I'm Writing, I'm Listening'
The small distinctive
library where she works—described and noted in detail in various
L’Engle novels—is an oasis in the bustle of Manhattan’s Upper
West Side. The building that houses it is venerable and worn
with wooden floors, stone walls and narrow halls. It’s an uncommonly
warm spring day, and L’Engle has the room’s single-pane windows
open, allowing New York’s sound explosion to enter the calm
of the library. Her short silver hair lies naturally around
her oval face as she speaks of writing and her faith.
“Since I started
writing when I was five, it’s hard for me to understand anything
else,” she says as she flashes her familiar smile. “At its best,
it is like Michelangelo seeing a discarded piece of stone, looking
at it and having his heart’s expression chip it into the form
L’Engle is a surprisingly
quiet person whose voice fills with passion when she reflects
on subjects that she cares about deeply—writing, faith, relationships.
She talks in short sentences and often pauses before she speaks.
“I know my best work is unself-conscious. When I’m really writing,”
she explains in a bedtime-story voice, “I’m listening, and I’m
not in control. That’s when I finish and look back and say,
‘I wrote that?’”
Best known as
a writer of children’s books, Madeleine L’Engle has also written
poetry, adult fiction, memoirs, biblical commentary and essays
about the relationship between art and faith. Her Newbery Award-winning
A Wrinkle in Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962) continues
to find new audiences of young readers.
“I write for me.”
L’Engle sighs before she adds, “I think that is when we are
at our best, when we can tell something that is a struggle within
us, its questions, its problems. We work it out through our
Since her first
novel was published in 1945, L’Engle has published over 50 books,
won countless awards and been presented with numerous honorary
doctorates. In 1976, her papers and manuscripts became part
of a special collection at the Buswell Library at Wheaton College,
Illinois. Both her fiction and nonfiction works have been translated
into many languages. And A Wrinkle in Time, the book
that still makes her laugh when she remembers “no one wanted
to publish” it, has sold over six million copies.
about Madeleine L’Engle’s writing, in both style and subject,
has created a brigade of loyal fans who defy generation gaps.
Literally millions of readers know her contemporary and early
writings. In 1998—the 35th anniversary of her Newbery Medal—L’Engle
was awarded the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her lifetime contribution
to teen literature.
Children in an Old Farmhouse
Camp grew up as an only child in an apartment on Manhattan Island.
Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a writer and drama critic;
her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp, was a pianist. Madeleine
remembers growing up in a home always full of artists of one
kind or another. When she was 12, the family moved to Europe,
living mostly in France and Switzerland, where she attended
a Swiss boarding school. After graduating in 1941 from Smith
College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Madeleine returned to
Greenwich Village in New York, where she began her career as
a writer and an actress.
in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Madeleine met the handsome
young actor Hugh Franklin, known to many as “Dr. Tyler” from
television’s All My Children. Two-Part Invention
(1988), written after Hugh died of cancer in 1987, records Madeleine’s
joys and struggles during their 40-year marriage.
Hugh raised their children in an old farmhouse, named Crosswicks,
that is still owned by the family in northwestern Connecticut.
Their oldest child, Josephine, and their son, Bion, were joined
there by Maria, whom Madeleine and Hugh adopted when her parents—their
best friends—died within a year of each other.
In order to earn
a living, Madeleine and Hugh acquired a defunct general store.
She remembers in a written sketch of her life, “I must honestly
admit that helping to build up, participate in the life of a
small, but very active community, run a large farmhouse and
raise three small children is the perfect way not to
write a book. I did manage to write at night. Writing is, for
me, an essential function, like sleeping and breathing.”
family moved back to “the quiet life of New York and the theater,”
where Madeleine began a six-year teaching stint at St. Hilda
and St. Hugh’s Anglican schools in New York City.
Some of the wonderful
mysteries of art, L’Engle notes, are the surprises that follow
when an artist “listens” to her work, when he or she is in touch
with it. “Often, when we listen to the work, it takes us places
we have no idea where we’re going. Surprises always follow,”
she suggests. “If we’re given a talent, you have to serve it.
You don’t own it. You don’t control it. You don’t manipulate
it. You can do that and be a best-seller if you want to. But
ultimately it is a gift that is freely given and you have to
serve your gift.”
She is blunt,
witty, intelligent and observant. She describes herself as stubborn.
L’Engle’s informal honest voice invites readers to assume a
first-name relationship with her very quickly. She becomes simply
Madeleine—a woman, a spouse, a friend, a mother, a grandmother
who struggles out loud with her questions of faith and family.
“When it came
my turn to be a mother, it was shortly after the end of the
Second World War and things had changed again, and I had firm
ideas of what I wanted my family to be like. I had had two books
published, and I knew I needed to keep on writing, but I also
wanted to bring up my own children,” Madeleine wrote in Mothers
& Daughters (1997), a book she collaborated on with daughter
Maria Rooney, a professional photographer. “Even if we had been
able to afford nannies, I wanted my children to know their mother
and learn about life and love from me.”
About Maria, who
came to live with Madeleine and Hugh when she was seven, the
author noted, “Ours has been a stormy relationship, with lots
of misunderstandings on both sides, but it has also been undergirded
by love, and that is what has made it creative and delightful
as well as difficult. Would I want it to have been easy? Of
course. But as I used to tell my children, things that are easy
aren’t worth much.”
characterizes herself not as a Christian writer but as a “writer
who is struggling to be a Christian,” says writing is a form
of contemplative prayer. “To paint a picture or to write a story
or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. In a very
real sense the artist should be like Mary who, when the angel
told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the
command.” When at work, Madeleine wrote in Walking on Water
(1980), “I move into an area of faith which is beyond the conscious
control of my intellect. The challenge is to let my intellect
work for the creative act, not against it. And
this means, first of all, that I must have more faith in the
work than I have in myself.”
A Christian writer,
L’Engle says with emphasis, should create “good art,” above
all. “Bach music is totally Christian,” she explains, “and yet
how can you find anything in it to proclaim it as such?”
Like the circle
of friends and family who surround her daily life, Madeleine’s
novels are inhabited by recurring characters. They are often
preceded by a genealogy explaining the characters and the previous
novels where they have been brought to life. L’Engle also regularly
weaves together various genres into one work, crossing traditional
barriers to create stories where theology, fantasy and science
are casually employed to reflect themes such as scientific irresponsibility,
the dangers of unthinking conformity and the saving power of
In the award-winning
A Wrinkle in Time, for example, young Meg Murry and her
brother, Charles Wallace, embark on a cosmic journey through
space and time to find their lost father, a scientist studying
time travel. Along with their neighbor, Calvin O’Keefe, the
children travel to the planet Camazotz, where they encounter
a repressed society controlled by IT, a nothing-less-than-evil-incarnate
in a disembodied brain.
In A Live Coal
in the Sea (1996), Madeleine explores a family’s struggles
with loyalty, faith, commitment and identity through Dr. Camilla
Dickinson, a protagonist from her novel Camilla (1951).
In its search for the truth behind a generational crisis, the
novel shifts between the distant past and the troubled present,
creating a psychologically complex and profound piece of literature.
can also be poetic in its narrative, as in The Love Letters
(1966): “At night the gardens were alive with sound and shadow....The
fountain caught the distant silver of the moon and the silver
was sound as it splashed into the marble bowl....From the convent
the heavy creaking of a door. A nun: a nun coming out into the
arched cloister, the hood of her night robe up and shadowing
her face, her white garment a lighter shadow moving against
the white stone of the vaulted arch. A nun hiding behind the
deeper shadow of a column, listening to a new sound, a sound
of—what is it?”
without preaching, Madeleine offers inspiration about life-changing
moments in one’s life in Certain Women (1992), a novel
paralleling the lives of two Davids: a legendary actor named
David Wheaton and the biblical King David. In this scene, the
protagonists discuss with awareness that how each one faced
his father’s death reflects how he chose to live out a major
crossing in his life. Every crossroads demands a choice, one
protagonist says, between two roads—one road leads to a funeral
and the other to a wedding.
“‘I choose the
wedding. No matter what’—[Nik] looked at Emma— ‘I will still
choose the wedding. I’ve had too many funerals.’
“‘But when Papa
dies’—Louis’s voice was choked—‘how can we choose the wedding?’
‘By giving him an enormous great grand glorious funeral at the
Cathedral, a real show for all his family and friends and fans.
And by going on living, living better because we’ve been part
of his life than if we’d never known him.’”
who does not see herself as a “children’s writer,” once declared
that the same rules that apply to the Brothers Karamazov
apply to Peter Rabbit. “If I have something that is too
difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book
for children,” L’Engle wrote in A Circle of Quiet (1972).
Her characters are dedicated to a sense of family, even when
they are teenagers who are adopted into another family, like
the character Maggy in Meet the Austins (1960). “There
are intimate details of home life that everyone will recognize
with pleasure,” wrote The New York Times about the book,
dedicated by L’Engle to her own family. “There is warmth in
the family relationship, and it is movingly communicated.”
If L’Engle’s vision
of family is one that lifts the best in all of us, it comes
from her strong belief that we all need heroes to guide our
“What do you do
without heroes? We wouldn’t have anything to aim for. I always
needed somebody that I wanted to be as good as, if not better
than,” Madeleine offers, merely raising an eyebrow. “Sometimes
the characters are technically not religious, not believers,
but people who simply live their faith.”
It is precisely
her decision to create characters that are not labeled as “Christian”
and to use themes in her novels that are not explicitly Christian—such
as science fiction or South American Indian rites—that has made
her a target of Christian literalists who dismiss her as “new
age” and “neo-orthodox.” While she has been labeled too worldly
by some conservative Christian audiences, she is also deemed
too dogmatically Christian by some secular audiences. Wrinkle,
in fact, has the dubious distinction of being number 12 in the
list of “50 Most Frequently Banned Books.”
Although she claims
no scientific background, Madeleine’s readers know her stories
often involve disciplines such as quantum mechanics or astrophysics.
against religion “has never made sense to me. People get their
own definitions of God, declare that God made one planet, only,
and that everything else revolves around us. They call it a
scientific fact,” Madeleine remarks. “Suddenly that gets blown
to bits. Now we find we’re a planet that circles around a sun
and there are probably many planetary systems, many galaxies.
We’ve learned how much we don’t know—but God didn’t get blown
to bits, just the original ‘fact’!” she exclaims, her voice
showing her passion for the subject.
as bad as Christians in hanging on to what they think they know.
They don’t want to change what they’ve ‘discovered,’ even after
all the evidence changes. I think it’s human. We find something
and we don’t want it to change on us,” Madeleine comments, her
words lost in a symphony of peacock squeals and children’s voices
from the adjacent Cathedral School.
Much has changed
since Madeleine L’Engle published her first novel, The Small
Rain, in 1945. “I think it’s much harder to get published
as a starting writer than it used to be because most publishers
are no longer owned by people who read books,” she notes in
her characteristic blunt style. “All they want is the bottom
line. Wrinkle went through rounds of publishers until
it found one willing to try something nobody else would do.
You can’t do that now. It’s very sad.”
Her own favorite
writers, the ones she keeps going back to, include biblical
authors, especially the psalmists, Shakespeare and C. S. Lewis.
“I’m about to begin another go-around with C. S. Lewis,” she
adds, smiling. On her nightstand right now, L’Engle notes, are
two books: one written by a friend about unusual people in the
Gospels and their encounters with Jesus, the other a four-volume
Although she acknowledges
that she reads mostly fiction, L’Engle also studies physics
and other sciences, a fact to which her novels attest. “Some
of them are theists, few of them are Christian, most of them
are just searchers. They don’t label themselves,” L’Engle says
of the physicists she has read. She is currently “deep into”
writing a novel featuring A Wrinkle in Time’s protagonist,
Meg, who is now in her 50’s and the mother of seven children.
Courage and Joy'
What message would
the newly crowned great-grandmother like to convey to the newest
generation of readers?
and joy. Sometimes our moments of greatest joy come at [the]
times of greatest courage,” she says simply. “Our children need
to hear over and over again that there is no such thing as redemptive
violence,” she adds. “Violence never redeems. And what we do
does make a difference!”
before reinforcing, softly emphasizing each word, “Be brave!
Have courage! Don’t fear!” And echoing the message proclaimed
and lived by all prophets, she adds, “Do what you think you
ought to do, even if it’s nontraditional. Be open. Be ready
to change. I want us to help make this a better world for Konstantinos.”
Scaperlanda first met Madeleine L’Engle at a writers’ retreat
that L’Engle leads annually at Laity Lodge in Kerrville, Texas.
A free-lance journalist and author, Scaperlanda interviewed
L’Engle in New York City just prior to the birth of L’Engle’s
first great- grandchild. Scaperlanda, the married mother of
four children, recently published Their Faith Has Touched
Us: The Legacies of Three Young Oklahoma City Bombing Victims.