Paula Fox is most famous for her novel Desperate Characters, which finely fillets the mores and anxieties of urban intelligentsia. We could stop right there, except that she is also the author of five more fine novels for adults (including Poor George, The Widow’s Children, and The Western Coast), twenty-odd novels for young people (including the Newbery winner The Slave Dancer), and two very engaging memoirs of her early years (Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter). Any of these would confirm her status as a writer of the very first order.
In her books, Fox has a nearly endless capacity for sympathy and understanding, but also for something harsher that looks at times like cruelty. It isn’t. The worlds she describes are not neat moral universes, and her characters, never purely this or that, are often put through painful paces. Children are kidnapped, orphaned, and cast out into the world with no assurance of safety; grown-ups are as likely to hurt as to help. Running through almost all her books is the harsh birthing of adult consciousness, and this is equally true of her work for adults as of her children’s books. Fox is terribly honest, and sometimes that means being honest about terrible things.
I visited Fox at her Brooklyn home a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings and a few days before her eighty-fourth birthday. On the way there, I stopped at a flower shop, and on the florist’s suggestion, I picked up some daylilies as a hostess present. This turned out to be a lucky good choice, as Fox had a vase full of nearly wilting daylilies in her kitchen. She put the fresh flowers in water, and we sat down to talk.
THE BELIEVER: The care you have to take in writing for a young audience, it seems like there’s a delicate balancing act between protecting them in some way and teaching them. Or is that not so?
PAULA FOX: No, I think it is. I was starting to say I wouldn’t read Anna Karenina to a five-year-old, because judgment is a function of time, and they haven’t had time. They don’t understand about time yet, and what it does to people. And how time is a huge element in everybody’s lives, and determines not only its length but how we grow, how we grow up, and how we do various things. And it isn’t that I would keep sexual matters away from a five-year-old—I would, in fact, but I think for a child of five to get Anna Karenina, it shouldn’t be read to him or her at that age. It’s too good. It’s too wonderful a novel. I think by the time you’re seventeen or sixteen, you’re ready. And then you have to read it again when you’re thirty. I read D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, partly because of the title, when I was in boarding school in Canada, when I was sixteen. The title grabbed me, and then I discovered the book, I discovered Lawrence. And it was like a huge awakening. Everything in life was in Lawrence. Because you know Lawrence was a passionate writer. Every word, every feeling, every color. The Rainbow, Women in Love, I remember the descriptions of the stockings the two sisters wore, the brilliant colors, and the moonlit pool that in Women in Love one of the couples passes by, and the description of the birds sitting in the tree in the moonlight. I didn’t like his blood passages and sex and all of that stuff. But all writers have that ailment. They’re not perfect. But he was pretty close to perfect for me at that age. It seems to me when you’re young, you read Lawrence. And when you get past fifty, you don’t quite read him anymore. Except for certain pieces and essays he wrote. He’s a younger person’s writer. And he’s wonderful. Wonderful. I loved him, and it awakened something in me, awakened a desire to know more, to come to some sort of grips with life, to not be as dreamy in the way I tended to be at fifteen. But I think, to go back to my original statement, of not reading Anna Karenina to a five-year-old, I think a five-year-old would miss too much. Not because they’re not capable of understanding it—because they’re only capable of understanding certain things at that age. Because they haven’t experienced time. They haven’t gone through the years. Otherwise, you could read it to them.
BLVR: Maybe as a soporific.
PF: Right, exactly. [Laughs]
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