At age 88, author Paula Fox is the settled survivor of a disrupted life.
She was abandoned as an infant, frequently moved through much of her childhood, a teen mother who gave up her daughter for adoption, a witness to the devastation of post-World War II Europe, and the public and private breakdowns of New York in the 1960s and 1970s. She was an out-of-print novelist rediscovered by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem and other authors young enough to be her children.
"I’ve always known a lot of very bad people, destructive, brutes of a certain kind. Then I’ve seen these lovely impulses and what not, and they’ve stayed with me and comforted me," she says during a recent interview in the living room of her Brooklyn town house, a cobblestone garden in back.
Known for the memoir "Borrowed Finery" and for such novels as "Desperate Characters" and the award-winning "The Slave Dancer," Fox has a poised and graceful presence, with a strong chin, a proud smile and gently parted gray-white hair. She has been a Brooklyn resident for decades and lives with her husband, the editor, critic and translator Martin Greenberg, and two middle-age cats, one of whom, Lucy, checks in periodically like a nervous publicist.
Fox is a recent inductee into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. She also has a new book, "News From the World," short pieces written over the past 45 years, from remembrances of family and neighbors to such fiction as the title story, in which an oil slick ruins a seaside village’s peaceful isolation, a theme of violation and endangerment that appears in much of her work. The new book is dedicated to two writers she befriended as a young adult, Mary King and Pat O’Donnell. Their "goodness" and "sobriety" and "seriousness" were qualities she encountered too rarely as a girl.
Childhood taught her harsh lessons about the character of writers, and of parents. Her father, Paul Fox, was a screenwriter, and a drunk, given to "interminable, stumbling descriptions of the ways in which he and fellow writers tried to elude domesticity," she observes in her new book. Her mother, Elsie, was a "sociopath," the author says, who banished Paula from the house. The hero of her youth was an early caretaker, the Rev. Elwood Amos Corning, "Uncle Elwood," whom Fox can summon in perfect detail.
"I have a painter’s memory," Fox says during the interview. "I can remember things from my childhood which were so powerfully imprinted on me, the whole scene comes back. I remember Mr. Corning, for example, Uncle Elwood, as I called him, imitating a horse he had in the living room of the house, and I remember him bursting with laughter as he galloped past me into the dining room."
Her father did make at least one important contribution: books, a box of them he delivered to Corning’s house when Paula was 5. She read fairy tales and the funny papers, Mark Twain and "Treasure Island." She memorized Rudyard Kipling’s "If" and could recite the American presidents in chronological order.
Fox’s experiences have no apparent connection except that she was there for them. Her homes included a sugar plantation in Cuba; a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; an Italian-style villa in Peterborough, N.H.; a finishing school in Montreal. She traveled across the country to California with a family acquaintance often too drunk to drive.
"My life was incoherent to me," Fox wrote in "Borrowed Finery," released in 2001 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. "I felt it quivering, spitting out broken teeth."
She lived in Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s, in apartments and rooming houses. She did see stars, some burned out, others beginning to shine. She delivered a book to a "young and thin" Orson Welles. She danced with John Wayne, a virtual unknown at the time. While visiting a friend at her apartment, she spotted a familiar face entering a room down the hall. It was Harpo Marx, seeing his mistress. She met John Barrymore, "yellowing with age like the ivory keys of a very old piano."
She married at 17, had a child (Linda Carroll, who became Courtney Love’s mother) and gave her up for adoption. She divorced, worked for years as a teacher and as a tutor for troubled children, married Greenberg and had two more kids. Only in her 40s did she begin her first novel, "Poor George," about a cynical school teacher who finds purpose — and ruin — in mentoring a vagrant teenager.
Her earliest published work was short fiction, and two stories — "Lord Randall" and "The Living" — are included in her new book. They are unusual efforts for a white writer, narrated in colloquial style by black characters and published in Negro Digest, which accepted the stories without meeting the author.
In her memoir "The Coldest Winter," Fox writes that living abroad liberated her mind, "showing me something other than myself." She thought out the life of a Latina housekeeper in the novel "A Servant’s Tale." In "The Slave Dancer," winner in 1974 of the Newbery Medal for best children’s book, a young boy is captured and forced on to a slave ship.
"I’ve never been a slave. I’ve never been black. I was never on a ship. But I have a certain narrow understanding of certain kinds of characters, and of evil and kindness and goodness and tenderness," Fox says.
As an adult writer, Fox received acclaim for her subtle prose and her deep insights into the collapse of white collar security in the 60s and 70s. A nasty bite from a cat in "Desperate Characters" mirrors a plague of violence and decay that has spread through New York City. "The Widow’s Children" finds a family at war as a husband and wife prepare for a trip to Africa.
"Everything is always on the edge of crisis and sometimes whole countries, like Libya, tumble into them," Fox says. "There’s a certain amount of tyranny in all of us to some extent, and in some people it’s much more developed than in others. It’s a different balance which makes us all different. But we all have the same qualities and essence. There’s a certain tendency toward bigotry, cruelty, absolutism, stupidity. It doesn’t take over in a lot of us. … We know it’s there. People don’t want to know that."
But by the 1990s her work was forgotten by all but her most determined admirers. One of them, fortunately, was Franzen. The future author of "Freedom" and "The Corrections" came upon "Desperate Characters" while at the Yaddo writers colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1991. A few years later, he wrote an essay for Harper’s magazine that worried about the state of American fiction and called "Desperate Characters" an overlooked masterpiece that provided him "company and consolation and hope in an object pulled almost at random from a bookshelf."
Author Tom Bissell, then a paperback editor at W.W. Norton, read the essay and wondered why he hadn’t heard of the novel. He looked in stores and had no luck, not even among the epic stacks at the Strand in Manhattan’s Union Square, a veritable lost and found for literature. He finally got in touch with Fox, who sent him one of her copies; Norton reissued all of Fox’s adult novels, with introductory essays by Franzen, Lethem and other writers.
"I think Paula obliterates the distinction we make between ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ writers," Bissell says. "Paula, whose prose is quite spare but never feels ‘minimal’ or skeletal at all, shows us that all so-called minimalism is good old-fashioned carefulness in narration."
Cruelty inspired some of her best work, but also robbed her gift for invention. In the mid-90s, she was visiting Jerusalem when she was attacked by a mugger, thrown to the ground and hospitalized. Fox says she can still write, but only nonfiction. She has published no novels since being injured, instead writing "Borrowed Finery" and "The Coldest Winter."
"Another quarter of an inch and I would have been dead," she says of her head injury. "It took me a long time to write a few pages of ‘Borrowed Finery,’ then as I went on it took less and less time and by the time I came to ‘The Coldest Winter,’ I didn’t have so much trouble.
"There are moments one is so grateful for certain things. For instance, I thought the other day of the water that comes out of our faucet, for a second I felt an immense social gratitude toward the water itself. You see the difference between your situation and the world’s, in one form or another. I wasn’t congratulating myself. I didn’t feel complacent about it at all, not consciously.
"In any event, I was so relieved to think about the water system in Brooklyn."