Paula Fox: A Certain Depth

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 loggernaut Paula Fox is a master whose work, by whatever combination of ill luck and oversight prevails in these affairs, did not receive a timely invitation to the canon. The long neglect of her writing has been no one's loss but our own. The winds of attention at last began to shift when, in the mid-nineties, Jonathan Franzen came across her brilliant short novel from 1970, Desperate Characters ("Among the best things we have in contemporary literature"—Shirley Hazzard; "A towering landmark of postwar realism...a sustained work of prose so lucid and fine that it seems less written than carved"—David Foster Wallace), and decided to make it the centerpiece of his essay in Harper's magazine about the state of American fiction. Fox had made quite a successful career as a prolific writer of children's novels, but her novels for adults were out of print. An editor at W.W. Norton read the essay and convinced his colleagues to re-issue Fox's six novels with new introductions by Franzen, Andrea Barrett, Jonathan Lethem, and others. Fox has always had her fans; now they knew they were not alone.

When you ask someone today if they've read Paula Fox, they are likely to say "Desperate Characters," and then, after an appreciative pause, make some quiet declaration of awe. Too few readers, however, have enjoyed the skewering insight, the understated humor, the sentence upon perfect sentence, or the absolute aliveness of her five other novels to date. In 2002, Fox published a memoir, Borrowed Finery, in which we learned something of her own uncommon life. Born in 1923 in New York City, she was deposited by her parents in a foundling home, scooped up by a relative, and re-deposited with one of the many families of strangers who became "a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe." Her parents were intermittent presences in her life, summoning her for brief intervals to Hollywood, to Florida, to a Manhattan hotel, only to abandon her again. Her Cuban grandmother, who took over her guardianship for a while, brought Fox to live on the sugar plantation of wealthy relative, and then back to a tenement in New York when they were forced to flee the revolution of 1933. Still a teenager, Fox made her way out to Southern California, where she moved between the worlds of Hollywood writers, communist ideologues, and unskilled service jobs. She married a sailor, who left; she divorced him. When she was twenty she gave birth to a daughter, whom she put up for adoption. She changed her mind, but was told (falsely) that it was too late. That story, however, has a happy ending.

Paula Fox's remarkable first novel, Poor George, was published when she was forty-four. She is still writing, beautifully. -Jesse Lichtenstein

Loggernaut Reading Series: When you began Desperate Characters, did you know it would be a short, charged novel? I guess I mean, did the qualities that have been so admired in the book—its clarity, economy, tension—emerge in its generation or in a careful process of subtraction?

Paula Fox: No, I never do know what kind of novel I will write. Those qualities you mention did "emerge in its generation." I didn't reduce it at all, in my sense of the story, and it wasn't longer in an earlier stage. I wrote it about six times, parts of it more than that.

LRS: I'd like to ask you about A Servant's Tale. Luisa, the first-person protagonist, is someone who insists on limiting her ambitions, and the ambitions those around her have for her, by becoming a maid. I read it as an act of defiance against the circumstances of her life, and most particularly against her father. But long after the sting of that defiance wears off, she continues to limit her options, to avoid opportunities, to close doors. Her world shrinks with time; her passivity is willful. She can be hard to 'root for' in the way that we are used to rooting for our narrators, even when they're liars or louts. She seems, from what your readers know of you, your opposite. Was it ever difficult for you to understand this woman's reasoning? Or to 'live' with her while you wrote the book?

Fox: Luisa is in the grip of a passionate wish to return to the place of her childhood—until she recalls in the last paragraph someone other than herself. But her grand obsession is not so different, spiritually, from other folk who attend college or not, and follow their mysterious internal intentions, to make money, to rule over others, to wield political power, etc. It was as "difficult" for me to understand her reasoning (or the lack of it) as with all the people I've written about.

LRS: The first part of A Servant's Tale is rich with detail of Caribbean village and plantation life. As a child, you lived for a time in Cuba. Was this sufficient fodder? Was the research for this book distinctive from your research for others?

Fox: I did research for A Servant's Tale, reading widely about techniques of sugar cane, processing it into sugar and how plantations were maintained. None of the other novels except The Slave Dancer required that intense research.

LRS: What about the descriptions of the homes—the bohíos—of the town's poor residents, and daily village life? Was it fresh enough in your memory?

Fox: Everything about the island (perhaps I already told you about the inside joke: Luisa goes to get a visa, and the clerk says, as he gives her one, something on the order of: we both know it's only an imaginary island anyhow) I recall with clarity—as if I had only just left Cuba! And I recall the plantation where I lived in a way that isn't 'recall' at all, but as if I am just seeing it for the first time.

LRS: Didn't you used to read Spanish novels for a movie studio in Hollywood to see if they had any movie potential? Have you kept up your Spanish?

Fox: Yes, although I forget certain words at times. But then I also forget English words, too!

LRS: A Servant's Tale follows a character from early childhood well into middle age. The Western Coast explores five coming-of-age years in a young woman's life. Poor George and The God of Nightmares last a few seasons. Desperate Characters takes place over a long weekend. The Widow's Children unfolds in less than twenty-four hours. What are the challenges of working with such different time spans?

Fox: The stories seem to me to determine the different time spans in which they take place. There are different problems with different time



[continues...]



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Selected works of Paula Fox:

Novels:

Poor George

Desperate Characters

A Servant's Tale

The Western Coast

The Widow's Children

The God of Nightmares

Memoir:

Borrowed Finery

The Coldest Winter

Novels for Children:

The Slave Dancer

Maurice's Room

Monkey Island



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