Paula Fox is the author of six novels, including the landmark Desperate Characters. She has also written two memoirs, Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter and won numerous awards for these and her twenty-two children’s books. Now 86, she lives in the same brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn she bought in 1970 after the sale of the film rights for Desperate Characters.
She invited me into her beautiful home one cold day right before New Year’s and we spoke of her life, her art, the cave painters, Antonioni, the Cathar Massacre in France and a host of other things. We sat by the windows overlooking her garden, which contains an evergreen tree that is one of the only two in Brooklyn, the other being in the Botanical Gardens. Midway through our conversation, a visitor tentatively approached us from the other end of the room. A cat called Lucy. Fox had taken her in as a stray a few years ago. The cat is no small emblem in Fox’s oeuvre. Desperate Characters begins with arguably the most famous cat bite in literary history, when a stray bites the female protagonist’s hand after she pets it and the woman, “jerk[s] her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.”
The Rumpus: I wondered if you could talk about your beginnings as a writer, from your earliest efforts.
Paula Fox: Yes, well actually I began when I was 7. I wrote a story about a robber who came into a house and killed everyone and then they all came miraculously alive. It was two or three paragraphs. I was working hard all the time during my adolescence and later so I didn’t get a chance until my twenties and then I sent stories out to New American Review and some were turned down. I don’t even remember, right now, but I sold two early stories to The Negro Digest and Hoyt Fuller, I don’t think it exists anymore, maybe it does, and he wrote to me to find out what color I was, because they were both stories about black people. Fiction pieces. I still have them upstairs, they’re very ragged now. Then, I got a job teaching at the Ethical Culture Society School, downtown at 63rd Street. And two women came into the faculty room looking for a black woman and it was me. “Is there a Paula Fox here?” They had gotten notice that there were these two stories because I had mentioned to Hoyt Fuller that I taught at Ethical Culture.
I really didn’t start working on my first novel until my husband Martin and I and our sons went to a Greek island called Thassos. And that’s where I began Poor George and Maurice’s Room at the same time. Maurice’s Room is children’s book about the way American nursery’s in children’s rooms look like stores and it was brought about because we went out one day with a fisherman to a little island. He looked like Ulysses and he stood up to throw the oars. And he said, “Many things in America.” And that’s what gave me the idea from Maurice’s Room because this was a kid who doesn’t like toys, he likes rusty mattresses. So that sold and Poor George sold. I was still teaching then. One day the phone rang. It was Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Poor George had been accepted for publication. So I went back to the fifth grade having drunk invisible champagne and I told them my book had been accepted and they all applauded. It was a very nice day. Maurice’s Room was accepted as well by an editor I had for decades, Richard Jackson. So that’s how I began. I kept teaching because my income came from that, and then I wrote Desperate Characters when we were living in Boerum Hill (Brooklyn).
I had seen a murder on Central Park West, a man shot to death, so we moved to Brooklyn. That was 43 years ago. I worked on Desperate Characters, finished it and I got $35,000 which I plunked down on this house. We had to renovate it. It had been a boarding house for Swedish, Norwegian and Scandinavian sailors. There used to be a hostel down on 2nd Place a few blocks away. When the ships would come in they would go there to stay.
So then we moved in here and I wrote the Western Coast which took about three or four years. Then The Widow’s Children and the rest of the books. Meanwhile I’ve written twenty-two books for children. I made some money from the children’s book, it wasn’t a lot, but there was one that won a Newberry Award and the Hans Christian Anderson Medal. And last year Portrait of Ivan won an award in Germany though it was published forty years ago. I’m not working on a book now. I’m working on articles. I recently wrote a piece about L.J. Davis and his book A Meaningful Life that was just reissued by the New York Review of Books press.
I was assaulted in Jerusalem. I’m trying to write about that. It’s taken me twelve years to get around to it, but it did stop me from smoking. I saw a story in the Times that scientists had discovered the addiction center, which is a prune shaped little thing in the right side of the brain. That was hit during the attack. I was struck to the ground and spent a month in the hospital. Apparently it’s the addiction center for tobacco and well as other things. And I’d been to smoking groups. The neurologist told me that was a hell of a way to quit.
Rumpus: Was the attack the most challenging thing that happened to you?
Fox: No, my whole life has been difficult. I can’t remember the first two weeks, which happens with most people who are assaulted. They don’t remember the circumstances. And if they’re assaulted in the right way they don’t remember anything. I read a book on the brain when I was able to read again. A very eminent composer had been assaulted in Paris and was unable to read music. Couldn’t learn it and lost all of his knowledge so he could only play what he composed, but he couldn’t read music anymore. It’s very strange isn’t it?
Rumpus: It’s been hard to write about till now?
Fox: Yes. I haven’t avoided consciously but I didn’t want to confront certain things. It certainly changed me a lot.
Rumpus: Will it be part of a new memoir?
Fox: Oh no, I think I’ve written all the memoirs I’m going to write.
Rumpus: I was wondering about the genesis of Desperate Characters. Was it more difficult than other things? How much editing did you do on it?