength of life. And I think probably that means a lot to me. Life can be very fragile, frail, but there’s some kind of persistence about it, so far. And that’s about the cat having the strength of life, which is the heart of that book. And I think what I feel mostly is obliged to tell not “the truth,” because we don’t know what that is, but the truths we know. You know, I realized one day, I was looking at a manuscript, I was lying on my bed, looking at it on the floor, turning the pages, and I suddenly thought, I have to mean every word I write. A and the included. And then I remembered Mary McCarthy accused Lillian Hellman of lying in her work, even about the words the and a! [Laughs] I was very gratified.
BLVR: It’s striking that in some of your children’s books, what you’re describing are things you wouldn’t want to expose a child to.
PF: I think children, even the kind of children who lead neat, contained lives, go through all kinds of strange things, things that come in the night, or the morning. Coleridge wrote a famous essay about writing for children. He said, a little boy comes home, says, “Mama, mama, I gave a penny to a beggar,” and she says,“Oh, you’re such a good boy!” He says this is the worst kind of trash you can write for children. I mean, it makes them so conscious of goodness.But there is goodness in people,there is goodness,but it must not be flattered,or thinned out by someone telling you.And you can’t have one without the badness, either. You know, there’s that psychopath who went on the shooting rampage, that blank person, who answered his name with a question mark. Something was missing. His person was missing.The answer was missing.And so I feel that children are exposed to a lot more violence in this country, but then we have these child safety tops on medicine that take fifteen minutes for an adult to undo.On the one hand they’re terribly overprotective, and the middle class children I’ve known, their rooms look like toy stores, which is why I wrote my first book, Maurice’s Room.
BLVR: How did that come about?
PF: We were living in Greece, around 1963, on an island, and we went out with a fisherman,and he said to my husband and myself, “In America, there are many things.” And it came to me to write a book about a child who rejects toys and loves rusty bedsprings and very strange things.So I instantly started that.Because I never had time before to write. I’d been working all my life, and I had six months then to write. And there was nothing for me to do but cook and shop. But I had all this time, and I had a typewriter, a little portable Italian one, and so I wrote Poor George and Maurice’s Room. And I sold them both.That’s how I started down this terrible path. [Laughs]
BLVR: The upbringing you describe in Borrowed Finery and some of your other autobiographical writings does not immediately suggest that you’d become a writer. It seems like there were many paths that you could’ve taken.
PF: I think I always wanted to write. You know, when I lived with my grandmother, I remember that I would gather a group of children, and I was about ten or eleven, I guess, in the back steps of our apartment house in Kew Gardens. One time I started reading Kidnapped, and when I looked up, they were all gone. And it is very boring for children. But not for me it wasn’t. I loved to read to people, to children. I always wanted to write, I think for a number of reasons. My father was a writer, not a very good one. He was a screenwriter. And I’m sure you’ll recall from Borrowed Finery, my mother said that Graham Greene had seen a movie my father had written, called The Last Train from Madrid, and he said it was the worst movie he ever saw!
BLVR: At least it was something superlative.
PF: Yes,it was the “-st”of something.But not best,worst. Anyhow, I think I always had that kind of drive. I was diverted for a while by music, but my father didn’t pay the bills for music school, so that ended. And then I went to the Art Students League for a few months, but he didn’t pay those bills either. And then I had to model there, so I became a model. For William Zorach, among other people. I went down various little bits of roads, but it was all summed up for me in writing, and so then I began to write seriously when I was nineteen or twenty, and every story was rejected. And then two were taken by the Negro Digest, which was then edited by a man named Hoyt Fuller. By then I had gotten a teaching job in my thirties, at Ethical Culture, and they had a publicity service, and they picked up all the wire mentions, and one of the mentions was of the two stories I sold to the Negro Digest. And so the two women in the public relations office of the Ethical Culture school on Sixty-third Street came in looking for a black woman.And it was me. [Laughs] So then I was very encouraged. Hoyt Fuller had written to me, and he was trying to find out if I was black. And I wouldn’t tell him! When we went to Greece,I had been teaching at Fieldston, which was the high school for Ethical Culture, and I had in mind the story for Poor George. Because someone had said to me that he knew someone who had taken in a boy like one in the book. I thought it was a terrific story, it seemed to me, a person like this, a teacher,who goes up against the boulder that is this boy. Fordham schist that can’t be effectively moved. He’s just set. And I thought about that battle in people, to shape themselves and to shape others, and so that’s how it came to me. But I wrote it because it was the story of a man taking a boy in who then proceeds to steal his wife, and everything.And who is himself killed.
BLVR: That failure of good intentions is something pretty easily ascribed to Americans.
PF: But there’s something awful about giving up, too. You have to examine it.What you intend to do is not the same as what you’re doing. I think the tendency to want to do good for people is very strong. Poor George isn’t the story about the defeat of good intentions, it’s the story about someone who is blinded and self-indulgent with good intentions.
II. TOOTH AND CLAW
BLVR: Walking to your house, I noticed a lot of the retail has to do with very nice stores for children, baby boutiques, that kind of thing. I wonder what those suggest about how we treat our children.
PF: My thought is, and it’s just the beginning of a sense of things,that we’re affected by everything.By baby shops and Imus and that awful shooting in Virginia.But I think one is too quick to jump and say self-indulgence.It’s true, there is self-indulgence, but I don’t know if one can draw a conclusion from the proliferation of children’s shops around here. Children in the nineteenth century weren’t children so much as little human beings, and mostly they were treated like automata. Except for the people who loved them. Now they have the upper hand, seemingly. But—there’s more child abuse in this country than I think in most industrialized countries. And yet we put those caps on medicine bottles.The contrast is so great, between the care—the irritating care on the one hand, and the terrible violence on the other. It’s a conundrum, it’s puzzling. I’m writing about heresy in the fourteenth century, and, you know, I don’t think life has changed so much. Because there is still such terrible, beastly behavior by one group against another.And it’s true, it’s beastly, in the literal sense—we have chimp cousins. [Laughs] It’s interesting how we share a certain bloodthirstiness. Because they kill, chimps.
BLVR: I wonder if some of that bloodthirstiness, for better or for worse, has allowed us to build cities and so on?
PF: It’s possible, I don’t really know. But alas, nature is tooth and claw. So I think, in answer to your original question, from which we’ve strayed—I think you can’t read Anna Karenina to a five-year-old, but you can, I think, tell the truth about all kinds of things. Racial things. Sexual things. AIDS, which I did in The Eagle Kite. I think all that can be somehow shown in a certain way. There’s a way in which you can do it decently, because it is a decent thing. When a man falls in love with another man, and his son sees them embrace on the beach, and then the father has AIDS and leaves his wife, to die. The boy visits, and he knows there’s something wrong but doesn’t know how to understand it. And then he remembers the kite on the beach, and he remembers seeing two men embrace. And then the father dies. They have a terrible fight before he does, but it never comes out why he dies. I think children can read that. They’re exposed to so much in the news that’s just out there. I think all these things have a way of being told. I think after terrific struggle—you don’t have to struggle against the thing in yourself that knows how to say something—but you have to find a way of saying these things, for grown-ups as well as children. There’s a way of writing truthfully that doesn’t have to do with simply saying things that are taboo. That’s easy. But to get at the truth of something, you really have to think about it. You have to think and feel about it. And somehow whatever that process is, thinking and feeling, you have to lend yourself to it. So you can see it from every angle.
BLVR: The care you have to take in writing for a young audience, it seems like there’s a delicate balancing act between protecting them in some way and teaching them. Or is that not so?
PF: No, I think it is. I was starting to say I wouldn’t read Anna Karenina to a five-year-old, because judgment is a function of time, and they haven’t had time. They don’t understand about time yet, and what it does to people. And how time is a huge element in everybody’s lives, and determines not only its length but how we grow, how we grow up, and how we do various things. And it isn’t that I would keep sexual matters away from a five-year-old— I would, in fact, but I think for a child of five to get Anna Karenina,it shouldn’t be read to him or her at that age. It’s too good. It’s too wonderful a novel. I think by the time you’re seventeen or sixteen, you’re ready. And then you have to read it again when you’re thirty. I read D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, partly because of the title, when I was in boarding school in Canada, when I was sixteen. The title grabbed me, and then I discovered the book, I discovered Lawrence. And it was like a huge awakening. Everything in life was in Lawrence. Because you know Lawrence was a passionate writer. Every word, every feeling, every color. The Rainbow, Women in Love, I remember the descriptions of the stockings the two sisters wore, the brilliant colors, and the moonlit pool that in Women in Love one of the couples passes by, and the description of the birds sitting in the tree in the moonlight.I didn’t like his blood passages and sex and all of that stuff. But all writers have that ailment.They’re not perfect. But he was pretty close to perfect for me at that age. It seems to me when you’re young, you read Lawrence. And when you get past fifty, you don’t quite read him anymore. Except for certain pieces and essays he wrote. He’s a younger person’s writer. And he’s wonderful. Wonderful. I loved him, and it awakened something in me, awakened a desire to know more, to come to some sort of grips with life, to not be as dreamy in the way I tended to be at fifteen. But I think, to go back to my original statement,of not reading Anna Karenina to a five-year-old, I think a five-year-old would miss too much. Not because they’re not capable of understanding it— because they’re only capable of understanding certain things at that age. Because they haven’t experienced time. They haven’t gone through the years. Otherwise, you could read it to them.
BLVR: Maybe as a soporific.
PF: Right, exactly. [Laughs]
BLVR:When I read Slave Dancer,there were certain passages that a reader of any age or level of experience would find difficult to process. You didn’t candy-coat it.
PF: But I was very selective about what I chose to write about. I didn’t write about castration, for example, which was done to a lot of slaves. Because I knew the audience for that book, and that would be too hard for them.You have to be very selective about what you’re going to write about, at the same time that you write truthfully about what you do write about. But you select. I had to do a bit of research for that book, and then I had it checked by a historian, and it was mostly OK. But I found out, for example, that on slave ships, and on most ships of that period in fact, to use the bathroom, you had to go on the side of the ship, to a lower chair with a hole in it.And that was how I described it. And the ship’s hold, where Jesse was carried by the slaves, when he was flung down as punishment. They carried him up, and I felt that they were closer to goodwill than the slave owners.They were closer to the original instinct to protect a child than Captain Cawthorne.
III. SUGGESTED DEPTHS
BLVR: One thing I want to ask you about, which has nothing to do with what we’ve been talking about so far, is Desperate Characters. I understand the book was turned into a film.
PF: Yes. I didn’t like it much. And Jonathan Franzen thought it was pretty bad.And Tom Bissell thought it was pretty bad. I was happy with the money I made. We bought this house—we got $35,000 and put it right down. It was a very low-budget film, it was made for $350,000. Shirley MacLaine was in it. Lew Grade, who was a British businessman known as “Low Grade,” provided her with the money in exchange for her being on a sitcom for a while. And I was involved in a lot of it, as a gofer. You know, people began to treat me like an errand girl! But I remember one night when a scene was shot on Court Street, and there were five hundred people out to watch Shirley MacLaine, and it’s the only way you can silence a crowd, by shooting a movie. There was a crowd, with drunks, and dogs barking. And a man from the movie company, with a finger to his mouth, went running down the street,“Shhhhhhhhh.”And then they were able to shoot the scene, which took two minutes. It took hours to set up, it involved a bar up here on the corner, which Shirley and another character went into, and there was nothing but silence. I mean, even the dogs were silenced. So there it was. Frank Gilroy, who wrote the screenplay, was somebody I liked a lot. He wrote a very good play called The Subject Was Roses, which won the Pulitzer Prize years ago. But there was something about the movie, it didn’t work. Kenny Mars played Otto. He was in The Producers—he played the one who sang “Springtime for Hitler.” If you just looked at him, you’d start laughing, because he was so funny. I remember going to rehearsal, and he was telling people about his wife’s kidney operation, and it made everybody break up with laughter. And I think he spoiled the whole movie, because he was too funny for Otto. The whole thing lacked a certain kind of inner gravity. And the part that was best in it was the Flynders part. But it wasn’t very good, it wasn’t successful. I like The Stranger a lot, Albert Camus, that was a French movie that was done with a lot of panache and style, pretty good. But I don’t think books make good films—except books like Gone with the Wind.
BLVR: Probably not much of a book.
BLVR: So, as far as adaptations, I wonder if there’s a decent one of Anna Karenina.
PF: Garbo. She was wonderful, and Basil Rathbone was Karenin, and Frederic March was Vronsky. I still remember how Garbo looked when she threw herself onto the train tracks at the end of the movie. Or the beginning. It was a failure as a movie. It just had this great actress, great-looking woman in it.
BLVR: With Desperate Characters, what was it like to have this thing you made put in other people’s hands, who maybe didn’t do it justice?
PF: I took the money and I spent it. We got this house out of it. I didn’t feel particularly possessive. I didn’t feel any emotion. I’d done my work, that’s how I felt about it. They could have turned it into a musical comedy, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t get hung up about it. Somebody has an option on The Slave Dancer.
BLVR: I think that would make a great movie.
PF: Yes, I think it would too. It gets very stark in certain places, scenes. I can see it as a movie. Desperate Characters is too interior for celluloid.
BLVR: There are some absolutely gripping passages in that book. But the power of that writing, of your descriptions and so forth, couldn’t be easily translated into film.
PF: Right. You could copy the stage directions, but… I’m thinking about movies that I like, like Chinatown or On the Waterfront. They all have a lot of obvious stuff in them. It suggests depths, but not depths suggestive of obvious stuff. There are certain things that movies do that people can’t do in books, and certain things that people can do in books they can’t in movies. I like movies. But I think the greatest arts are poetry and music.
BLVR: Have you written any poetry?
PF: Oh, no!
BLVR: You never tried your hand at that?
PF: When I was in high school, the brief time I was in high school, I wrote one poem, which I saved a copy of, called “Little Boy.” I was thirteen. And it’s got that “note” that’s in all my books. You want to see it?
BLVR: I’d love to.
PF: OK, I’ll show it to you. It’s upstairs in my study.