Madeleine L'Engle is the author of more than forty-five books for all ages, among them the beloved A Wrinkle in Time, awarded the Newbery Medal; A Ring of Endless Light, a Newbery Honor Book; A Swiftly Tilting Planet, winner of the American Book Award; and the Austin family series of which Troubling a Star is the fifth book. L'Engle was named the 1998 recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards award, honoring her lifetime contribution in writing for teens.
Ms. L'Engle was born in 1918 in New York City, late in her parents' lives,an only child growing up in an adult world. Her father was a journalist who had been a foreign correspondent, and although he suffered from mustard gas poisoning in World War I, his work still took him abroad a great deal. Her mother was a musician; the house was filled with her parents' friends: artists, writers, and musicians. "Their lives were very full and they didn't really have time for a child," she says. "So I turned to writing to amuse myself."
When she was 12, Ms. L'Engle moved with her family to the French Alps in search of purer air for her father's lungs. She was sent to an English boarding school --"dreadful," she says. When she was 14, her family returned to America and she went to boarding school once again, Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina--which she loved. When she was 17, her father died.
Ms. L'Engle spent the next four years at Smith College. After graduating cum laude, she and an assortment of friends moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village. "I still wanted to be a writer; I always wanted to be a writer, but I had to pay the bills, so I went to work in thetheater," she says.
Touring as an actress seems to have been a catalyst for her. She wrote her first book, The Small Rain, while touring with Eva Le Gallienne in Uncle Harry. She met Hugh Franklin, to whom she was married until his death in 1986, while they were rehearsing The Cherry Orchard, and they were married on tour during a run of The Joyous Season, starring Ethel Barrymore.
Ms. L'Engle retired from the stage after her marriage, and the Franklins moved to northwest Connecticut and opened a general store. "The surrounding area was real dairy farmland then, and very rural. Some of the children had never seen books when they began their first year of school," she remembers. The Franklins raised three children--Josephine, Maria, and Bion. Ms. L'Engle's first book in the Austin quintet, Meet the Austins, an ALA Notable Children's Book, has strong parallels with her life in the country. But she says, "I identify with Vicky rather than with Mrs. Austin, since I share all of Vicky's insecurities, enthusiasms, and times of sadness and growth."
When, after a decade in Connecticut, the family returned to New York, Ms. L'Engle rejoiced. "In some ways, I was back in the real world." Mr. Franklin resumed acting, and became well known as Dr. Charles Tyler in the television series All My Children. Two-Part Invention is Ms. L'Engle's touching and critically acclaimed story of their long and loving marriage.
The Time quintet--A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time--are among her most famous books, but it took years to get a publisher to accept A Wrinkle in Time. "Every major publisher turned it down. No one knew what to do with it," she says. When Farrar, Straus & Giroux finally accepted the manuscript, she insisted that they publish it as a children's book. It was the beginning of their children's list."
Today, Ms. L'Engle lives in New York City and Connecticut, writing at home and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she is variously the librarian and the writer-in-residence. "It depends from day-to-day on what they want to call me. I do keep the library collection--largely theology, philosophy, a lot of good reference books--open on a volunteer basis."
Author Fun Facts
November 29 in New York City
Smith College, The New School, Columbia University
New York City and Connecticut
…hobbies: traveling, reading, playing the piano, and cooking
A Special Message from Madeleine L'Engle
"I wrote my first story when I was 5. It was about a little G-R-U-L, because that’s how I spelled “girl” when I was 5. I wrote because I wanted to know what everything was about. My father, before I was born, had been gassed in the first World War, and I wanted to know why there wer wars, why people hurt each other, why we couldn’t get along together, and what made people tick. That’s why I started to write stories.
The books I read most as a child were by Lucy Maud Montgomery, who’s best known for her Anne of Green Gables stories, but I also liked Emily of New Moon. Emily was an only child, as I was. Emily lived on an island, as did I. Although Manhattan Island and Prince Edward Island are not very much alike, they are still islands. Emily’s father was dying of bad lungs, and so was mine. Emily had some dreadful relative, and so did I. She had a hard time in school, and she also understood that there’s more to life than just the things that can be explained by encyclopedias and facts. Facts alone are not adequate. I love Emily. I also read E. Nesbit, who was a nineteenth-century writer of fantasies and family stories, and I read fairy tales and the myths of all countries. And anything I could get my hands on.
As an adult, I like to read fiction. I really enjoy good murder mystery writers, usually women, frequently English, because they have a sense of what the human soul is about and why people do dark and terrible things. I also read quite a lot in the area of particle physics and quantum mechanics, because this is theology. This is about the nature of being. This is what life is all about. I try to read as widely as I possibly can.
I wrote A Wrinkle in Time when we were living in a small dairy farm village in New England. I had three small children to raise, and life was not easy. We lost four of our closest friends within two years by death--that’s a lot of death statistically. And I really wasn’t finding the answers to my big questions in the logical places. So, at the time I discovered the world of particle physics. I discovered Einstein and relativity. I read a book of Einstein’s, in which he said that anyone who’s not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt-out candle. And I thought, “Oh, I’ve found my theologian, what a wonderful thing.” I began to read more in that area. A Wrinkle in Time came out of these questions, and out of my discovery of the post-utopian sciences, which knocked everything we knew about science for a loop.
A Wrinkle in Time was almost never published. You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. And there were many reasons. One was that it was supposedly too hard for children. Well, my children were 7, 10, and 12 while I was writing it. I’d read to them at night what I’d written during the day, and they’d say, “Ooh, mother, go back to the typewriter!” A Wrinkle in Time” had a female protagonist in a science fiction book, and that wasn’t done. And it dealt with evil and things that you don’t find, or didn’t at that time, in children’s books. When we’d run through forty-odd publishers, my agent sent it back. We gave up. Then my mother was visiting for Christmas, and I gave her a tea party for some of her old friends. One of them happened to belong to a small writing group run by John Farrar, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which at that time did not have a juvenile list. She insisted that I meet John any how, and I went down with my battered manuscript. John had read my first novel and liked it, and read this book and loved it. That’s how it happened.
The most asked question that I generally receive is, “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s very easily answered. I tell a story about Johann Sebastian Bach when he was an old man. A student asked him, “Papa Bach, where do you get the ideas for all of these melodies?” And the old man said, “Why, when I get up in the morning, it’s all I can do not to trip over them.” And that’s how ideas are; they’re just everywhere. I think the least asked question is one that I got in Japan. This little girl held up her hand and said, “How tall are you?” In Japan, I am very tall.
I get over one hundred letters a week. There are always letters that stand out. There was one from a 12-year-old girl in North Carolina who wrote me many years ago, saying “I’m Jewish and most of my friends are Christian. My Christian friends told me only Christians can be saved. What do you think? Your books have made me trust you.” Well, we corresponded for about twenty years. I suggested that she go back to read some of the great Jewish writers to find out about her own tradition. Another letter asked, “We’re studying the crusades in school. Can there be such a thing as a Holy War? Is war ever right?” I mean, kids don’t hesitate to ask questions. And it’s a great honor to have the kids say, “Your books have made me trust you.”
The questions are not always about the books. They’re sometimes about the deepest issues of life. “Why did my parents put my grandmother in a nursing home?” That’s one that has come up several times. The letters are enlightening, particularly when they are written because the child wants to write them, and not just as a school assignment. Although one of the best batches of letters I ever had was from a high school biology class. The teacher had them read A Wind in the Door, which is about cellular biology, as part of their assignment. I thought, “What an innovative teacher. That was a lot of fun.”
I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write."