Interviews

Paula Fox, The Art of Fiction No. 181

Interviewed by Oliver Broudy

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.

 

INTERVIEWER

What were your beginnings as a writer?

PAULA FOX

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.

INTERVIEWER

Your father read these books to you?

FOX

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.

INTERVIEWER

Who was Mr. Corning?

FOX

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.

INTERVIEWER

So you were in Redlands for a year and then you came—

FOX

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.

INTERVIEWER

What about school?

FOX

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.

INTERVIEWER

What were you doing then?

FOX

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.

INTERVIEWER

You took the earthquakes and revolutions as they came but you couldn’t take a modeling job.

FOX

Uh-uh. That was personal.

INTERVIEWER

So you must have been around seventeen.

FOX

No, I was sixteen, because when I was seventeen we drove out West. Me and my stepmother’s old acquaintance, Mary Kay. The landscape of this country was so different then. It was like that Humphrey Bogart movie with Leslie Howard, The Petrified Forest. It looked like that, it had that kind of enormous . . . space around things. A tree, a little bush growing by itself, would cast this immense shadow, because everything was very open, and you know, Levittown hadn’t begun yet, of course, and the Second World War hadn’t begun yet, and the approach to the Rockies was very undeveloped, and must have looked like the country when Willa Cather wrote about it—Death Comes for the Archbishop, and those novels that I love so.

Anyhow we got to California, and my stepmother’s friend was too much for me—she was a terrible alcoholic—so after about six weeks, I left. And then I was on my own. I got a job right away waiting on tables, and then I got a job in a dress shop, and I had all kinds of terrible jobs. I had a job in a ceramics factory painting sleeping Mexicans under hats. Then I worked for a magician, Arthur Murray.

INTERVIEWER

And somewhere in there you got married.

FOX

Yes, and it was very bad, because I didn’t like the chap at all. His name was Howard Bird, and he’s dead now so I can say what I like about him. I met him at International House in New York, where I stayed for a few months when I’d gone to Juilliard—my father had talked me in but then he stopped paying the bills. I lived with him for a few weeks, and then I heard he was in Mexico, and then he was dead.

INTERVIEWER

Were you doing any writing at this point? Did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

FOX

Yes, because my father was a writer. I wrote a story when I was seven. It was about a man who climbs into the house of a family and kills everybody and then he leaves, and then they all come miraculously back to life. There’s a poem I wrote that’s from that time. My father read it and he said, Well you’ve got a voice. So I wrote other poems but they’ve all been lost.

INTERVIEWER

When did you switch from poems to stories?

FOX

In my early twenties, that’s when I really began to write. Before that, I was too busy working, keeping myself going. I often thought of killing myself but then I wanted lunch. So I had to make a buck. And all my stories were rejected. I sent them out to various editors and they returned them. In fact, I had to wait until I was in my late twenties before I sold a couple of stories to what was then called the Negro Digest. I still have them. And then they changed names, to Black Fury or something like that, I don’t know what they called themselves. But the editor, Hoyt Fuller, who is now dead, wrote to find out if I was black. He did it very subtly, but I could see that was the question behind the letter.

INTERVIEWER

And the rest of your twenties? What were you doing?

FOX

Well, let’s see. I was in San Francisco. I got a job at Bethlehem Steel, as a machinist, and I remember the first thing I did was slam this huge crane through the machine-shop wall.

INTERVIEWER

They let you drive a crane?

FOX

Well, you just pressed a button and then the crane went swinging along. But my first writing job was for a labor paper called People’s World. I wrote a series about a medical program run by Kaiser, and it was well received. I always had a certain natural feeling for language, but I didn’t know that I had it.

INTERVIEWER

And then in 1946, you went to Europe, right? Why then? Why Europe?

FOX

I wanted to get out. But I took everything with me. I don’t think I realized it then but I realized gradually that you can’t get away from your past. So I went to England and I got a job with Victor Gollancz, who was a big-time publisher. He had published a couple of my father’s novels in England. Then somehow I was put onto this fellow who I call Sir Andrew, because I can’t remember his name. He was a peer, and wanted to set up a labor news service, with a different viewpoint than Reuters. So he sent me to Prague and Poland and then to Paris.

INTERVIEWER

How long did that last?

FOX

Well, it got a little thin, after the Polish trip. I went to Spain, because I had relatives there. We all lived very frugally in those days. I mean, frugal is not the word for it. Then I went back to Paris and got a freighter back to New York.

INTERVIEWER

Were you doing any writing at that time?

FOX

Well, I wrote publicity releases for various products. I was trying to sell stories, but, as I said, they were turned down.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

FOX

Oh, they weren’t quite right. I don’t know. They had a certain kind of morbidity about them, and it was after the Second World War and people didn’t want that kind of stuff. These were very melancholy, sad stories. They were somber. And they were the only kind that I knew how to write. I don’t know why they turned them down. And I was so busy just making a living. My second husband, Dick Sigerson, was very good at that. But then I left him, or he left me, and I got a job at a place called St. Christopher’s, working with these delinquent kids. Tutoring them in the evenings; I had a sitter for the children. And I was teaching in the mornings at Ethical Culture School. I would write when my children were at school. I’d get an hour every day. “I’m not waving, I’m drowning”—that was the joke of my life. The doctor said, Well, I’ll give you some bailing wire to keep your strength up, and he gave me vitamin B shots.

INTERVIEWER

What did you make of your life at that point? How did you think about yourself?

FOX

Well, first I told stories about it. And then I saw that the stories were very shocking to people. I realized that gradually. This didn’t all happen at once. They weren’t hopeful stories, after all.

INTERVIEWER

So what kept you going? What kept you writing?

FOX

I don’t know what kept me going. I think it was the same thing that kept me going when A Servant’s Tale and The Widow’s Children were turned down, between them, twenty-nine or thirty times.

INTERVIEWER

What did Dick make of your writing aspirations?

FOX

He said, When you can make as much money as I make at public relations, then we’ll talk. So I was very chagrined by that.

INTERVIEWER

But not dissuaded.

FOX

No, nothing dissuaded me.

INTERVIEWER

I’m still trying to understand what kept you going.

FOX

I had a certain kind of determination, somewhere in my . . . ashamed self. People have said to me, Oh, I don’t have any self-esteem or confidence, and it stops me from writing, and I say, You don’t need confidence. Just write. Everybody’s in the middle of a story. So you just have to write the ending. And self-esteem was not a big thing when I was growing up. I mean, nobody ever talked about it. I don’t think self-knowledge became very important until the 1940s, at least in the groups I traveled in. Even then it was very slow in coming. But I never felt any sort of egocentricity about my writing. I think I felt that it was a dispassionate gift that some force had given me. And I still think that. It’s as if something speaks through me, and then I have to sit up there every day for it to have a place to come and speak through me. But when it’s good, it’s like a dream, I’m just working, and I’m not conscious of myself at all, as a writer. There are certain things that I find pleasing—for example, I’ve just been voted into the Academy of Arts and Letters. But they don’t really shake something in me that is absolutely unshakeable—like Gibraltar—which is a lack of vanity about my work. And it isn’t even a lack, there’s not even any question but that I feel this. It’s like having a singing voice. You can’t teach people to sing if they don’t have a natural voice.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever consider taking a writing course?

FOX

There was a class at Columbia taught by Louis Simpson. I wrote a story called “Man on the Roof,” and he looked at me in such an odd way after I’d written it. And he made me read it in front of the class. I sent that story, in fact, to my husband, Martin, who was then the editor of Commentary, who rejected it.

INTERVIEWER

He rejected it!

FOX

I think it was a strange story. I was always writing strange stories. I mean, they were very strange to other people, they weren’t strange to me, of course. But clearly I had a voice of some kind. I mean, you can’t teach people that. I taught writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania for a number of years and I realized that all you can do is encourage people and give them assignments and hope they will write them.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of assignments did you give them?

FOX

I remember one of the assignments was: How do you tie your shoelaces? Which I thought would be proof of their ability to write about complicated things. And the other one was I put an apple on the table and said, Write five hundred words about that. Or I asked them to describe what was happening in the next room. I found some very endearing people in those classes. I think out of seven years of teaching I found maybe two who had their own voice, in my judgment. There were lots who were competent but only two who were startling.

INTERVIEWER

What is that quality of voice?

FOX

I don’t know. It’s primarily a way of seeing. And it’s a consciousness. I don’t know what makes a writer’s voice. It’s dozens of things. There are people who write who don’t have it. They’re tone-deaf, even though they’re very fluent. It’s an ability, like anything else, being a doctor or a veterinarian, or a musician. There’s a kind of poetic mind that sees connections between things. I think that ability to make connections is part of the open secret of what a writer does. Everything on that side table there has a certain connection: Family pictures. And then a picture of Martin, my father, Mr. Corning, my great-grandfather, my grandson. An eighteenth-century Japanese bowl. But there’s a kind of theme that holds all those things together. The thing is to discover what that theme is. Everything on that table has a certain benevolence. That’s not the table I mostly write about, because there are other chords, that are not benevolent, that I tend to strike.

INTERVIEWER

When I was reading your memoir I kept expecting you to address this—your sense of voice, how you make associations as a writer—but you never did.

FOX

I think it’s because I’m so visual. I can see my father sixty years ago with a cigarette in his hand and his elbow on the table and the little wrinkles on the cloth. I can see. I can see him right now. I remember the way people looked when they said certain things. My immediate memory for names and so forth is very poor but my memory for the past, which starts a week ago, is very specific. I think I remember in a sort of painterly way—people’s faces, and the expressions that are underneath the expressions . . .

You know, I’ve had trouble since I was put in the hospital for a month in Jerusalem. A man mugged me and knocked me to the pavement, and I had intracranial bleeding. The doctors didn’t operate. It was on the first day Martin and I were in Jerusalem and we were walking home with an Israeli friend. They were walking a little ahead of me, and it was very late, and suddenly a man appeared, and I saw what he was going to do. And I can’t remember anything that happened. But for one week I was in intensive care. He took my bag, which had a lot of dollars and my passport. So I spent three weeks in the Jerusalem hospital, and then I came back here and spent a week at Columbia Presbyterian. And I’ve had trouble ever since then. It’s not that my mind is affected, but something happens with thoughts slipping now and then, and I can’t quite express . . . It’s frontal lobe damage, which I’m going to have for the rest of my life. My old articulateness is gone now. I look at people on television screens talking about trivial things with the most endless fluency, and I think, I can’t do that anymore.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find that it has affected how you write?

FOX

Oh, yes. I find physical description particularly hard to write now, and I have to revise a lot. Since Jerusalem I tend to reverse things. Par example: “I returned to Paris, light though it had been, my work done.” Instead of: “My work done, light though it had been.” And then I have to do all kinds of things to get it right. But I can only do it when I’ve got something down to see that I can work on. I was having a lot of trouble with spatial relations, so I had trouble describing things. I have fits of fluency, but then I have fits of difficulty, too. There’s something about the frontal lobe that when it’s damaged it affects the ability to describe. For example, one of the exercises I gave my students, as I told you, was, How do you tie your shoelaces? Well, I couldn’t do that now. But I know how you do it.

INTERVIEWER

I read somewhere that it was the incident in Jerusalem that inspired you to write your memoir.

FOX

I don’t think it was that. I think it was just . . . time, you know. Time knocked on my head. There was no inspiration. It just began one day. It took me three months to do ten pages so you can imagine what my ability was like at the time.

INTERVIEWER

Did you give much thought to how you were going to go about it?

FOX

No. I just suddenly thought of Zasu Pitts, and how money has become the overriding thing. It has become almost unbearably important. And so I just wrote that opening. I was imagining this kind of termite-like activity, because people who have lots and lots of money don’t spend it on art or anything worthwhile. They just accumulate it. Like termites. Pile it up like a termite tower, in Africa. And that started me, and then I had so many memories, and I had told my husband those stories all my life, and so I thought, Well, I’ll write them down.

INTERVIEWER

But what does Zasu Pitts have to do with your life story?

FOX

It was just the way I started it. It seemed to me apposite. She was in a movie called Greed. I can’t remember now how I segued from there into the opening of Borrowed Finery, but I remember being convinced that this was the right way for me to do it, to have it be side thoughts about weekender bags and borrowed clothes.

INTERVIEWER

To back up a bit, can you talk about how you began writing novels?

FOX

My husband and I went to Greece with our two children. We spent six months there and it was the first uninterrupted time I’d had in forty years. I was deliriously happy. I didn’t have to do anything except cook dinner, and worry about vipers, which I did worry about a lot. But I wrote two books in Greece. Or I began two books, and one I finished—Maurice’s Room, which was my first children’s book. The other, Poor George, was my first novel. I got a grip on it before we left. Maurice’s Room was all about the way children’s rooms, if they have rooms of their own, look like toy stores. It was a Greek fisherman who said to us one day, when we were out in a boat and he was standing up pushing the oars, In Amerika, poly pragmata. In America, there are many things. I was struck by that. So Maurice’s Room came naturally to me.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about that comment that grabbed you?

FOX

Well, images had already formed in my thoughts about certain American children, including my own, and how they were indulged at holidays and birthdays (and days between) with “things.” But on Thasos, the youngest, ten, got a job as a waiter in a café, two hours at midday, and the older, twelve, worked for a shepherd a few hours in the afternoon. Serious work, serious pleasures. It was a kind of innocent seriousness my sons experienced. The ten year old was so involved it took him a minute to recognize me when I crossed the small square where the café was. I recall he walked to a table, carrying a small tray with glasses of water and retsina, and I could sense he was feeling the way I do when I’m at work, self-forgetting, and yet coming to another self that is there. Whatever made Maurice’s Room happen, it was a mysterious collision of impression and conviction about the power of work both to escape oneself and to find oneself.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the relationship between the two, writing novels and writing children’s books?

FOX

I liked writing children’s books. I really enjoyed writing them. I didn’t enjoy writing novels as much. I struggled so. When it’s going well, it’s a pleasure. When it’s not going well, it’s like working with a crane to lift words onto the page.

INTERVIEWER

But when you’re starting out, how do you know which one it’s going to be, a children’s book or an adult book?

FOX

A lot of people ask me that. I don’t know how to answer it except that I know. You can’t read Anna Karenina to a five year old. On the other hand, another book I wrote, The King’s Falcon, was taken up by hippies. And it was for eight year olds!

INTERVIEWER

There’s a similar lucidity in the children’s books and the adult books, and I wonder if there isn’t some connection there. Children, after all, are famously good at detecting when an adult is lying, and so many of your adult books are concerned with the hypocrisy of adults.

FOX

I think it has something to do with my sense of other people and myself. I was the goldfish that leapt out of the bowl. My childhood was a difficult one so I was able to observe the bowl and the water and the algae and everything else from a very early age. Also, as I said, I read a lot.

I remember feeling that when I first read The Jungle Book, for example. There’s a wonderful passage that Kipling wrote in which he describes the gray monkeys. They’re distracted by the falling of a nut. Kaa, the great python, describes them as the monkey people who have no sorrow and no pleasure except in other people’s pain. I think I realized that Kipling was also writing about people.

I remember saying after I’d seen A Streetcar Named Desire, when it first opened, “It’s true all the way down, the people are true all the way down.” I didn’t know what I meant, and I don’t even know what I mean now but I think I mean what you’re talking about. There is a kind of central truth and if you get the central truth, and the motion of people, then the rest is implied. Henry James talks about this in The Art of Fiction. He writes about a woman writer he knew who ran up the stairs of a little French house in Paris, and on her way up she passed a room with a door open and inside there was a meeting going on of French Huguenots—this was in the nineteenth century—and they were smoking cigarettes and talking. She was only there for half a minute; she paused and then she went on. Two or three years later she wrote a book about the Huguenots, and everything in it, as Henry James said, was absolutely true. She just went from that one moment. Now, I was very careful not to tell my students to only write about what you know, because I couldn’t define what they knew. That’s where the question really begins. How to define what you know. And what she knew and sensed in that second was everything.

INTERVIEWER

Probably every writer has to come to that differently. Clearly your childhood was full of those moments, walking past doors like that. You seem particularly to have absorbed the various ways adults manage to live with the lies they tell themselves.

FOX

At some point I began to value “truth,” that elusive thing, more as I grew older—not only story. I recall lying on a bed, looking at a manuscript on the floor as I reached to turn pages, and thinking to myself, I must mean everything I say, every word, and feeling it as a profound moment in my writing life. When my son was little he went to a convent school for the first year. They’re very good schools, and the public schools were very bad where we lived, around Columbia University. One day when I went to get Gabe, who was five or six, I heard a woman talking to her child. She was a nice woman, I’m sure. She was talking to her eight- or nine-year-old child on the way home up the slope of the hill, and she was saying, “When it’s this time of year”—it was autumn—“I think of the leaves in New England, and I think how beautiful they are.” And I thought, That’s false what she said. I could hear the falsity. She wanted to make her child feel that she was an appreciator of beauty so the child would appreciate the beauty of the leaves turning. I thought, Why doesn’t she really talk to her? I mean, it’s obvious that she had good intentions, but also I realized that good intentions are part of the whole problem. You know? Even in virtuous people, falseness can corrupt their virtue. I know that sounds very stern, like a set of laws, and I don’t always obey those laws myself, but I am very much aware of them, in a certain sense. I know that they aren’t laws for many people. But they are for me. They get stronger and stronger as I get older.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask you about influences. You write in your memoir that D.H. Lawrence had a huge influence on you when you were young.

FOX

I read Sons and Lovers when I was in boarding school in Montreal, and my God what an awakening. I was so shaken by it—I’d never read Lawrence before. I was fifteen. And then I read all I could get ahold of.

INTERVIEWER

What exactly about Lawrence struck you?

FOX

The intensity and the beauty and power of his description. Gradually, as the years passed, I realized that he was an ideologue of a certain kind. He hasn’t held up for me, but I value him as a writer belonging to a certain era in one’s young or youngish years. Did I tell you I knew his widow, Frieda? I was in Taos for three months, in 1948. I lived in a tack room with Richard Sigerson, whom I married a year later. One day Frieda was peering through the screen at me. I was sitting at a typewriter. She was accompanied by an English painter and his wife, who were visiting her. She asked me what I was doing and I said I was trying to write. She introduced herself. I was stricken with delight—the wife of D.H.! She invited us to visit her. It was the first of several visits. She told me, as I sat beneath D.H.’s huge, lurid, rather disgusting paintings of naked crouching women—very reddened and with fleshy behinds—that I reminded her of her daughter, Barbara. One time we arrived as she was taking some melted cheese crackers from the oven for us. She had burned them. I remember she said, “At least Lawrence isn’t here to criticize me!” And then she laughed.

INTERVIEWER

Did Frieda really refer to Lawrence as “Lawrence”?

FOX

She did, indeed. At least to me.

INTERVIEWER

Who else was an influence?

FOX

Thomas Hardy. Lots of his books. When I went to Columbia I just read for years whenever I could. Willa Cather. I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock—really all of her work. I recall a few lines in the first about the priest opening a window in New Mexico and saying to himself, This is the last time the air will be so fresh and clear and good . . .

I’ll tell you who I love is Cesare Pavese. I love his diaries. I don’t like his fiction very much. But his diaries: Real amazement comes from memory, that’s what he said. Natalia Ginzburg was great, too. I loved her Family Sayings, which I think were probably the closest thing to an influence on my memoir. I just thought of it this minute, in fact.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have any role models in terms of other women writers?

FOX

No, I don’t think the term role model was around. They mean the same thing, you know, role and model. But there was no such phrase when I was growing up. Now of course it’s used promiscuously, for almost anything. But I never had anyone like that. I really abhorred my mother. I turned from her so early because she was so hateful. Probably the only woman I cared about when I was in my teens was the woman who ran the school I went to in Montreal. Her name was Charlotte Bonté. She was the first woman I knew whom I liked. I liked a lot of women in a certain namby-pamby way, but she broke the mold for me. And then I have a lifelong friend whom I met when I was seventeen or eighteen. That’s a picture of her there, with the parrot. And this is a picture of Leopold, my uncle.

INTERVIEWER

He’s the uncle you based Carlos on in The Widow’s Children?

FOX

Yes, Carlos was very closely drawn from Leopold.

INTERVIEWER

When you begin a book, like The Widow’s Children, do you begin with someone from your life?

FOX

With Widow’s Children I started with my mother talking about waiters—I remembered that for years. So I wrote that speech. I mean, originally it started with her speech, and then Henry Robbins, who was my editor, suggested I put it later. So I put it later in the first chapter. But from that little bit I created a golem. From mud.

As for the rest, Clara and Peter Rice—invented. But they’re based on people. Nothing is invented that hasn’t been experienced already. But they are very vague things. They are clouds and bits of fog that one experiences on meeting people. There are certain foggy moments and then faces peer out of them. So when I use the word invention that’s what I mean. You grab the moment, seize it, and then put it into your work. It’s like sculpting—you start with a kind of armature and then you put handfuls of clay on and pretty soon . . .

I can tell you how I wrote The King’s Falcon. I saw a man throwing a net into the sea, on PBS, many years ago. It was so beautiful to see that net falling, making a definition in the sea. Pulling it out. And then I had seen a falcon on a fence, sitting on a concrete fence in Massachusetts, and it didn’t fly away. I was looking at it through the car window. Those two images, of the man and the net and the falcon, stuck in my mind until I wrote about them, and I still remember them, but they’re sort of free now of their usefulness to me because I used them in a story.

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t know where you’re going when you begin a novel?

FOX

For Widow’s Children I knew how long it was going to be, I always know that in some strange way. I think it’s because—well, this is a kind of superstition I have, that when you have the idea for a book you know what the ending is going to be. George Mecklin sits down with his friend Walling and says, I have a story to tell you, and that’s the end. In A Servant’s Tale Luisa is able to think about someone other than herself. She’s been obsessed with her childhood and the plantation for hundreds of pages, and she’s finally gotten back. And in the last paragraph she’s leaving on the plane, because the plantation wasn’t at all what she had expected, and she thinks back on a boarder whom she hadn’t really thought about at the time, she was so intent on herself and what she was doing, and she wonders what the boarder was really like. And it seemed so right to me. I mean, it was right in a very modest sense. And I don’t mean right for anybody outside myself, but it seemed right to me, and it was the same thing with The Widow’s Children. Peter Rice sees the animal tracks braided in the snow and realizes that “that day he only wanted to be good.” I felt this sort of exultation when I wrote that last paragraph. I had worked very hard on the book, and in the end there was this paragraph waiting for me, in my mind, in my soul, whatever it is.

INTERVIEWER

What were the images that started Poor George?

FOX

I remember I heard about the theft of a radio by a young boy, and that started the process. I thought of innocence and sentimentality, their partnership in most of us; of how George doesn’t seem to lose his innocence even when Ernest follows his own nature and betrays him—an old answer to that Novalis quote, Character is fate. It’s the same thing, the same process. You grab up things like an old rag lady—a hank of hair, a bit of bone—and put together a person.

I was teaching when it sold. I remember a call came to the school. Someone said, There’s a call for you, and I was in the middle of teaching fifth grade, Dickens’s Great Expectations. I got on the line and a man said, This is Bill Goodman at Harcourt Brace, and we’re taking Poor George. I remember standing there holding the phone. My eyes were closed.

INTERVIEWER

What about Desperate Characters?

FOX

I think it’s when we first moved to Brooklyn, about thirty-seven years ago, and we lived on Dean Street. I had had an experience with a cat. It wasn’t as drastic as the cat experience that Sophie has. But I thought if it were just a little more serious, you know, just amplified. And then I thought of various people—the professor that she goes to see. I’ve known several people like that. It’s a patchwork. Like ice floes sliding and then becoming solid, and locking. Because once the story started, the engine of the story was Brooklyn itself, and the gentrification that was going on, and so forth. But I didn’t think of that in the abstract and try to find a story that would illustrate it. I just did it. I did look out of the window one day and see a black man lying dead drunk next to a child’s truck. It was so vivid an image.

INTERVIEWER

So a lot of that was autobiographical.

FOX

Everything you write is autobiographical, even science fiction, and the planet Ork. In some way even that is a reflection of you—who you are. You write about yourself as if you were a specimen, as if you were a specimen of a human being, and so you write about being human. The only one you really know, reasonably well, in some cases unreasonably well, is yourself. And we all have many personalities in one person. Everyone is different physiologically. My husband had an angiogram recently. But they made a mistake, they assumed all anatomy is the same. But everybody is somewhat different. There’s a physiological difference, not just a difference in the way one sees things visually. They found out that what they thought was blockage was just the characteristic, individual twist of the vein. So it wasn’t a blockage, and there was no emergency, and he could have done without the angiogram. But it was confirmation of what I had always thought, which is that variation is very tiny in each person—it’s like a thumbprint.

INTERVIEWER

But was it hard writing so explicitly about your family?

FOX

I was haunted as a young girl by a wish to write about my father. But it was hard. I thought, He is so glamorous and absolutely unique how will I ever write about him? Then I found out that he wasn’t unique. But I was haunted by that. How can I write about these two people who are so glamorous and extraordinary? I left out completely the treatment of me, my young meanderings in my mind. Then when I came to that—and I came across it suddenly, like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic—I was in my thirties. So from being these two sort of Fitzgerald figures that I had imagined, they came to seem to me boorish and uninformed, and stupid about children beyond any belief. And ordinary in certain ways. They became human. I don’t know what that process is. I think probably my own experiences, and the people that I knew, and the analyst I went to, and my own growing sense of how other people’s lives—who had been brought up in perfectly middle-class homes—had been just as complicated as mine. I think it’s not helpful to over-psychologize. It substitutes for the chaos that most of us live in. Except that we emerge now and then in order to play the violin or go to work or whatever. And that’s what I’ve been writing about, that chaos.

INTERVIEWER

Nabokov once said, “Memory is . . . one of the many tools that an artist uses; and some recollections, perhaps intellectual rather than emotional, are very brittle and sometimes apt to lose the flavor of reality when . . . they are given away to characters.” Is this a danger that you feel?

FOX

Oh, no. I never felt that. I like Nabokov. I read one novel of his I really liked, Pnin, and then his lectures, they’re very good. And I quite like Lolita. But his is a moot point. It doesn’t happen to me. No, I feel—I’m not an intellectual. Martin is, but I’m not. I don’t know why I say that about myself. But somehow I don’t feel like I fit the bill. How can anybody with Spanish blood be an intellectual?

INTERVIEWER

But what, then, is the difference, for you, between autobiography and fiction? What is it that you bring to the novel that you don’t bring to autobiography?

FOX

Well, for me there isn’t much difference. And that’s the truth. None of my books is very far from me. I think what happens with a memoir is that you write directly about yourself. The light is not on other people, it’s on your response to what you see. With a novel the light is not on you. You’re working the strings. It’s a different kind of placement of lights. It’s a different kind of emphasis, and I don’t know how to explain more than that. It’s a different color.

INTERVIEWER

I have to ask you now about your writing routine. Could you describe what your day consists of, in pedantic detail?

FOX

Well, now that I’m nearly eighty-one it takes me longer to get up the stairs in the morning. I used to go to work at eight; now I get up there at around nine-thirty. If I can’t work that day I just sit and think about things and scrawl. I do everything by hand on yellow legal pads, and then I transfer and broaden and deepen on the typewriter. And I put down notes. I start keeping a notebook as soon as I’m writing a book. The way people talk to one another will be something I scrawl down. And then I’ll put down something like: mockingly. I sort of develop the theme. The theme is the way people talk to each other, and then I put down different descriptions of the conversations: impulsive; seductive; enraged. Kind. Tender. Sweet. And it goes on like that. So the notebooks fill up. But they aren’t in sequence, except for The Slave Dancer and A Servant’s Tale, which required a lot of research.

INTERVIEWER

So these notebooks, they’re sort of companion documents.

FOX

That’s a good way of putting it. And now I’m starting a new book. I’ve got fifty or sixty pages of it, and I’ve been thinking about it for about fifteen or twenty years. It takes place in a château in the south of France. Bones are found in the chapel. I was very struck by the massacres of the Albigenses in the thirteenth century. Ultimately, not a man, woman, or child was left alive by Pope Gregory IX, who came down on this small colony of people and killed them all. So I was thinking of a contemporary setting. It’s a kind of back-and-forth between the present day and the thirteenth century. It’s only a beginning, so I don’t dare talk about it because I’ll use up the energy I’ll need.

INTERVIEWER

But why this particular subject? What about it grabbed you?

FOX

It was so extreme. It was so powerful to me that you could wipe out a whole culture. And then I read a book called Montaillou, which is about the Cathars, all of whom lived in the part of France where I put the château. They were also persecuted. This was after the split came in the papacy—the pope of Avignon and the pope of Rome. And the Avignon pope persecuted the Cathars. The persecution was terrible. People were burned alive—which is a terrible way to die. I think probably it interested me as an extreme example of human irrationality, and what malicious animals we are. And yet we’re also altruistic animals. But, in no other species is this viciousness developed the way it is in the human species. Of course, I learned that from experience, as you’re no doubt thinking.

INTERVIEWER

Well, I was thinking about your workday. We got a few hours into it and then we ended up in a massacre.

FOX

Right. So I work for about three or four hours. I used to work five hours. I can’t work all day long because I get very tired in the afternoon.

INTERVIEWER

What about revision?

FOX

You know, I was reading recently that Tolstoy’s wife, Sonya, copied War and Peace by hand seven times. And then when he was eighty-two, he ran out on her. After she’d copied War and Peace seven times! I mean, that was reason enough not to run out. But I do revise a lot. I revised A Servant’s Tale about six times. Martin came into the room once, just as I had crossed off an entire page, and said, “Boy, would I like to be able to do that!” I just write things out, so I have to revise a lot. I know I’m going to revise, so my first manuscripts tend to be . . . this is not the right word but—oh, I keep reaching for things . . .

Oh, I meant to tell you that one of the people who has affected me very strongly is Isaac Babel. I love his short stories. He wrote a short story titled “Guy de Maupassant,” which made me crazed with delight. Have you read it? He said a period in the right place can pierce you to the heart. That’s what he does. He wrote one story that was ten pages long. It’s in a book that was put out by his daughter of all his work. He cut it to five pages. She shows just how he did it.

INTERVIEWER

I have another quote here. This one has more to do with the challenge of building realistic characters. It’s from Joyce Cary. He says, “Real people are too complex and too disorganized for books. They aren’t simple enough. Look at the great heroes and heroines. Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Baron de Charlus, Catherine Linton, they are essentially characters from fable, and so they must be to take their place in a formal construction which is to have a meaning.”

FOX

I think Joyce Cary was right, to a certain extent. But I think you can suggest things. I think in fact that that’s all one can do. I think maybe there’s no way of getting at the complexity of human life. You can’t write about it and you can’t speak about it, except in a limited way. But that’s what we know: We know that we’re limited. I certainly know that I’m limited and I think any limited creature knows its limitations.

You know, we have cats, two, and we had dogs and snakes and all kinds of things when we had children growing up. And I feel that animals know much more than we credit them with knowing. They have a certain kind of dignity, of knowledge. They know exactly how to be a cat, how to be a dog, and a snake knows how to be a snake. There was a period when Disney was doing all this music to accompany his films of wild animals, and it was so cute, it was unspeakable, and it was unspeakable because it had no dignity in it. There’s a human tendency to tame life that is, I think, inevitable, to domesticate it, to not confront its brevity, its otherness, which becomes more and more obvious as one gets older. I think of things that happened two or three or four years ago and I’m absolutely astonished. Because life is so short. And not just relatively.

I can’t remember where we started. Oh, Joyce Cary. The quote. I think one can only suggest, the way painters suggest. For example, my great-grandfather did these studies of butterflies, in 1859. They seem to me to express all living creatures. He was an amateur and he went out on the lower slopes of the Pyrenees and sketched them all. I think that when you forget yourself, and you’re involved in drawing a butterfly, for example, you become one with it, so it’s not alien to you. And in that way you can understand it. It’s a question of how far you can go with what you sense about others, and about yourself. How far did my great-grandfather go drawing the butterfly? He sensed its movement and its beauty and its color and its ephemeral nature. That sense of a thing is open to all human beings. It’s where empathy comes from.

INTERVIEWER

This connects with what you were saying earlier about your lack of vanity; I would think vanity would only get in the way of that sort of empathy.

FOX

Yes. And I’ve had a long struggle in the last two years, because the memoir was very popular abroad, and I got so much attention. Then it died away, like everything does. Then I had to go through such a struggle to find my way back. I had a kind of double vision of myself. I don’t know how to describe it—it’s an awareness of your outer appearance, of how you talk and look and act, and an awareness of your mind in certain outer ways—but whatever it is, it gets in the way of writing. I think probably painters don’t have as much trouble, because it’s so physical, painting. Painting has a kitchen, unlike writing, where you just need a stub of pencil and a piece of paper—which is what Lawrence said about writing. A painter has a kitchen and when he or she can’t paint, he or she can mix things or scrape the palette with the palette knife, and there’s canvas to stretch and the studio to sweep up. Maybe that’s how you can work out the problem of self-consciousness. Because most of the painters I’ve heard of don’t seem to have ego problems at all. Picasso is another matter but—he was Spanish.

INTERVIEWER

So how do you recover from all that attention?

FOX

I think time and struggle. Struggle doesn’t do anything for you. The odds are even—sometimes you’re overcome by it and sometimes you overcome. But I don’t think that’s what does it. I think it’s time that diminishes it until you can go back to your ordinary life. Time sort of shakes you like a great wind and wrings you out and drops you in front of your typewriter. Or stub of a pencil.

INTERVIEWER

You probably managed to avoid a lot of the ego troubles that usually bedevil young writers simply because you started so late.

FOX

Yes, I’ve thought that too. If I’d been younger, things would have been much worse for me. I might have been known, and things would have been different.

You know, in Italy, everybody seems to be born famous, so nobody has to think of it there. They’re not driven by things the way we are. They really aren’t. We went to Italy about a dozen times, we stayed a long time, about two months, so I lived with the Italians, and saw how they lived. William Weaver was translating a book for Elsa Morante when we first met him. She was married to Alberto Moravia. But she had a kind of life with her husband and friends where they weren’t trying to be celebrities, you know the way writers become here. Certain writers, anyway, although there’s less of that now than there used to be. But there’s a different cultural atmosphere here. I saw something on the tube this week that took place in Madison Square Garden. Giant driving machines being wrecked and turning over. I saw this mob behind the machines, screeching and screaming and howling. And it’s a show, these huge, crude-looking, brutish machines with great wheels and little tiny places where people can sit in cabs. And it seemed to me to be the end of the world. I mean, things like that, these places, which are called centers of entertainment. So much television is—the whole country vomits through the screen.

INTERVIEWER

Given all this, what was it like being “rediscovered”?

FOX

It’s very gratifying but that doesn’t last long, at my age. And you’re just back to the drawing board with all those erasures and whatnot. So I feel a sense of having somehow gotten in, but I don’t know what it is that I’m in. I think maybe you have to be a bit on in years to sense the greatness and significance—and insignificance—of the work of your lifetime.

INTERVIEWER

Hard-won perspective.

FOX

Yes. Right.

INTERVIEWER

It reminds me of a quote I wanted to close with. Something that Cora says in Western Wind. She says, “There are tribes that don’t let themselves be photographed. They believe the camera can steal their souls. I’ve come to think your soul should be stolen, all of it used up by the time you leave the world.”

FOX

Yes. That sounds like her.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder how much that’s true for you.

FOX

Oh, I want to be used up. As Tennyson had it, Not to rust, but to shine with use.