My grandmother, Madeleine L'Engle

Sarah Harrison Smith on February 08, 2018

LENGLEcover.jpegThis week marks the publication of Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters. The timing is good: Disney will release its adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time on March 9, and adults who loved the book in their teens are returning to it in now with their book clubs, while a new generation of kids discovers it for the first time.

But L'Engle's literary scope extends much farther than her children's books: she wrote young-adult novels (The Small Rain; Camilla) when that form was still very new, and in later life, published poetry and her own memoirs of love and faith (Two-Part Invention;  A Circle of Quiet). Becoming Madeleine puts those works in the context of her early life, when this daughter of a pianist was herself a budding actress and playwright.

Charlotte Jones Voiklis, Madeleine's granddaughter and literary executor, joined forces with her sister Lena Roy to write this fascinating biography of one of the twentieth century's most beloved writers. Voiklis spoke to the Amazon Book Review about her memories of her grandmother, and what she learned about her in the course of writing Becoming Madeleine.

Amazon Book Review: As a child, did you know that your grandmother was a famous writer?

Charlotte Jones Voiklis: Not at the very beginning. My earlier memories of her were of bedtime and bath time and story time. She was just my grandmother. I think we became aware of her fame once we got to school. At that moment it was very exciting --  to know that she was not just special to us, she was special to lots of other people too.

Like Madeleine, we lived uptown in New York City. After school, we would sometimes go visit her in the library at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. That was her workspace. I can still visualize the shelf where she would would keep coloring books and cookies for us. There’s a picture of Lena and me sitting on her lap there. Just like a medieval woman, she had a huge chain of keys to different parts of the cathedral. She had keys to every door.

What was it like to read her books when you were little?

I loved reading her books as child.  Reading Meet the Austins was a little strange, because there were moments in that series that we recognized as stories from our own mother's life, so the mixture of fact and fiction was fascinating. As we got older we realized it was more problematic than fascinating for my mom and her siblings -- it hurt their feelings.

What did you learn about Madeleine L'Engle when writing this book?

There were no deep secrets that we discovered. It was more like, I’d heard her say a thousand times that she had a lonely childhood, but reading family letters and her journal in the course of researching the book, it become clear that her childhood really was lonely and traumatic. We got a sense of what that really felt like, and how hard that must have been.

Any surprises?

I hadn’t realized how ambitious she was, because we knew her after A Wrinkle in Time had propelled her to fame, and she was traveling and writing, and had success. But in her adolescent journals, she talked about wanting success. And that was surprising to me. But also, I felt, "Of course! Who doesn’t want to be successful?"

I also hadn’t realized how crazy she and her roommate were when they graduated from Smith and basically stalked the actress Eva Le Gallienne, hanging out outside her stage door. They were utterly convinced that Madeleine had written a play that had to be Eva’s next play. And it worked! Eva never produced the play, but Madeleine and her roommate did become part of Eva Le Gallienne's company. This was in 1941. 

Did Madeleine initially want to be an actor?

She had started acting in high school and at Smith she acted, but was more interested in playwriting. She thought herself too tall, not pretty enough to be an ingénue, but perfectly capable of having smaller parts. 

Do you see ways that theatre influenced her novels?

She thought acting was a good way to learn how to write, to learn about dialog and conflict. She wrote in lots of different genres from the very beginning. Her idea of where she was going to fit in changed. Her acting experience and skills also served her well when she started lecturing and speaking to groups of readers. She was a really brilliant public speaker.

How did she come to write her first novel? 

Her first published book was The Small Rain. An editor at Vanguard Press had seen a short story of hers in a magazine and he wrote to her, wondering if she had something longer, so she wrote something longer.

How did critics react to The Small Rain?

The reviews I’ve read were wonderful. "A terrific debut from a young novelist." She got a $100 advance, which enabled her to take the summer off from Eva Le Gallienne’s company. She spent the summer writing, and as soon as the manuscript was turned in, she went back to work, acting. Making a living as a writer is always precarious. She couldn’t focus full time on that.

Would it be fair to say she was bohemian?

One of the letters that didn’t make it into the book was one in which she wrote to her mother that she wasn’t a bohemian. I think she was her own thing. She would be very resistant to a label of any kind. I think she was independent minded.

What mattered most to her was writing; was using writing to make sense out of life. Her family was important to her too, but she was a writer. It was something she had to do whether she was going to be published or not, whether she was going to find the success that she wanted or not. It was something she had to do.

Have Madeleine's books stayed in print?

She wrote more than 60 books, and it’s amazing that so many of them still have a great life and readership. I’m so happy that there are new e-books and audiobooks and editions of her work. The Library of America is doing a two-volume, eight-book set, coming out in September. I hope our biography and these new editions will stimulate new discussions of her work. Not a lot has been written about her.

What do you think accounts for her long literary legacy? 

I think part of it is that her heroines are feel so real. And they’re vulnerable in real ways. A lot of young-adult and middle-grade protagonists are given to us as role models and heroes. That has a definite value and place, but I think we also need main characters we can relate to on a less aspirational level. Her characters just feel like they know me where I am right now and I am enough. You don’t have to have superpowers. Vicky Austin, for instance, is introspective and a writer herself who is trying to figure it all out. She’s not there yet. Madeleine's books are quiet. They’re not high concept books. They’re just about real life. They probably wouldn’t get published now. 

It's a different publishing climate now, isn't it? Authors seem to be on Twitter constantly, while at the same time they have to keep churning out books as quickly as they can.

I think she was lucky, and we were all lucky, that she wasn’t writing now, because I think she did face some pressure but she was totally able to ignore it. A Wrinkle in Time was her breakout hit, but she didn’t write a sequel to it for eleven years. So I think she was a really honest writer in that she wrote what moved her.

Do you have a favorite, among her books?

The Small Rain, but that always hurt her feelings a little bit, because it was her first novel. She said she hoped she got better. It was my first glimpse of her as a young person and even as a young person myself, it made me feel tender towards her.

How involved have you been in the making of the movie of A Wrinkle in Time? 

We’re so excited about the movie. The production was really lovely to us, and I was able to go out on set three times. We weren’t involved in story choices or anything like that. They were very hospitable.

How did you come to write Becoming Madeleine?

My sister and I had the idea of writing a biography to celebrate our grandmother's 100th birthday. It was something we'd been thinking of for a long time, because she loved to celebrate her birthday. A former secretary of hers had whispered in my ear about the idea of a book about her. She thought it should be a picture book, and I could see the illustrations in my mind's eye.

What led you to write the book for middle-grade readers? 

Lena and I talked about it with a publisher, and my sister and the publisher really wanted a middle-grade biography. I was resistant to that idea, but my sister was really convinced that we could and should do it. It made sense to write it together because we had such a unique perspective on her and such unique access to the biographical materials. And most importantly, we loved her. Not many people get to write a book about their beloved grandmother, so we dove in. 

Thank you so much for talking with the Amazon Book Review, Charlotte! We're very excited about Becoming Madeleine.

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