A Conversation with Paula Fox

Paula Fox was rediscovered in the mid-1990s, when Jonathan Franzen found her second novel, Desperate Characters, at the artists’ colony Yaddo. Franzen, enthralled, wanted to teach the book, but there were few copies around. He contacted Fox and wrote about it and her for Harper’s. An editor, Tom Bissell, read Franzen’s essay and contacted Fox. The rest, we like to say, is history. But history, in all cases, is made by many hands.

Fox’s novels have been reprinted, and she is having a writer’s second birth and life. Fox and I were paired to read at the National Arts Club in 1999 by the series curator, Fran Gordon. That night, Fox read from The Widow’s Children, her third novel. I listened, ecstatic. Why had I never heard of her? I bought Desperate Characters, The Widow’s Children, and Poor George, her first novel. I hoped to interview her. Now, this interview in BOMB’s 25th-anniversary issue.

This provenance exists to register how strangely books live and die, and travel, how idiosyncratic their routes, how capricious a writer’s career, how haphazard a reader’s chances to find her books. Great literature disappears all the time. After his death, Chaucer disappeared for over 200 years. Every writer a reader loves, with few exceptions, or who is touted now, will be buried forever or a while. Writers sometimes make it their job to unearth other writers. It’s not just altruism.

Fox is the author of six brilliant novels, two breathtaking memoirs and 22 children’s or young-adult books. To me, it is indubitable that Fox is one of America’s greatest living novelists. Her exquisite choices of her narratives, her exquisite choice of language and imagery, her formidable intelligence, her acute observations, her honesty about the trouble with existence here, or anywhere, makes reading Fox a genuine experience. If you let it, her writing will ravish you, even devastate you.

Lynne Tillman: You’re a profoundly psychological writer, and also socially and politically engaged. In your first novel, Poor George, George Mecklin thinks, “We live on the edge of disaster and imagine we are in a kitchen.” Absolute Fox! How did George come to you? How did you decide to write a male protagonist?

Paula Fox: To answer the last part first: I didn’t even think about it. It would be false naïveté to say that I didn’t realize what I was doing. I did remember hearing, on NPR, in a time of extreme feminism in the late 1960s, a woman being interviewed who said, “Imagine! A man writing about a woman!” I thought of Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust. I thought, Of course, this kind of extremism accompanies everything that has to do with human affairs, as we see in contemporary life. What engaged me most in writing Poor George was a story I was told in about three sentences by someone I knew casually. He said, “I heard this story about a man who took a boy into his house . . . .” I thought of things that might happen. I didn’t actually think; a story grows, with me, in a series of images. I have acute memories of the past. I can remember the wrinkles in my father’s jacket, when he was lighting a cigarette, 65 years ago. I can see the wrinkles, the cigarette. I have a very visual memory. I started visualizing a place where George lived, and, from there, I invented a whole life for him. But one always writes about one’s self in a certain way. There’s no way you can write about anything that you know as well as yourself. In a certain sense, whatever is imagined is always based on an inner sense of self. Now, I don’t know what that means, particularly after reading in the Times today about all the discoveries about the brain. I don’t know where the invention of stories comes from. With the violin, you have to begin with some kind of musical ability; you can’t sing without an ability to sing. Then you need training. I think you need training for everything.

LT: Before you wrote Poor George, had you been writing short stories?

PF: Yes. I’ve been writing since I was seven. I wrote my first story ever, when I was seven, about a robber who comes into a house and kills everybody, but miraculously they all come alive. Actually, I sent out a lot of stories in between working for a living. I kept getting them back, except for two, which the Negro Digest—which is what it was called then—published. I was in my twenties, and they tried to find out if I were black.

LT: Was it because you write black characters?

PF: Yes, that’s what I was writing about: black. I didn’t feel any constraint about writing about anything, except kind of ordinary constraints of life. It seemed to me that the tracks hadn’t been made yet, in certain areas—by me. So, I made my own tracks, not that there weren’t lots of tracks around.

LT: There’s a fearlessness in your work. As you just said, you didn’t feel those constraints. Most white writers do.

PF: I think it’s not fearlessness as much as a kind of innocence. I think it was fixed in my mind when I was very little. There’s a scene in Borrowed Finery that occurred in my brief time with my parents in Hollywood. I had locked myself out one night, my parents were at a party, and I stayed with neighbors. When I came back the next morning, my father had brought home a different woman from my mother. I said, “Daddy, daddy,” coming up the stairs to his room. He rose up in the blankets—you know what a man looks like with blankets falling off of him—and in a rage. He grabbed me up and rushed downstairs with me, into the kitchen. There was a black maid ironing. He raised his hand to spank me, and she said, “Mr. Fox, that isn’t fair.” She rescued me. It must have taken so much courage for her to do that in 1929. I was very struck by that. I think what it did was, it instantly opened a kind of corridor, so that I went down it. Not because I was fearless, but because it was there. It just presented itself.

LT: All of your novels are about justice and injustice.

PF: I feel very strongly about that.

LT: In The Western Coast, your third novel, Annie’s friend Cletus, who’s black, is beaten up. It’s a horrible scene. Annie’s relationship with him changes, because he can’t continue to have the same feelings he had about white people after that.

PF: Cletus is based on a dear friend of mine who is dead now. He had a white mother and a black father. He didn’t get beaten up. The ease between Annie and Cletus is based on my relationship with him. You take certain things from life, then you enlarge or diminish them. You ornament them or leave them plain. You strain out the truth. Years ago, when I was looking at a manuscript of mine that was on the floor, turning the pages, suddenly this brain bulb went off. I thought, I have to try to tell the truth, even when it’s and and the. This was around the time that Mary McCarthy had claimed even Lillian Hellman’s ands and thes were lies. My own thought is that we can’t know the truth, but we can struggle for it, swim toward it, fight for it

LT: Toward the end of The Western Coast, which takes place in LA during World War II, Annie drives cross-country with Mason White, a black soldier. She gives him a lift to Texas and sees the racism in America—they can’t go into many places.

PF: That happened to me. I picked up a black soldier, and we were thrown out of a dozen places in Texas, so many bar-cafés in these little one-store towns. These old men—everybody else had been drafted—they’d be rattling their bones at us. I said, “But he’s a soldier, how can you?” They said, “Well, we got our ways down here.” I remember the idiocy and limitation of what they said. I didn’t feel it at the time to be an idiotic limitation. I do now. I felt it then as a wall that wouldn’t give way. I just knew it would never give way with those people.

LT: You have a visual memory and write powerful visual images. In Poor George, you write of George’s distress and his troubled relationship with his wife, Emma: “There was a boiling sea of acid in his stomach—he longed for a pill. She dropped a cup and the handle broke.” You can see him agitated, their tension.

PF: I think that also there’s a certain thing that happens—that there is silence between actions. There’s so much silence in our lives, despite all of the terrible noise every day. There’s an awful silence in between things.

LT: You leave a lot of space between characters, and inside characters’ minds. It makes for a lot of anxiety.

PF: I know, in writing it too.

LT: In Desperate Characters, your second novel, and Poor George, the middle class isn’t allowed to enjoy its comforts.

PF: No! That’s why I’m not read!

LT: In Desperate Characters, Sophie Bentwood can’t enjoy eating in the garden of her Brooklyn house because of a wild cat. George Mecklin’s house is invaded by the delinquent teenager he sort of adopts. The Bentwoods’ summer house is vandalized, which goes back to your first ever story about robbers.

PF: But the Bentwoods don’t miraculously come alive; they’re not killed. I took a rather uneasy pleasure in writing about a family who were getting eaten, getting eaten to death, for being so opulent and luxurious. Summer people.

LT: The neighbors are enraged at them. George Mecklin’s also enraged. You write, “George felt as if his own personal army had just fixed bayonets.” He’s a teacher, supposedly civilized, a middle-class man. Much of your imagery about him, your metaphors, uses militaristic language and is violent.

PF: I think it’s what certain people in this country would use; I wouldn’t say, “with his cutlass drawn.” The militaristic imagery seems apropos to me. I have a certain sense of what suits and doesn’t suit in my range, inside of my range.

LT: Like Edith Wharton, you’re able to make inner worlds visible through external objects. The cup’s handle breaking, the image of a personal army in him. You internalize through what’s external, to create a psychological space. Did you read her?

PF: She and Henry James, whom I admire a great deal, didn’t have as much effect on me as Willa Cather and Thomas Hardy. I love two of Cather’s books so much, Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Shadows on the Rock. Of course, there’s George Eliot, whom I love. D.H. Lawrence was a great favorite of mine, I have read him over and over. His blood and sex ideology gets in the way of his finer observations and philosophical musings. I think ideologies are terrible for people—any kind. We have to be very careful to avoid them, and sometimes we can’t.

LT: Your characters give way to their ideology, to what they’re in, or fight it—feel oppressed by the middle class or against it, like Otto Bentwood’s partner, Charlie, in Desperate Characters. Otto tells him there’s no alternative. In your novels, there’s a sense that they’re living inside something. Some fight it, some don’t.

PF: That’s a very accurate description. I never thought of it exactly that way. But I don’t think about my books in a way that a very good reader would think about them.

LT: How do you think about them?

PF: I see things I like in some of my children’s books. I like the section about Paul Robeson in The Coldest Winter. It’s very hard for me to say. There’s something I think about age that makes you feel, there’s a certain sense, that you’ve done what you could do to ameliorate the condition of life, and it’s very limited. Unless you’re Madame Curie.

LT: In The Western Coast, you approach World War II and the Communist Party in America through Annie’s experience of them. She’s a drifter. One of her lovers, Myron Eagle, says to her, “You must make judgments. How can a person live without them?” That’s a central question in your work.

PF: I feel it in my own life. You can’t go around with your mouth open, because some buzzard will fly into it. Or some cobra will strike. I think you have to be able to give up judgments, when it’s time. But you have to make them too. Otherwise, everything is disorder and chaos.

LT: Max, for instance, in The Western Coast, is in the Party, but he steps back from its ideology and observes it. He’s an incredibly interesting character because of that.

PF: I think that you have to be attached and detached at the same time—who knows to what extent we can be detached?—but enough so that you can see what it is that you’re up to. I had an image once: a lynch mob, a victim, and a mediator. And I was all three. I didn’t exclude myself from any group. In some way, that sense of being absolutely susceptible to all of it, to human flaws, to virtues, to circumstances, to experiences—has helped me a lot. Because I tend—as we all do—to close in on myself; I have to keep it, especially when I write.

LT: You never let any of your characters off the hook. You don’t write stories of redemption, which, from my point of view, is an American disease.

PF: No, I know, it’s “Have a good day!” I wrote recently to the Royal Folio Society in England. I owed them 75 words about Proust. I said that I’d gone one day to Père-Lachaise cemetery and had seen the tomb of Gurdjieff, a spiritual healer. It was covered with flowers and candles, some lit the morning or afternoon I was there. I found Proust’s—black marble. And on it a little metal juice can that had contained frozen orange juice, and in it one small bramble rose. I wrote, Gurdjieff said we could reach a higher consciousness and be in control of our lives. Proust taught nothing, but he wrote the most extraordinary book of the 20th century, In Search of Lost Time. And he didn’t believe in ordinariness. But the childish ideas, that smiley face! It’s like naming the atom bomb the “peace bomb.” It’s a kind of perversity.

LT: In Desperate Characters, when Sophie and Otto go for a drive, she sees a poster of an Alabamian presidential candidate. You wrote: “His country, warned the poster—vote for him—pathology calling tenderly to pathology.”

PF: That was based on George Wallace. (laughter)

LT: Your fourth novel, The Widow’s Children, like Desperate Characters, takes place in a weekend. It’s a very disturbed family romance. Laura, the mother, Clara, her daughter, her brothers, all have terrible relationships. The family is supposed to be celebrating. Laura keeps it a secret that her mother has just died. It’s an intriguing withholding on her part, and strategy on your part as author.

PF: A lot of things went into that. I don’t think in advance about psychology, because then I’d be a psychologist. I think there is an impulse in Laura to keep it private. She was possessive about her mother’s death and her mother, in a very primitive way. There are lots of reasons. She wanted to punish her daughter and her brothers. But that was also very primitive—to punish them for everything, for being themselves, for not paying attention to their mother, for neglecting her, for their laughter, for their lives. And then there was a child’s secrecy. That is very significant for me: a child’s secrecy and horror, because Laura was frightened by the death of her mother. If she didn’t say it, then it didn’t happen.

LT: Like magical—

PF: Magical thinking, exactly. Her main reason can fit under the subtitle “mischief,” of a certain psychological bullying, viciousness, revenge. There are other reasons, but they’re less significant.

LT: The Widow’s Children is structured in sections: Corridor, Drinks, Restaurant, specific places or times in which we expect things to happen or not to happen.

PF: The corridors of our lives are very different. We pass through them on our way to different places, but they also exist in themselves as places where things happen. In the restaurant, Laura looks around; Clara, all of them, are at the table, and they’re moored in middle-class-life comfort. It’s the hour of drink, persuasion, assaugement and satisfaction, but not at Laura’s table.

PF: It’s very extreme, and Carlos, Laura’s brother, can’t wait to get away, to escape. They all want to escape, except for Laura’s longtime friend Peter, who begins to sense, who sees how bad his choices were, but how inevitable.

LT: In the last paragraph of the novel, after Laura’s mother’s funeral, Peter remembers his childhood.

PF: I remember the last line. He had “known the cat and dog had been let out because he saw their paw marks braiding the snow, and felt that that day, he only wanted to be good.” That’s a kind of hope. We all wish we were good.

LT: Your characters all want to be good.

PF: Yes, I think that’s true. Except for Laura.

LT: Each of your books is quite different from the others, though there are recurrent themes, like justice, injustice, people trying to see their own flaws, wanting to be good, honest. The Widow’s Children stands out as something unto itself.

PF: It’s so dense and compact a book. But I think in the last novel I wrote, The God of Nightmares [set in New Orleans], I kind of eased up on pounding away at my themes. That’s really my most hopeful novel.

LT: Do you know why?

PF: No, except that it has a kind of easing.

LT: I think it’s that, in the text itself, there’s forgiveness.

PF: I think that’s true. Oh, yes.

LT: There’s the protagonist Helen’s mother’s letter to her. Her mother’s dying, and she asks Helen to forgive her. She also forgives Helen.

PF: She says you have to forgive me for myself. Because we’re all helpless, the way we are, until we can strike a judgment, a point— that’s why judgment comes in . . . . I was just having a very complex thought. I don’t know how to speak about it.

LT: At the end, Helen discovers that Len, her husband, was in love with her best friend, Nina, years ago. She feels terribly betrayed.

PF: But after their fight, she passes her hands over his body while he’s asleep. Yes, it is forgiveness.

LT: Was your complex thought about forgiveness?

PF: We can’t forgive easily. We have to take into account what was done. Various people get treated so badly. People get mistreated 128 all the time. Black people were treated as an entity in a terrible way. We’re such primitive creatures that we go by what we see, which is a different skin tone. Part of us is primitive.

LT: Helen leaves New Orleans, marries Len and the novel jumps into the future, when she thinks, “We were no more than motes of dust, drifting so briefly through a narrow ray of light that we could have no history.” All of your characters experience that.

PF: Yes, it’s a kind of profound life melancholy. But it’s offset by feelings of affection for other people and, in this case, particularly for people in the French Quarter, who took Helen in, so to speak. She had such a good time when they told their stories.

LT: The secondary characters are wild, vivid figures. It’s a war novel, like The Western Coast, but even more so. People go to war, come back, and don’t, which is felt in the entire city.

PF: Everything was made very precious by that sense of leavetaking. I just suddenly remembered the black man looking at the ship, and Helen and Nina saying, “What do you think he was thinking about?” Nina says, “Getting away.” I did see a black man looking at a ship, while living on the Mississippi. But I don’t know if he was longing to get away.

LT: Your fifth novel, A Servant’s Tale, begins with two words, “Ruina! Ruina!” It covers a lot of time and history. Luisa Sanchez is a character of great abjection. As a child, she comes to New York, 129 America—El Norte—from San Pedro, where her mother was a maid, her father, the son of a plantation owner. When she grows up, Luisa decides to be a maid.

PF: You know what one of the reviewers said about that? A black woman in the New York Times wrote, “Why didn’t she pull herself together, go to college, and get a degree?” It’s like a corporate person rearranging a book of taxes, when they say it should go here in this column rather than here.

LT: Women writers are meant to write women characters who uplift the sex, like black writers—women and men—are urged to uplift the race. By your having Luisa make that decision, it flies in the face of—

PF: The American Dream.

LT: Horatio Alger, middle-class values. The novel confronts claims and feelings—ideologies—that Americans hold dear. Luisa wants to be a servant.

PF: Americans hold family values dear, even as they’re killing their own children. I think that people in terrible situations lie to themselves about the situations they’re in. I feel that lying is the great human activity; being right is the great human passion. Because if you’re not right, you’re nothing.

LT: Luisa marries Tom, a public-relations manager; they met at a political meeting in Columbia University. You feel part of his 130 interest in her is her ethnicity, her so-called authenticity, and his wanting to overcome his middle-class ways. Then he tries to change her. But Luisa will not be changed by anyone or anything.

PF: Yes. This is what has happened to her: she wants her childhood back. She doesn’t give it up until the end of the book, when she’s able to think about something else. She wonders about Maura, one of the boarders in her parents’ apartment. Luisa is the victim of herself. She’s given everything over to reconstituting, discovering, her own terrible, lovely childhood and her grandmother. That’s what she wants. She goes back to San Pedro and discovers that it’s all changed, but the old witch is there. Gradually, in that last section, she recognizes it, without being able to name it, but the only way a reader knows that she’s recognized it is that she can think of something else, in a way that’s absolutely free of everything.

LT: Thinking about a person other than herself gives her the possibility of another future.

PF: I knew that she wasn’t going to act the same way afterward. Even though so many years had passed, and she hadn’t seen Ellen Dove, her black friend, I thought Luisa would contact her again and see about getting a law degree or something. (laughter) Then there was the last story in The Coldest Winter, “Frank.”

LT: One of the boys you were teaching.

PF: Yes. Narcissism is not a good thing to have in the sense that you fill in everything with yourself, and people suffer so. You don’t just have to be an indulged, rich child to be narcissistic. In fact, it’s the opposite. The poor children. The world’s filled up with questions of the self and the sense of the self. It’s a dreadful, agonizing torture. And that’s what happens to people, it seems to me, who have deprived, difficult, complex lives—when it’s very extreme, out of some kind of alarm, everything in one’s self—whatever it is—rushes to fill in all the spaces. So I used not the usual, sentimental relativism, that is, something larger than the self, but something other than the self.

LT: That’s a very important distinction. You wanted Frank to go to an observatory and look through the big telescope, to see the stars.

PF: I had taken a course with Professor Motz, Lord Motz, professor of astronomy at Columbia. This was in the 1950s. I had a year with him and I couldn’t go ahead, because I hadn’t been to high school. I had only been there for three months. I didn’t have the trigonometry I would have needed. I also couldn’t go on with geology, which I loved.

LT: You had only three months of high school?

PF: Yes, pretty much. But I went to Columbia for four years, and managed other courses outside of the science courses. I’ll tell you, my father was a terribly irresponsible man. He had a lot of charm, but he was an alcoholic.

LT: In your memoir Borrowed Finery, when you were going to meet the daughter that you had given up for adoption, you wrote, “In the face of great change, one has no conscious.” You were hoping the plane would crash.

PF: That’s right.

LT: When your characters have to face change, they’ll do or think anything. Again, you’re fearless; your characters don’t couch their thoughts. Most writers would avoid their characters thinking what yours do.

PF: My husband, Martin, thinks it’s because I didn’t go to college. (laughter)

LT: Your characters have prejudices. Again, white novelists mostly shy away from writing about race, which is obviously a major subject.

PF: Yes, it is. It seems so important to me. My friend Mason Roberson, who was a writer and part of the Harlem Renaissance, lived in Carmel for a while. We used to have very funny phone calls. He wrote continuity for Sam Spade, and one day he called me up when I was living in San Francisco. He said, “I have a question to ask you.” I said, “Shoot.” He said, “What’s ‘shortnin’ bread’?” (laughter)

LT: You also write about your mother in Borrowed Finery. You go to see her after 30-odd years, when she’s dying. She offers you a family photograph, but then she hides it under her bed covers.

PF: She was such a savage that she didn’t try to conceal anything about herself, though she concealed the picture very effectively. There was something remarkable about her that way; she would never pretend to be anything. I spent very little time with her, but once when she was in New York, with my father when they first came back from Europe, she was in a little brownstone on the East Side. I remember looking down a flight of stairs, and there was a brown, straw baby carriage with a hood. She looked down at it and said, “You know, the woman whose carriage that is killed her baby last week. Isn’t it interesting to look down and see that carriage?” She was a terror for me. Any creature can give birth and walk away, and I thought that’s what she’d done.

LT: Maybe the one thing you got from her of value was her honesty.

PF: Exactly, that’s what was remarkable about her. She never tried to be any different than she was.

LT: I want to ask you about friends, groups, if you saw or see yourself as part of a literary movement. So many literary histories make assumptions about writers in that way.

PF: No, I don’t feel that I’m in any particular group or movement. It’s hard for me to feel that I belong to any group. That’s a limitation for me, in myself. It’s partly because I was always on the outskirts as a child—of my own life, in my family. As a writer, I feel like one voice among many. I hope that I don’t dishonor the art of 134 writing as I am passing through. It’s my hope that I don’t damage it in any way.

LT: Was it a struggle for you, the response to your books when they came out, and your novels going out of print?

PF: It was, but I’ve gone on. When The Widow’s Children was turned down by Harcourt Brace, by Bill Goodman, who had taken Poor George on, he said it was the best novel I had written so far, but that my track record was very poor. That was a terrible thing—the track record idea. Of course, what else is new? This is a country so nakedly based on money. Other places try to conceal it.

LT: You said you didn’t want to dishonor writing. That would be impossible. Your writing is truly wonderful. You are a great writer.

PF: Thank you. That’s lovely to hear. I don’t know what to say.

LT: Are you going to write another novel?

PF: I’m working on a short novel. It’s called A Light in a Farmhouse Window. It takes place in contemporary France. There’s a little part of it that goes back to 1321, when heretics occupied some small villages in the Pyrenees. They were the Cathars, and they were, like the Albigensians, completely wiped out by the Dominican priests. I’ll tell you one story that I use: A Dominican priest was describing a village late at night to some horsemen, a gang, and one of the Crusaders tells him there were only 20 heretics in the village. The 135 total population was 200. The Dominican priest said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”


Share this essay