Paula Fox: A Certain Depth

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[Fox continues]... spans, and different pleasures. A few hours require a tremendous effort of compression, and people then are changed by circumstance, not time. Longer periods make me mad with power! To be able to move ahead 30 years! Just like that! But more seriously, the change then is not only due to circumstances but time itself.

LRS: Words pop out at me as I read the reviews of your books: "devastating," "grueling and brilliant," "unsettling talent," "her images break the flesh," "relentlessly honest," "brave, witty, alarming," "merciless." These are all employed in highest praise, but does the tenor of these remarks ever surprise you? Do you feel it fits your work?

Fox: The quotations from reviews always surprise me. It's as if I emerge from a cave to daylight to be greeted by a group of people saying such things.

LRS: Is the surprise pleasant? "Brilliant," "honest," and "witty" are greetings that any writer would welcome, however unexpected. But do you, once it's been pointed out by others, recognize something in your work that is "merciless," "unsettling," and "alarming"?

Fox: Yes, I do recognize something, merciless, etc., in my work when it's pointed to in reviews. But then I recall that in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy has a man sell his wife for a bowl of cereal on the first page! I seem to abjure sentimentality—judge it to be a free emotional ride, like audience members luxuriously weeping at a death in an awful movie. I know my view isn't a prevalent one in this country. As Solzhenitsyn is reputed to have asked: Why do all Americans grin so much?

LRS: Because we think we're winning?

Fox: I don't think Solzhenitsyn meant that quite—a kind of adamant, stupid insistence, on the essential cheerful outcome of events—no matter what. I suppose it is a kind of winning but who is it, or they, who loses?

LRS: With their peripatetic, international lives, their alcohol and arguments, their orbits around the worlds of books and film, your parents sound like such Fitzgeraldian characters. The perhaps too-oft-quoted line from Fitzgerald is that there are no second acts in American lives. That seems to apply much more to your parents' lives and careers than to yours, which has seen dramatic reappearances and reversals. Do you have any sense why this has been the case? Where does your resilience come from?

Fox: I think I've driven on through "dramatic disappearances and reversals" despite them. I would guess it's the stubbornness of the storyteller who goes on even though some leave the campfire or never join it. I can't explain that persistence of mine except that I feel it as a mostly honorable trait.

LRS: Do you feel you are more or less political now than you were as a young woman in the '30s and '40s drawn into the world of L.A. communists?

Fox: I feel very differently now about politics than when I was a girl. My husband, Martin Greenberg, says I suffer from what he calls 'indignitus.' That is, I'm indignant now rather than vaguely ideological, in the way I view the government, the evangelical movement, etc.

LRS: What, if I may ask, has caused the most acute flare-up recently?

Fox: Tom DeLay giving the order to remove the feeding tube of his own father fifteen or sixteen years ago (as reported in the NY Times)! Then presenting himself as he does.... In fact, my indignitus is in an acute state whenever I even think about such a person, especially when I write down his name!

LRS: How long have you lived in Brooklyn?

Fox: Three years in a Boerum Hill rental, 36 years in our narrow house in Cobble Hill, which we own.

LRS: When people from out-of-town visit, what do you want them to see and know about Brooklyn?

Fox: My neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods. Martin and I walk through them nearly every day—they are so eye-calming, soul-warming, if there are such things as souls.

LRS: Do you think of yourself as a Brooklyn writer? Does that have any significance to you?

Fox: No.

LRS: Yet does your life in Brooklyn inform your work?

Fox: It is the place where I've done most of my work, and it has provided me with friends and support during the last forty years.

LRS: Do you feel your voice has changed much over the course of your career? Did your stint as a journalist in the '40s in post-war Europe have a lasting effect on the way you write?

Fox: I have a book due out in autumn about Europe. My experience there did indeed change me, and I suppose the voice I write with is more detached than it might have been had I not gone. And as I have grown older and older, there have been changes in the way I experience and understand my life.

LRS: What about Europe at that time—or what about your time there—helped bring about this detachment?

Fox: I write about the answer to that near the end of the book. It is that I saw something "other than myself." Not larger, the usual sentimental conclusion, but other. And it was that other that freed me from a certain kind of self-preoccupation.

LRS: I've read elsewhere that you never felt 'voice' could be taught, and (I'm paraphrasing roughly here) that writers could be encouraged by a teacher, but not essentially improved. Do you believe this because of the way your own voice came into being? Did your experiences in teaching writing yield any insights into your own process, or the mysteries of your own voice?

Fox: No.

LRS: Anyone reading your memoir, Borrowed Finery, will hear a chorus of echoes from your novels. Many of the Hollywood situations and characters from The Western Coast, for example, or the familial dramatis personae of A Servant's Tale and The Widow's Children, contain at the very least seeds of the events and people you describe in Borrowed Finery. All memoirs are acts of re-visitation, but in this case you were sometimes revisiting memories you had already returned to and re-imagined as fiction. Was there a fundamental difference in reconstructing people, places, and moments as a memoirist as opposed to as a novelist?







  {buy the by}

Selected works of Paula Fox:


Poor George

Desperate Characters

A Servant's Tale

The Western Coast

The Widow's Children

The God of Nightmares


Borrowed Finery

The Coldest Winter

Novels for Children:

The Slave Dancer

Maurice's Room

Monkey Island

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