#27 Madeleine L'Engle 1996
The Cosmic Questions that Guide Our Writing, October 31, 2018
Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, discusses how her girlhood as a bookworm prepared her to create stories that broadened the imaginations of readers. This speech from the 1996 Festival explores how mystery and loss shaped L’Engle’s discovery and expression in story. From publisher rejections to realities of marriage, L’Engle found her persistence in faith and writing.
- Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gifts from the Sea
- Madeleine L’Engle
- A Wrinkle in Time
- Meet the Austins (series)
- The Summer of the Great-Grandmother
Don Hettinga (host): [00:00:00] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
On today’s Rewrite Radio, we celebrate Madeleine L’Engle’s centenary. Listen to the voice of a writer whose girlhood as a bookworm prepared her to write fictions capable of opening up wormholes in readers’ imaginations.
This is ReWrite Radio.
My name is Don Hettinga, and I teach in the English Department at Calvin College and serve on the advisory board of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Madeleine L’Engle was born 100 years ago this November 29, and we wanted to celebrate the legacy she left us. In this plenary speech from Festival 1996, the late L’Engle talks about mystery and loss, about the experiences that shaped her as a reader and a writer, and about the discovery and expression that she has found in story.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote across genres, crafting poems, plays, creative non-fiction, and novels. Her best known book, A Wrinkle in Time, won the Newbery Medal in 1963. A Wrinkle in Time is the first young adult novel in a series that also includes A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. The author of more than forty books, L’Engle also wrote a series of autobiographical memoirs called the Crosswicks Journals and the seminal Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.
L’Engle, in addition to winning the Newbery, has received the National Book Award. The National Council of Teachers of English selected her for the ALAN Award in 1985, and the American Library Association named her the winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 1998. She has also earned the Regina Award, a National Humanities Medal, and a host of other prizes and honors.
At the time of her death, in 2007, A Wrinkle in Time was in its 69th printing. Adapted for film a decade later, its readership continues to grow.
From our archive, Madeleine L’Engle at Festival 96.
Madeleine L’Engle: [00:03:15] Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here in this glorious weather—yesterday I left in a blizzard. [laughter] Ah, it’s nice to be warm. Thank you all for coming. Getting me from the wheelchair into something else—I think I’ve qualified several times for the funniest home video. [laughter]
But one day when I was three I woke up with my right knee hot and swollen. My mother took me to a doctor who sent me to a specialist who put me in a leather and steel brace—much worse than this Darth Vader thing that I have on. It made me cry—she told me later it made her cry. So she took it off and we never went back to the doctor and that was probably the best thing she could have ever done for me.
But I went back to being about as normal as I was ever going to be as far as my knee was concerned, but forget the rest of it. It was apparent by time I went to school that I was not going to win any relay races, that I was not an asset to team sports. And so, after school, instead of going out and playing with the kids, I went home and read and wrote. I began to find myself as a storyteller. That’s one of the advantages of being very bad at one thing and learning that I could do something else. I wrote my first long story when I was five and fortunately, my mother kept it for a long time, but fortunately it’s been lost. We don’t write immortal prose at five. [laughter]
But we do start to ask questions. The big questions. The cosmic questions. The questions I did have sense enough never to ask at school. Why? The perennial question. But it wasn’t why can’t I go out and play or why can’t I eat candy. It was, why, if God is good, do terrible things happen? Why is there war? Why are people mean to each other? Why is there a sign on that little girl’s door saying, “diphtheria”? What is diphtheria? Is she going to die? What is death? Where do we go when we die?
Obviously, I was not a child who went to Sunday School. Sunday School teachers often tend to answer questions that don’t have answers, so I feel quite blessed. [laughter] My father was a drama and music critic and my parents slept late, so I went to eleven o’clock church with them, so I was spared, a lot. [laughter] I loved the music, I loved the liturgy, and without knowing it, I fell in love with the great words of Cramer and Coverdell, and the King James translation of scripture, which, inaccurate though it is, is wonderful, is glorious.
Who goes to heaven? Is anybody left out? As a left out child, I didn’t want anybody left out. My parents taught me that God is love, total love. And love does not leave anybody out, particularly those who are hurt or unhappy. And Jesus said, I have not come for those who are well, but for those who are sick, those who know they’re broken. For me. I mean, I knew that meant for me. If I felt left out by my school friends and my school teachers, I did not feel left out by God. And I read, and I wrote.
I listened to my father, coughing his lungs out—he’d been gassed in the First World War—and it took him ‘til I was nearly eighteen to finish coughing his lungs out. And he had sense enough not to fool me by saying there would never be another war. I would say, “Father, there won’t ever be another war, will there?” This was that first world war, which was supposed to end wars. But the nations were already lining up, for the next war, and the next, and the next. I read in Samuel 2, “In the spring of the year at a time when kings go to war…” Not much has changed.
My grandmother died, my favorite uncle died. What happens? Where do they go? Why? We read stories, and we write stories, because we ask the big questions to which there are no finite answers. And we tells stories about people who give us our best answers, in the way that they live and work out their lives, and treat other people, and try to find the truth.
We moved to Europe my seventh and eighth grade years. And I learned on the hockey field to ask to play goalie. Goalies don’t have to run. All you have to do is be intrepid and not mind if you get knocked down. [laughter] But my knee cropped up again as a problem and this Anglican boarding school I was sent to—this Anglican boarding school kept me from Anglicanism for at least another twenty years. [laughter]
One night I was taken out of study hall and taken up to the infirmary and there was the nurse and the matron (and my homeroom teacher), all with smirks on their faces and they had me lie down on a long table and they took out tape measures and they measured me. I had no idea what was going on, what they were doing, why they were smirking. Then I was sent back to study hall.
About two weeks later I was called out again. And they opened this box, and in it was a big shoe with a huge lift on it. I knew one of my legs was longer than the other, I compensated. I didn’t want this thing. But they took away my shoes. So, I went down to the cloak room and put on my rubber boots and took these shoes and went up the hillside and dug a hole and buried them. [laughter]
And then I quoted Shakespeare’s words, “Blessed be he who saves these bones but cursed be he who moves them.” That’s not quite right but that’s the way I felt about it. They could not get out of me what I had done with the shoes, so they finally gave me back my school shoes and let me go on. My parents wrote a letter saying, “Leave her alone.” I was again filled with the great words, with the great language, which they couldn’t devoid, because as an Anglican school, we had morning and evening prayer—badly read by one of the mistresses, but at least there were the words, there was the language.
[00:09:46] I envied people who can sit back on their heels, and I’ve always wanted to be able to sit in full lotus position but that’s never been a possibility. [laughter] And I got along quite well without it. [laughter] We came back to the States and there I went to an amazing school run by a woman who grew up in the day when it was not considered nice for young Southern gentlewomen to go to college. Because most colleges, not Calvin of course, are hotbeds of atheism. So, she waited for her parents to die and she took herself off to Smith College as an undergraduate in her forties, came back and started her school.
Every December we did three plays from the Chester cycle. Again, language, those great medieval plays. Wonderful language. And then every spring we did one of Shakespeare’s plays. One of my better roles was Sir Andrew Aguecheek ‘cause I was tall and it was a girl’s school—I got all the good men’s roles. [laughter]
One year, the girl playing the most important shepherd in the Christmas plays could not react properly. When the star came on we were supposed to react, and she was not reacting properly. So the head mistress was down there, she picked up a chair, she ran up the stage and flung it at Martha. She reacted. [laughter] So there I was learning good direction, I mean she was a magnificent director. [laughter] And good language all put together.
I never got on the basketball team, though I was tall. But I was an actress, and I edited the school magazine—and the teachers actually liked what I was writing. Most of us went to the Episcopal church on Sundays, and that’s when I began to learn to write poetry, during the sermon. [laughter] The minister was very dull, and I might not have ever written poetry had it not been for that.
And again, I was asking the questions and learning and during holidays listening to my father, and when I was seventeen he finally died. Why do we die? What happens? What does God do with us? Religion classes did not give satisfactory answers. I often have trouble with Paul of Tarsus, but he gave the best answer I’ve ever heard. He was talking about that glorious impossibility that we’re going to get after death, a spiritual body, and when he was asked to explain it he said, “Don’t be silly.” That’s the best answer. [laughter] We don’t know. All we do is trust. I believe that what God’s up to is going to be good.
So I went to college and the first Sunday I went to church and nobody spoke to me, so I never went back. I grieved for my father though I didn’t realize that my depression and my angst were ways of grief expressing itself. But I spent four years absorbing great writers. Just living with their works. Absorbing their use of language, their questions, their characters. I read the best sex scene ever written in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, when Emma goes to meet her lover and they get into a carriage with the shades drawn as it rocks through the streets. And how much more potent that is than blow-by-blow descriptions.
I fell in and out of love. I finally wept tears of grief for my father and was purged. I read Plato and Aristotle, and because we had to take a science I took Psychology, and dabbled in Freud and Young. And I wrote stories and about half of what was to be my first novel. We were also required to take a sport, so again I was goalie. [laughter] One of the seniors got pneumonia and died. And again came the unanswerable questions about death. How can we love God if we do not understand that we are going to die or that God is not going to abandon us?
I didn’t have a place in my schedule for a music course. But I did get an hour a day in one of the music rooms to play the piano. And as I played Bach’s fugues, I realized that he was asking all of my questions in his fugues and answering them with structure. And I learned that Beethoven’s music deepened as he grew deafer, and a friend told me that Mahler was expressing his outraged grief at the death of his child in his symphonies. And then I struggled with the perennial question of God’s will and our will. And no, God did not make Beethoven deaf for the glory of the music. God did not want my friend in the senior class to die.
Bad things happen largely because of what we have done—in the past and in the present. My father died because of war, people fighting other people. The Second World War did not seem to ambiguous, but it was still terrible. I graduated from college in 1941 right into that war, and I did not understand hate, and again I thought of Samuel, “in the spring of the year when kings go to war,” we just keep doing that.
[00:15:09] And I finished my first novel, amazingly it was published and it did very well. And I had no idea that after several other fairly successful novels I was going to into a decade plus of nothing but rejection slips. Having my children and trying to raise them and living in a house which we never could heat in the winter. When once we had a washing machine everything froze in it.
And I remember being given Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s beautiful book, Gifts from the Sea, in which she suggests that every young wife and mother go to the sea for two weeks and walk on the beach, and pick up pebbles and shells and commune with herself. At which point I flung the book across the room. [laughter] Fine for you, Anne Morrow Lindbergh! Who is going to come take care of my kids while I go to the sea? [laughter]
Well, two nights a year in January at the time of our anniversary were what I got, and they were better than nothing, but there wasn’t much time for communioning with God or nature or myself; it was struggle. Nevertheless, grace was given in all kinds of ways.
The center of the village, and of our lives, was the old colonial congregational church which had been redecorated in the worst of Victorian excesses. [laughter] But there was there an incredible sense of Christian fellowship. Of Christians loving each other, and it was a good meeting place for my husband and for me. He with his southern Baptist background and me with my Episcopal background.
Believe me, when my mother-in-law learned that her baby boy was going to marry what she called, “a Bachelor girl,” living alone in New York city in Greenwich village, working in the theater, who had published two novels and was an Episcopalian! [laughter] That was the worst blow of all. In marriage it worked very well, however.
But in that church we found friends who are still friends for life. Who had to teach the city girl how to can and freeze and prepare for winter and to use and treasure the fruits of the earth. But I also learned why I’m not a Congregationalist. At that time, the decade of the fifties, no symbol of any kind was allowed. Now there was a nice plain wooden cross by the sanctuary, but that would have been considered popish. Kneeling was for your bedside at night when you said your prayers—you did not kneel in church. When the minister said, “Let us pray,” you bowed your head very slightly. [laughter] I was asked to start a choir. And I didn’t know that Congregationalists don’t process, they still do it’s lovely. And I learned a lot with the choir. I learned a lot about people, I learned a lot about failure, I learned a lot about myself, all of which came out in what I was struggling to write. I was writing Meet the Austins which comes before A Wrinkle in Time.
In the church, God was approached intellectually, and my minister friends answered my questions. My questions did not have answers, and their answers threw me off. And they gave me German theologians to read. Now there is one great use for German theologians, insomnia. [laughter] Those long, Germanic sentences, never use two words when you can use twenty-two. [laughter] Again, they had too many answers. They had no sense of the incredible mystery I felt when I went out at night with the dogs, after I got the kids went to bed, and looked at the stars. And there was creation.
Two weeks ago, I was in Leakey, Texas, which is in the middle of nowhere, and there were no lights of any kind. I went out and looked at the starts and there was the comet. This great big blob, pulsing. Four times bigger than we are. And again, I had the sense of the wonder of creation and that to God, a baby or a kitten is just as important as all of that glory. But, within two years, four of our closest friends died and that’s a lot of death. And again came the questions: What happens? What in the Congregational church is the theology of resurrection?
And once, in an Evangelical college, some outsiders were directing some hostile questions to me. And one of the most angry ones was, “Do you believe in the literal facts of the resurrection?” “Well,” I said, “I stand with Paul in the resurrection of Christianity, but you can’t cram the glory of the resurrection into anything as thin as a fact. It’s way beyond fact. It’s glory, it’s what we live by.” That wasn’t what they wanted to hear. [laughter] But I do stand with Paul.
All the things I believe in that make my worth living are impossible in ordinary, literal terms. The incarnation, God losing all that glory and coming to us as an ordinary, human, mortal being, is impossible. But without my absolute belief that God does not lovingly make us and then will never abandon or annihilate us, I could not have written through that decade, I could not write now.
How can we explain anything that we live by on a literal level? How can we understand the word that shouted all the galaxies into being, abandoning all power, and all glory and coming to us as a servant? Perhaps if I had been more satisfied with the theology of the Protestant fifties, I would have been less probing. My minister friends were sympathetic, but they’d been given the answers in seminary and their theology was too literal, too explainable. Then, I discovered a book by Berdyaev the Russian theologian who opened doors and windows, particularly when he talked about a forensic god, that we have been worshipping a forensic God. That was not the God my parents taught me. The God my parents taught me was a God who was a God who was in it with us, in all our griefs, all our pains, all our joys, all our laughter. I think God has a wonderful sense of fun, and often at our expense. [laughter]
But how was I to talk to my children about all of this? A seven-year-old girl came into our family because of the untimely death of her parents. How did I talk to the kids at prayer time about death? We did talk. Prayer time was the longest part of the day—and my favorite part, because I loved my children’s prayers. One night during the fifties when we were close to war, we thought, my son was saying his list of “God blesses,” he was about four. And suddenly he said, “And God, remember to be the Lord!” [laughter] I thought, I don’t have to teach this kid anything! [laughter]
And my writing reflected my questions and my responses, not my answers. I wrote Meet the Austin’s as a valentine for my husband, and I had a long struggle to get it published. It’s a simple little book about an ordinary family living ordinary lives, which meant that they had to face and live through the ordinary problems of life: the death of a beloved friend, the unexpected, the joyful, the funny and terrible. I’m not sure why it frightened publishers, but it did for two years. And then the publisher who finally took the book was so scared of it that they didn’t publish it for a year after it was announced.
And I struggled with the ordinary problems of life. Living in an old farm house that was always cold in winter, working with my actor husband at the village store, raising children for a decade with it’s fear of communism, fear of nuclear war, fear of thinking anything new.
When I got overtired, which was much of the time, my knee hurt but I paid no much attention to it. It was old pain to which I was moderately accustomed. I was still struggling with my questions, and for some reason I picked up a book of Einstein’s. Now, since I’ve avoided science as much as possible I do not know why I picked up a book of Einstein’s. But in it, I read that anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the maker of the universe, is as good as a burnt out candle. I thought, “I have found my theologian!” [laughter] So I began to read more Einstein, Planck and the quantum theory. And it was the discovery of particle physics and the wonders of science, which I finally discovered, that lead to the writing of A Wrinkle in Time, which came to me when my kids were seven, ten, and twelve.
[00:24:38] And at that time, my husband was restless—he’d made a success of this village store—what to do? I said, “Go back to the theater, it’s where you belong. Go back to the theater.” So we took our kids out of a small dairy farm village, which was quiet, to the middle of Manhattan and the world of the theater, which we thought much quieter than the country, with PTA and driving the kids hither, thither and yon. [laughter] In the city they could take the bus, it was wonderful. It was a big move; we had to rent our house. And the animals—we had three dogs and seven cats. My husband said firmly to the children, “We will take one dog and one cat.” And our seven-year-old looked at him with his big blue eyes and said, “And one child, Daddy?” [laughter] We decided to take all three children.
And to take them on a long tent camping trip to bridge the gap between these two totally disparate lives. I’d been to Europe, I knew the East Coast of the United States, but I knew nothing much about the rest of my own country. So it was a beautiful and eye opening trip, and I had a box in the front seat full of books and magazines on the making of the universe, on the science that I was just discovery, was theology for me.
Who made it all? Why? I would sit outside our tent at night and look up at the stars, at the wild beauty of the night sky and feel surrounded by the presence of the Maker. The Great Storyteller. The Sunday that we were at the Grand Canyon we were horrified that the church there was held in a building instead of out in God’s own church, in the glory of what was outside, and perhaps the canyon itself asked too many questions of why and how and when.
In my mind I began to write A Wrinkle in Time, which was for me an affirmation of my theology and my love of God, who loves us so much that he sent his only begotten son to us to teach us how to be human. Not ordinary, human beings are not ordinary we are extraordinary. Why did God make us as we are? Why did God give us the terrible and dangerous gift of free will? How do we find out what is our will and what is God’s will? And I kept wanting to know, and asking more questions.
I was happy to return to New York where lots of people were asking questions. It was the city of my birth, it was my home. We were given good scholarships for our children in an Episcopal school, so I went back to the church of my birth. My Baptist husband responded to the beauty of the liturgy and the symbolism. And A Wrinkle in Time began its long journey from publisher to publisher to publisher.
Now it fascinates me: when the book was finally published, it was hailed as a Christian book. It is now one of the ten most censored books in the United States along with The Diary of Anne Frank, The Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn and other wicked books. [laughter] Not a word of these books have changed. What has changed? What has happened, what is happening? Why have these books suddenly become dangerous? The question is far larger than a list of books. What are Christians afraid of? I thought perfect love cast out fear. But slowly I’m learning what some of the fears are and where they come from.
An article in the Times that tells of some women who wanted the middle school textbooks removed from the schools, because they were afraid they might stimulate their imaginations. [laughter] I thought, “How can we believe without all of the God-given imagination we possess?” Then I realized, long after reading that article, I realized that in the King James translation, imagination does not mean what it means now. It’s another word that has changed. It’s a bad word. “Put them down in the imagination of their hearts!” So these women were taking imagination as it was understood back two-three hundred years ago. Many words have changed. “Prevent.” It is really “pre-veneri,” to go before. In the King James translation that is what it means, “go before.” We have reversed its meaning. So in reading those good and glorious sentences, we have to make sure we know what the words mean—and imagination does not mean what it meant back then.
I’m fascinated by words, and by how they shift and change, and grow and move. The language that comes from the media is appallingly bad, and the media makes the terrible mistake, particularly in the commercials, of making us believe that normal is nice. And then when things aren’t nice we get upset.
[00:30:03] Well normal is not nice: normal is like the weather. Unexpected, wonderful, terrible, but not nice. Back in New York, I learned changes of language. I changed too, the world changed. The sixties exploded. In England, a group of theologians decided that God was dead. So I read a couple of their “God is dead books” and decided I didn’t have their problem. [laughter] If they wanted to get rid of the cross and the man in the night gown that was fine with me. My children grew, left home, gave me grandchildren, my husband died—all of the ordinary things of life, and death, and being mortal human beings.
My knee began to be more and more bothersome and finally it was apparent that it was finished with its job and it needed to be replaced. So, two years ago, I had a brand new knee put in. And don’t you think that would have been the end of it? No, it wasn’t. The new knee had been put in in such a way that the foot couldn’t support it. So the foot became more and more deformed and more and more fractured. And three weeks ago, I think it was, I had my foot taken apart and put back together again. I said to the doctor, “We’ll have to put this off six months, I’ve got to give people six months’ notice.” He said, “This is Friday, I’m doing it Monday.” [laughter] I said, “Well, can I keep my commitments in a wheelchair?” He said “Yes.” Then he said, “People are either too busy or not busy enough and I prefer too busy.” Well, obviously so do I. [laughter]
My writing is always enlarged and changed by what is happening. Before I had the surgery I was struggling with a cane; we’ve had a brutal winter of snow and snow and more snow and I’ve been struggling to get over snow drifts and always, arms would come around me and I would be helped across the snow by one of the street people. And that awed and humbled me. So I’m hoping that when I get out of the cast I’ll be able to walk like a normal human being, but meanwhile here I am. I was committed to give the Perkins lectures in Wichita, Kansas, no! Wichita Falls, Texas. My sense of geography is not terribly good. [laughter]
And I began to look at the life of Jesus in an entirely new way. It came from a question that somebody in my church asked about one of the late parables, which is quite a rough one. I said, “But he told that to the people that he knew were going to kill him.” So I started looking at the parables at the time when he told them in their chronological order. They start out gently and humorously and as he gets closer and closer to death and to being misunderstood, the parables get harsher and harsher. ‘Til you get one like the owner of the vineyard who sent his servants to collect his dues and they were stoned, and finally he sent his son and they killed his son. He’s telling that parable to the people he knows are going to kill him. Where the story comes is very important in understanding what Jesus is trying to tell us.
I began to realize that his promise when he came, when Christ came into the world as Jesus to be a human being, that that was his promise. Not to do God things as Jesus but to be a human being. And he kept that promise faithfully, all the way through. He could have avoided the cross, but he didn’t, he kept his promise, to be human.
Then I discovered—it occurred to me that some of the things I was discovering might make more sense and be less startling if I told them from Mary Magdalene’s point of view. Suddenly I began to write a book about Mary Magdalene. I had three other books I was working on. Mary Magdalene took over—I’ve written 50 pages, she’s still only fifteen. [laughter]
Books surprise me. They don’t do what I expect, they know more than I do, and my job is to listen, not to control or dominate or manipulate, but to listen. Listen to the story in the same way that when I pray I try to listen to God. Get out of the way and listen. So I have two unexpected manuscripts with me, the book about Jesus and the book about Mary Magdalene and disks of three other books that I guess are going to go on the shelf for a while. God has ways of making us do what is needed without interfering with our free will. This week I’m looking forward enormously to listening to all of the wonderful speakers here, my friends and my colleagues, without whom I would feel I was wandering alone in the desert. And with you, my companions along the way, I feel courage and joy. Thank you.
We do have time for some questions, which I would love, if anybody would be nice enough.
Don: Just before she came on, you know this is up to you folks, she said that some of the best things happen when people ask questions, so—
Madeleine: And Don asked if I was willing to entertain questions, and I said, “Sure, but I’m not sure how to entertain them.” I mean so—[laughter] And I can’t see in the back, so if anybody up there puts up a hand— The book that I wrote what?
Audience member #1: In regards to your book—
Madeleine: The Summer of the Great-Grandmother? That was about my mother’s death, who lived a long time. I mean, my father died when I was seventeen—he was fifty-seven—my mother lived to be ninety. I had just lived through that summer, and I went to a very large church meeting where the keynote speaker had some notes and announced that the family was over with, you know. It was inadequate and gone. People said, “Speak to that, speak to that, speak to that.” And I had just come through a summer that the family was all that kept me going. It was our fourth summer of four generations living in one small farmhouse. Much pain and much joy. So that was how I came to write that book.
I was very angry at what was happening to my mother. I had a wonderful mother, and to see her suddenly getting unlike herself—angry, difficult. I’d walk down the road at night with the dogs, and I’d say, “God, don’t you do this to my mother. You take her.” At the end of the summer, that’s what God did. But I’ve had so many letters from people saying, “I didn’t know I was allowed to be angry.” We are allowed to be angry—not to stay stuck in anger—we have to move through it, but we are allowed to be appropriately angry.
I’ve a friend at church who’s twenty-seven-year-old son died. She said, “My friends think I’m terrible because I can’t pray.” I said, “That’s all right. We are praying for you. That’s what the body of Christ is about. We pray for each other. There’ve been times I’ve been too sick to pray, and I’ve known I was being prayed for.” Then her next question was, “Will they think I’m terrible because I’m angry?” I said, “Well of course you’re angry. I bet God is angry at what happened to Rob. But we don’t stay in anger, we have to move on as God pulls into life with what has happened as part of who we are.”
So books come out of what is happening to us. No matter how wildly they seem to be fiction—A Wrinkle in Time came out of my questions about the universe which the theologians were not answering. Story is much better. When I learned to get out of the way, it was when I wrote A Wrinkle in Time, and I was nearly forty—I was in my late 30s. It was when I realized that writing was my vocation and not my career, when I realized that it was my gift from God and I was to go to it as servant, not as owner, which made it all the more difficult when nobody wanted to publish that book. [laughter] I thought, here God had given me these great revelations and then nobody wanted what I had discovered.
I don’t know why it took so long to find a publisher—you can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. [laughter] They all did. One of the reasons—they would say, “Who is this book for? Is this book for children? Is this a book for grown-ups?” I would say, “It’s for people! Don’t people read books?” [laughter]
But we are getting again where imagination, mystery is beginning to frighten people. We have a lot to learn in the churches of old denominations. Because if we were really doing our job properly, we wouldn’t have these fringe groups: the new-agers and the people who shoot themselves and all of this other stuff. We are not excited enough in church about what we believe and what we have learned, and we need to bring that excitement. We need to make people know that the good news is truly good news. I was chastised because I didn’t write for Christians, I said, “Well, I don’t preach to the choir. I want the good news to spread. I want people to understand that what makes life wonderful, terrible, and bearable is God’s grace and love and laughter.”
[00:40:25] If you go to the Bible as a storybook, as I did as a child, there’s some wonderful funny things in it. It’s a marvelous storybook, about unqualified people doing wonderful things. [laughter] In a sense, we are all unqualified, but it seems that God goes to great pains to pick the most unqualified. [laughter] If you were going to start a family that was going to bring all the nations of the earth, would you pick a woman past menopause and a man a hundred years old? [laughter]
And then not long ago I was re-reading in Exodus where Moses is up in the mountain talking with God, and the people are restless. They don’t know where Moses is—he’s staying away too long—and they want a god to worship. So Aaron takes all of their jewelry and he makes this golden calf. And they are dancing around the golden calf, worshiping it and having a wonderful time. Moses comes down to the mountain and he is furious. And Aaron says, “Well, I mean, I just took the earrings and the jewelry and I put them in the furnace and out came this calf.” [laughter]
And I thought, We still do it! “Me? I didn’t do it, I mean out came this calf!” [laughter] It’s a wonderful book of people who behave the way we behave and why they do it and how despite it all, they manage to do God’s will—sometimes screaming. Not long ago at a conference in Vancouver, a man said that the Old Testament is full of old men in long beards saying to God, “You want me to do what?” [laughter] And then we do it. [laughter] It’s like the parable that Jesus told of the two sons and the father wanted them to go work in the vineyard, and one said, “Well of course I will father” and didn’t go. And the other said, “I won’t,” and then went and did it. And I’m more or less remind myself of the one who said, “I won’t,” and then I go and do it. Somehow God has a way of pushing us. [laughter]
Well I just thought I was doing it normally! It’s fascinating, while my kids were little and we were living in the country, I was getting nothing but rejection slips. I wasn’t anybody—which is good. I was just mother and that was fine. And then by the time A Wrinkle in Time began to get accepted and began to be a little bit noticed, they were edging out of the nest and they are very ambiguous about it, this whole thing, I mean, they want me to be just mother, whereas my grandchildren all think it’s terrific. That biological remove does a lot. I have wonderful grandchildren. [laughter]
Don: Hi folks, Don Hettinga here again. I’m interrupting because next, Madeleine will be taking questions but the audience wasn’t miced. So I’ll be repeating their questions for you. The first question is whether she has any advice for those writing books that appeal to young readers.
Madeleine: I still think that the kids want books that are written out of the writer’s own need and experience, and that if we are honest in our work, that they will respond to that much more than to stuff that is written because it is “in fashion.” I get over a hundred letters a week, and only about a quarter of them are from kids. They range from the “We have to write an author” [laughter]—one of my favorites is from a little girl saying, “Dear Ms. L’Engle, you are the greatest writer in all time,” sentence after sentence of fulsome praise, signed, “P.S. I’ve not read any of your books, but I’m sure they’ll be good when I do.” [laughter]
And then I get wonderful letters saying, “My teacher says that my dog who died can’t go to heaven. What do you think?” And I say, “Well, only the human beings were tossed out of Eden, not the animals.” [laughter] They ask questions that make you—they want some kind of response. They keep me on my toes, and so that gives me courage that they’re still responding to books which are not necessarily in the current fashion. But I think kids want truth, I think they’re not afraid of truth, and I think they are willing to accept it no matter how harsh it is as long as you are honest with them.
Don: [00:45:00] Next, the audience wondered how she would respond to Christians who objected to her book on religious grounds.
Madeleine: Well I think again the misuse of the word “imagination” has a lot do with it. They assume that Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which, who are identified in the book as guardian angels, are witches. If you are looking for evil, you are going to find it. If you look for Satan, Satan will oblige immediately by appearing. [laughter] If you are looking sex, you will find that. And I don’t understand why people are looking for these things. When I go to bed at night and read, I want to be encouraged. I want to know that I’m God’s child. I want to know that everything in the world matters. I want to be given more courage to face whatever it is. I don’t want these downgrading of humanity books, but they seem to be very popular—I think temporarily. I doubt if they are read and re-read. And not the books I would re-read certainly. It makes me feel bewildered and very sad, because I don’t understand why people want to see evil.
I mean, I live on the upper west side of New York City, which is not the fashionable part, and I walk by junkies and winos and drug pushers, and I can’t avoid evil, but I don’t go looking for it. I’d much rather rejoice in the fact that that street person who smells helped me across the snow. We do tend to find what we look for, and not enough people are looking for Christ. I don’t understand Christians who are looking for hate. That is not Christ-like. But see, I have a real big problem here: how do I keep from being judgmental about people who I think are judgmental? [laughter]
It does make me very sad, because when I write something which I believe is an offering to God and it’s seen as wicked, I say, “What have I done wrong? Is it really, is that what the books says?” But then I get enough affirmation from other people who say, “No, it’s not what the books says.” There’s something abroad today that frightens me that I’ve never seen before in a group of people calling themselves “Christians” who want to put other Christians down rather than uphold, teach, be witnesses.
Years ago the great Boston preacher Phillips Brooks was asked why he was a Christian, and he answered very seriously, “I think I’m a Christian because of my aunt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.” And we are all supposed to be that aunt in Teaneck, New Jersey. We are supposed to be that aunt in Teaneck New Jersey. We’re supposed to be such witnesses of Christ’s love, that other people will want to know what makes us glow. The minute we being to hate, we begin to put down, that light goes. I know that when I’m angering, I can feel my light flickering and dimming. It’s only when I’m willing to let go, and listen—I sometimes remind myself of a little boy who was going to be late for school for the third day in a row, he’s really going to get it when he got there, he’s running as fast as he can, saying, “God help me, God help me, God help me...” he goes flat in a muddle, “I didn’t say push!” [laughter] God pushes.
Don: Next, when is the film adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time coming out?
Madeleine: Well, right now it’s at Miramax and I don’t know where it’s going to go. My favorite story though was while it was with Norman Lear, well Norman said his assistant Kathy handed the telephone to call me, and I said, “No, I’m not interested.” But she said, “I’m coming to New York anyhow, why don’t we have lunch at the Twin Towers?” Well I’d never had lunch at the Twin Towers, [laughter] so we had lunch and I said, “I can’t sign the average Hollywood contract because I cannot sign that clause giving the producer freedom to change character and theme.” Well I got the clause reversed and I got a contract I was willing to sign. It had in it a clause “giving the producers the rights to the movie in perpetuity throughout the universe.” [laughter] So I took a red pen and I made an asterisk and I said, “With the exception of Sagittarius and the Andromeda galaxy.” [laughter]
Well, they had a serious meeting with their lawyers before they would accept this. [laughter] In case I knew something they didn’t know! [laughter] I would like it to be made into a movie, but a good movie not a bad one. I mean, I believe my books and so I can’t sign that clause, and I’d rather not have them done then have them come out saying something I’m not saying, which is very easy in the world of Hollywood.
Don: [00:50:18] Then the audience asked what she remembered about her first experience getting published.
Madeleine: Oh, I was very young. I thought this was perfectly natural. [laughter] The name of the first book was, The Small Reign. It’s back in print, it’s a good first novel—I’m not ashamed of it—but I took it for granted. I had half a dozen books published and then I went into this decade plus of nothing but rejection slips. With A Wrinkle in Time, which was the last one, mostly they were just the plain, printed rejection slips. Not even a little penciled note like, “Try us again,” or something like that. Just “No.”
I would go down the dirt road and say, “God, why all of these rejection slips? You know it’s a good book, I wrote it for you!” [laughter] Then the stars just kept right on shining. [laughter] But what’s amazing to me, was that the book was published at exactly the right moment. If it had published two-and-a-half years earlier, it might just have dropped into a little black hole. As it was, it came out at just the perfect moment for itself, and that’s God’s timing, not mine.
But it didn’t make the rejections any easier. They were very, very hard, because I believed in this book. I believed I was truly listening and that what had come out was good. And when it was finally accepted, well it was wonderful. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling that finally somebody understood what I was trying to do. I was willing to re-write forever, for an editor who understood it, but not for one who wanted me to take out the evil, the [unintelligible], but for one who wanted to make the book deeper and better, and I finally found an editor and a publisher who was willing to do that.
Don: Finally the audience wondered what gave her the courage to keep writing.
Madeleine: The rejection slips were very, very hard. When I could get a moment’s privacy, which wasn’t very often, I cried. On my fortieth birthday—I couldn’t wait to be forty, I mean the decade of my thirties was absolutely the pits, things have got to change. [laughter] So on my fortieth birthday I was out in my workroom which is over the garage, writing, and I had a book out that I knew was close to being accepted. The post office was in our store and my husband called, and he said, “I hate to this to you on your birthday, but you’d never trust me again if I didn’t: they rejected the book.” So I took this as a sign from God that I was supposed to learn to enjoy mopping my kitchen floor and making cherry pie. [laughter] I covered my typewriter in a great gesture of renunciation. [laughter] And then I was walking up and down my workroom sobbing.
I suddenly stopped in my tracks, because what was my subconscious mind doing? It was ‘blip, blip, blipping’ up to my conscious mind the plot of a novel on failure. [laughter] So I uncovered my typewriter, and that night I wrote in my journal, “I’m a writer. That’s who I am. That’s what I have to do.” And I had to accept that I might never again be published—and that was a strong possibility, and I’m glad I made that decision in the pits, because it’s easy to say when things are going well, but I could say it when everything was falling apart. I’m stubborn, I couldn’t stop, I don’t know what gave me the courage to go on. Often we don’t know until we’re through something how we ever got through it. We’re just too busy getting through it to think about it.
Don: I think that perhaps may be a good note on which to end, because there are many of here who are very interested in continuing on in writing and looking ahead, so we thank you, Madeleine, for the example that you’ve given to us.
Don: [00:54:48] Happy birthday, Madeleine. We miss you, and we thank you.
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