Paula Fox on tackling the book of her own life

The American writer Paula Fox, who died in March, looks back on her turbulent childhood in this interview with Eleanor Wachtel, from 2002.
An award-winning author of fiction for both children and adults, Paula Fox made an astonishing comeback with her memoir Borrowed Finery. (Victoria Will/Canadian Press)
Listen to the full episode52:14

Just a few days after she was born, in 1923, Paula Fox was deposited at a Manhattan orphanage by her troubled mother and alcoholic father. She was rescued by her Spanish-Cuban maternal grandmother, but spent her early years living with an assortment of friends, relatives and even strangers, including a kindly minister who raised her until the age of six.  She moved around from California, to Cuba, to New York.

Despite this unstable upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Fox went on to become the author of nuanced fiction for children and adults. Her books won many prizes, including the Newbery Medal — the Pulitzer Prize of children's literature. Her 1970 novel Desperate Characters — about the disintegration of a marriage (made into a film starring Shirley MacLaine) — was praised by critics such as Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling as "a brilliant performance" and "beautifully realized." 

But her work fell out of print, and for many years, Paula Fox was forgotten — until she made a remarkable comeback in 2002 with a devastating memoir. In Borrowed Finery, she recalls her difficult relationship with her unconventional parents, and the effect it had on her as a young girl and eventually a parent herself, when she gave up her first child for adoption.  

Fox died in her Brooklyn home in March, at the age of 93. Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Paula Fox in 2002 from the CBC's New York studio. 

The mystery of her mother

I never understood her, and she remains a mystery. I went to see her when she was 92, a few months before she died, after not having seen her for over three decades. I remember her voice vividly. She simply said she was dying of emphysema. She had divorced my father years earlier and married someone else. She said, "Oh. Hello, Paula. Is that you?" We hadn't seen each other for 38 years. So I said yes, it was, and we shook hands formally. She went back into bed again. She seemed to me to be as inexplicable, as mysterious as anyone I've ever seen or heard about. She belongs among the great mysteries of life. 

Love and cruelty

My father was available to me in a certain way. He wasn't the dreadful figure that my mother was. She was like Medusa for me. I was frightened, frozen in stone, by just the sight of her. I would say various formal things to her, but somewhere my spirit was turned to stone. My father was an alcoholic and he did what alcoholics often do, which is to be inconsistent. He did some very cruel things. But most fathers are cruel sometimes. I loved him and I know that's why I wrote about him intently.

Reaching for the truth

I think there's one book we're all very familiar with, which is the book of ourselves and what has happened to us. Some people are terrific deniers, and that can be a help sometimes. I know that I was [guilty of that] at various times in my life, and I think we all do that to some extent. I try to write the truth of things. One reaches for the truth, but I think that one can never quite reach it. I don't know why. It's not within human power, I think, to understand the truth fully. 

Paula Fox's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "El Castillo Interior" performed by David Braid.