Paula Fox

Paula Fox leaned out of her ground-floor entrance and said: “Down here. We tend not to use that entrance.” It was early afternoon on an unusually balmy winter day, and the street in front of her brownstone was empty and quiet. Much of the house was dark, but she didn’t turn on the lights.

Born in 1923, Ms. Fox is the author of six novels, two memoirs and 22 children’s books. Despite critical accolades, her adult fiction didn’t fare well commercially—it went out of print for seven long years. The nearly mythic tale of her resurrection begins a decade ago with an impassioned essay published in Harper’s Magazine by the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who had come across her second novel, Desperate Characters (1970), at the writers’ colony Yaddo. At the urging of Tom Bissell, then a tenacious young editorial assistant at W.W. Norton, her work was reprinted. Dozens of writers (including Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose and Shirley Hazzard) came out of the shadows to express what could only be described as ardor.

And then her first memoir, Borrowed Finery (2001), was published to universally admiring responses. It tells the tale of her unnervingly complicated childhood: Briefly left in a New York orphanage by an unloving mother and alcoholic-writer father, she was shuttled back and forth between various family members, their friends, and a compassionate and supportive priest named Elwood Corning—a damaging cycle of abandonment and retrieval.

Last month, Ms. Fox published a second memoir, The Coldest Winter, which tells of her years spent in Europe after World War II. Again, the critical response has been effusive. She’s currently at work on a novel set mostly in 13th-century France, about the massacre of the Albigenses.

Paula Fox is tall and composed and has a warmth about her that one would not expect from her prose, which is cold and precise and minatory. She led the way up a set of narrow stairs to the airy parlor floor, which was composed mostly of shades of brown and dark green and dark red. There was an unobtrusive and comforting sense of symmetry. Through the window was a view of the garden. “We share it with our neighbors. We both had such small ones, we decided to combine them.” She smiles frequently and with such genuine affection that it’s nearly impossible not to become engulfed by her.

She and her husband, Martin Greenberg, the erstwhile editor of Commentary, have lived in this same building for nearly 40 years. Built in 1869, it sold for $32,000 in the mid-60’s. Over the years, Ms. Fox and her husband have spent another $12,000 or so on renovations. “We would not be able to afford it nowadays!” she said. The plans for the house are on display in the Brooklyn Museum. “We keep a laminate of it.”

Despite the fact that she’s lived in New York for the better part of the last four decades, Ms. Fox confessed that she hadn’t wanted to leave Europe after her postwar adventures. “Something drove me home, but I felt bad about it. When I got back, I found a job right away and gave up chaos.”

Thanksgiving had just passed, and Ms. Fox admitted that she “sent for everything” this year. Last year they “had soup.” She had various members of her family (seven, to be exact) around the large table on the ground floor and somehow managed to injure herself. “I threw my neck out. I pulled the trapezius muscle. It must have been the tension of doing everything.”

Nine years ago, walking through the streets of Jerusalem with her husband and a friend, Ms. Fox was attacked by a mugger. She was hurled to the ground and sustained injuries to her head. She said she hasn’t been quite the same since then: It takes her very long to write, and her recall is no longer working as it once did. She mentioned “incipient Alzheimer’s” and smiled: “I can’t recall things I did in the recent past, but I have a very palpable sense of my childhood. I can see things very well.” In The Coldest Winter, she writes of how “impalpable the present is.”

Ms. Fox, who said of herself that she’s neither an intellectual nor an ideologue, quoted the famous Fitzgerald maxim: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” She seemed unimpressed with the present. She made no grand pronouncements, but said that “everything is so poor nowadays. Our culture is brutalized. It’s like this great shifting of gears all the way to the first gear. It’s an atmosphere of irritability, corruption and disgust.”

Her childhood is the key to her work, both children’s and adult novels. “Children have a much more knowledgeable way of thinking about the world,” she said. “They have a true sense of how disappointing life is.”

She tried to explain her fraught relationship with her audience, and the years of absence versus a relatively newfound trendiness. “Fashions seize this country by the neck. And, generally, the middle class—and by that I mean the reading class—don’t like a downer. But you know, there may be a time again when I am out of fashion. I enjoy this, and it allows me to do certain things, but I have no expectations, in a certain way. I am always going forth; I have a great deal of self-reliance. I get impatient with people my age, because I’ve always answered the phone—so to speak.” When asked which contemporary writers she enjoys reading, she mentioned James Lasdun, Richard Ford, Tom Drury and Lorrie Moore.

She makes a strict schedule for herself when writing—she goes into her study after breakfast and writes for several hours until lunch. After lunch she writes again, until she takes a two-hour nap and then prepares dinner. “I often have to fight the impulse of reluctance when I go to work,” she said. “But when it’s a good day, I lose all sense of time. I write, and then it’s time for me to lie down.” She won’t be writing until the New Year because, she said, “I have to order a lot of things by phone.”

And with that she gently but firmly ushered out her guest, apologizing for being tired. On the way, she pointed to a little table to show a picture of Father Corning, her first and most loved guardian, next to a picture of her father, coolly smoking a cigarette, staring into the distance. “Look at him,” she sighed.

Paula Fox