For many of us, one of our first speculative fiction love affairs was with Madeleine L'Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. Her warm, emotional approach to time travel and other science fiction ideas helped set the scene for today's YA science fiction boom, and she made tesseracts a household word.
And now, a new book gives a pretty in-depth composite portrait of L'Engle, by presenting verbatim interviews with hundreds of people who knew her.
Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle in Many Voices collects interviews with people who knew L'Engle as a child, as a mother, and as an author, among other things. Leonard S. Marcus has done a pretty amazing job of creating a sense of what sort of person L'Engle actually was.
Reading Listening for Madeleine, I learned a lot about L'Engle's life — I didn't realize that her husband was a famous soap opera star, Hugh Franklin, who starred in All My Children from 1970 to 1983. Also, L'Engle was obsessed with religion and collected weird, charismatic religious figures: her only daughter married an Episcopalian chaplain when she was just 19, and when they went overseas L'Engle wrote letters to her son in law but not to her own daughter. Later in life, L'Engle's constant companion was a flamboyant priest named Canon West.
You get the impression that L'Engle was a tangle of contradictory attitudes and behaviors, too — she was deeply conservative about a lot of things, but also went for a nude swim every morning and referred to the function keys on her computer keyboard as "Fuck1, Fuck2," and so on. She was deeply religious but also wrote things like, "I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally." She came from a very upper-crust background and enjoyed a lot of fancy ceremony, but also found a lot of high society stifling. And so on.
And not surprisingly, perhaps, L'Engle also comes across as very much the model of the "self-absorbed writer" stereotype — her daughter talks about getting tired of constantly having to tell people that stuff that Madeleine wrote about her wasn't actually true. And even outside her writing, when Madeleine decided something had happened, it had happened, even if nobody else remembered it that way. If it was a good enough story, it would become the truth.
Most of us will probably be most interested in L'Engle's writing process, and her relationship with science and math, both of which are covered a fair bit in the book. She seems to have been a fast writer — who was capable of doing massive revisions in a short time. Her former editors talk about asking her to make minor changes and then getting back a story with a whole new plot. She was prickly about accepting feedback, but also capable of accepting that she'd made a particular character unlikable, even late in her career. She also very much embraced her superstar writer lifestyle, using her status to fight for the rights of all writers, and helping to fight a new copyright law that would have put writers at a serious disadvantage relative to publishers.
And then there's her relationship to science and math — which seems to have been somewhat magical. She was confused, as a child, by the notion that you could multiply any number by zero and get zero — until she decided that "Zero is the Devil." And that's why zero could negate any number.
The most fascinating interview in the book is probably the one with Thomas Banchoff, a geometer and mathematics professor at Brown University, who met with Madeleine L'Engle in 1984 to talk about tesseracts. (Banchoff's work on "hypercubes" had also won him an invitation to collaborate with Salvador Dali in 1975.) L'Engle didn't really understand the science of higher dimensions, and thought of it more in terms of Star Trek's transporter — turning people into energy and back into matter as they traveled through the fourth dimension. Luckily, Banchoff gives a pretty good explanation of tessering:
Tessering is going into the fourth dimension to get from one position in the three-dimensional universe to another one. In the book there's a place where Mrs. Whatsit has an apron on and she shows how you can bring one portion of the apron close to another portion, which would then enable somebody on it to jump instantaneously from one place to another. Tessering essentially means going into a higher dimension where things can fold together, even though the people living in this folded universe aren't aware of the fold. For them it just represents something kind of impossible. We can't instantaneously go from Earth to another planet unless there happens to be some such fold.
He also explains that Professor Murry was imprisoned in a hypercube, and the origins of the word "tessering" — invented by C. Howard Hinton, a contemporary of Flatland author Edwin Abbott.
The other thing that fans of her science fiction work will find interesting is the wealth of details about the bad decisions and typical Hollywood insanity that doomed the Wrinkle in Time movie. At various stages of the development process, the producers wanted Meg Murry to be a boy, or to be a ten-year-old. In another script, by a couple of writers, Meg was "someone practically hysterical." L'Engle herself was allowed go write a screenplay — but she finished it in just two weeks, which was so fast the Hollywood people assumed she hadn't really done a decent job.
All in all, fans of Madeleine L'Engle will get a much better impression of what sort of person she was — the good parts as well as the bad — from Listening for Madeleine. It's the closest you'll ever get to actually getting to know Madeleine L'Engle personally.