Interview with Madeleine L'Engle, prize-winning author, 'A Wrinkle In Time' and over 40 other books.
Madeleine L'Engle's rambling eight room apartment on Manhattan's noisy Upper West Side is an oasis. Nine stories up and facing the Hudson River, it's so quiet it feels almost like church.
Except when the phone or the doorbell is ringing, which is often. "I don't get enough solitude. But I don't think there's a happy medium. You're either alone or you don't have quite enough time alone, and I'll take what I've got. Usually there's so much going on I just have to grab time" to write.
L'Engle has lived in this apartment since 1960. "I'm grateful for this space. Having physical space helps one to have philosophical elbow room, too." Almost every corner is filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases jammed with dusty hardcovers. Flat surfaces, and some of the walls, are filled with photos: mostly of family, but also of L'Engle and her late husband with Kennedy, Johnson, and other dignitaries. "The ones of [former Indian Prime Minister] Nehru didn't come back," she notes. Other residents include three cats, Terrible, Tatiana, and Kelly, as well as a huge dog known as Tino, or Teensy Weensy, who barks when the doorbell rings, if he doesn't recognize the visitor's smell. Various children, grandchildren and friends pass through, but the apartment is big enough to swallow it all.
Despite constant interruptions, L'Engle has managed to publish over 40 books‹she's not sure of the exact number. A Wrinkle In Time, which won her a Newbery Award in the early 60's, is still delighting new readers almost 40 years after it was written. But even though she had already published six books before Wrinkle, L'Engle hit a wall. She spent 2-1/2 years trying to sell the book. "I knew it was a good book when I finished it, I was very excited by it. I knew it was the best thing I'd ever done. It's very frustrating when you've had six books published to get the printed form rejection slips. It was sent through an accredited literary agent, but it obviously went to the lowest readers. I can't tell you how many publishers have said 'oh I wish I'd gotten my hands on that book' and I say 'you did.' One publisher didn't believe me until I sent him a copy of the rejection slip."
Wrinkle was rejected by virtually every major publisher. "I got a few queries saying 'who is the book for?' I said it's for people; I don't write for an age group, I write for people. If I'm writing about a 12 or 14 year old, I've got to be myself at that age. There isn't any difference except the age of the protagonist."
She never stopped writing, but neither Wrinkle nor any of her other books sold during those years. Finally, a friend introduced her to John Farrar of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who bought it. After so much frustration, L'Engle reflects on its long-term success. "Since it was the book nobody wanted, it feels kind of nice. The thing that's really very exciting is to know that it's not limited to the time I wrote it, it has a more universal quality. You can never know that when you write something."
Wrinkle centers on travel through time and space simultaneously, using a shortcut called a tesseract. Meg, the protagonist, and her friends wage war on the ultimate authoritarian evil, through love and refusal to conform. Meg appears in several later books also: "I like to find out what happens to people. She had a life before and after. And I don't always find things out about her in chronological order‹we're much too hung up on chronology."
The science behind tessering, L'Engle says, is solid. Decades later, L'Engle is still exploring the physical realm. She describes Albert Einstein as "St. Albert‹my favorite theologian. Einstein was my entrance into the world of astrophysics and quantum mechanics‹it's my theology. I was asking myself all the big questions about life and the universe and not finding the answers. Then I picked up a book of Einstein's and he said anyone who is not lost in rapture at the power of the mind behind the universe 'is as good as a burned out candle.'"
Her recent reading includes John Gribbin, Gary Zukav (Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics), Fritjov Kapra (The Tao of Physics), and Freeman Dyson. "These are people who are dealing with the nature of being. The world of quantum mechanics and astrophysics is to me a world that was created with benevolent purpose. There are so many seeming coincidences in the evolution of sentient beings that there must be a purpose. John Wheeler says humans are to 'observe and contemplate.'"
Although it's easy to see religious images in L'Engle's books, she dislikes the term. "The words 'religion' and 'Christianity' are so encrusted with horrible meanings, and I suspect it's part of that encrustation that permitted Hitler and the concentration camps. I don't know how we're going to get rid of all that stuff, to a view that all human beings matter. And particle physics says nothing is without a purpose, everything has an impact."
As might be expected, L'Engle's works are starkly antiauthoritarian, full of questions. "Patterns are constantly emerging out of chaos. I have fought with establishments all my life." And L'Engle makes a crucial distinction between "fact" and "truth." "Facts are limited. It is a fact that we're sitting here, but whether any truth comes out of this meeting is something else again. We don't always know [truth]. I write stories because that's how I look for truth. I was looking for truth when I was writing Wrinkle. We live in a world where it's very difficult for people to understand that a story can be truthful and not factual.
"Nothing that's worth anything as far as living our lives is concerned is in the realm of fact‹it's all in the realm of truth. Jesus was talking about a man with a plank of wood in his eye. It's a true story, it's not factual‹it's about people who are slow to recognize their own faults and too quick to point out others' flaws."
L'Engle notes that similar stories can be found in all major religious traditions. "But we're told to outgrow stories‹they're only for kids. That's one of the most terrible things that has happened to us as a people‹we've been impaled upon literalism‹it's a great crippler.
"In one of my books I tell of walking down the stairs without touching them. We lose that‹we have that as kids. As we grow up in the world of provable facts, they get lost. There's an incredible resistance to the idea that kids can handle concepts‹but it's their parents and grandparents who can't handle concepts."
Like Meg, L'Engle had a lonely and difficult childhood, without much support from either her peers or her teachers. She found out very early about the dangers of authority, when one of her teachers lied to her parents in order to protect herself. The teacher refused L'Engle's desperate requests to use the bathroom, and then denied there had ever been a request. Another teacher accused her of plagiarism when she won honors for a piece of writing‹and L'Engle had to show the mountain of work she'd been secretly creating in order to show that yes, she certainly could have written it.
As far back as her days in that English boarding school, L'Engle rejected conformity. At that school, students were called by their numbers, and even when her peers used her name, they mispronounced it. The experience left her with "an intense passion to be known by name, not number. You take away a name, you take away a person's reality."
L'Engle, now 72, wrote her first story at five years old. "It wasn't a very good story, but it was an attempt to find out what life was all about." She attempted her first novel in fifth grade. Her first published novel was written in fits and snatches backstage, while working as a Broadway actress in the early 1940's. She was drawn to escape into the story because the pre-World War II "world of provable fact and moral virtue was letting us down."
For L'Engle, telling the story is central‹whether in a novel or a journal entry. "One of the things a storyteller really has to know how to do is to make you find out what is going to happen next‹make you want to turn the page. Every one of Shakespeare's plays starts with an attention getter‹otherwise, the audience would throw rotten fruit. I get my own attention first. If it doesn't grab me it's not going to grab the reader. With Wrinkle, I started with the deliberate old chestnut of the dark and stormy night. In Wind in the Door, there are dragons in the twins' vegetable garden.
"Truth transcends facts. If I don't believe it, it isn't true. I'm going to stay on the side of truth no matter how much it hurts. Facts end; stories are infinite. Stories have a richness that goes way beyond fact. My writing knows more than I know. What a writer must do is listen to her book. It might take you where you don't expect to go. That's what happens when you write stories. You listen and you say 'a ha,' and you write it down. A lot of it is not planned, not conscious; it happens while you're doing it. You know more about it after you're done.
"Someone said my nonfiction is still telling a story. Journals are also not like writing an article‹it's more stream of consciousness, tapping into the intuitive. When you write an article, you really do have to think. I don't talk to me in my journal. I don't know who I'm talking to, I'm just talking. The only time I talk to myself is when I'm in airports and my plane is postponed for the fifth time."
Although her own work is very accessible, maintaining the richness of language is a constant concern. "We are a vocabulary-deprived society. We think because we have words, not the other way around. In the 60's, something very immoral happened, and that was called 'limited vocabulary'‹if kids didn't learn to read at home, they didn't learn to read." She urges writers to "read the 16th and 17th century poets, make a list of the words we no longer use, and try to put them back in the language by using them. The fewer words we have, the less able are we to think conceptually."
Ultimately, she believes, limited vocabulary can lead to totalitarianism, as people lose the ability to express concepts, and thus lose the capacity for independent thought. She is scared, for instance, by the suggestion that people who questioned the Persian Gulf war were unpatriotic‹and equally bothered by the suggestion that those who agreed with the war were fascistic. Wrinkle was written in the 1950's, and Meg's faith in her government was strong. If she were writing the book today, L'Engle acklowledges that Meg would be less naive; her family would certainly have discussed the war, for instance.
Wrinklewas written while L'Engle and her family were living in a very rural area in western Connecticut. "Oh, the beauty of the mountains, the loveliness of no city lights, no noises at night. It was a very safe place to start off raising our kids. We were outside of Goshen, a dairy farm village with about 200 people. It's a gentle view, old mountains that were worn down by time and rain and wind, gentle mountains."
In spite of the natural beauty, the Connecticut years were hard for L'Engle. "I went for years without publishing. It happened to be the ten years when my husband had left the theater. It was a bad decade. We came back to the city with kids 1, 7, and 10. I think we got back just in time."
In New York, "there's somebody to talk to all the time who knows more than I do. If I need an expert I can get one." L'Engle hosts frequent salons for some of New York's intelligentsia. A recent dinner party included Elaine Pagels (of Gnostic Gospels fame), Eli Wallach, and the bishop of New York, among others. "You had good conversation. It was nice because no one got stuck. Everyone went from group to group,"
Excitement in living seems a part of L'Engle's core. She is passionate about the need to feel all emotions‹grief as well as love. She is exotic in her appearance, combining the stark severity of a Barnabas Collins haircut with flashy, colorful shirts and flamboyant jewelry.
And she is fervent in her work. When posing at her word processor for photos, she turned to the keyboard and started editing. "You can't sit me down here and expect me not to write." She revises constantly. "The more I know the more I revise. I'm on the fifth MAJOR revision of a novel at this point. It started out to be a novel about King David's 8 wives. But I realized I could not put myself back 3000 years in time. I had to have a 20th century point of view. So I had an 87 year old dying actor who had 8 wives, as did King David. He makes a lot of the similarities between their lives. King David is a role he's always wanted to play. The play never gets finished for a variety of reasons. I move from 3000 years ago to the 40's to the 60's before Vietnam. So I've got a real technical challenge."
Her definition of success: "If I have enough laughter, if I go to bed contented with myself and my life. I don't think the world's standards of success are that valid. I'm happy that after that long period of not selling books that people are buying them, but Wrinkle was just as good a book when it was being rejected as when it was published."
(1991. An excerpt appeared in Writer's Digest, 1992)
To Order Madeleine L'Engle's Books, Click on the Title Below
Children's/Young Adult FictionA Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
An Acceptable Time
The Arm of the Starfish
Nonfiction: Memoirs, Journals
A Circle of Quiet (Crosswicks Journal, Book 1)
The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (Crosswicks Journal, Book 2)
Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage
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