Author Interviews

Madeleine L'Engle Interview Transcript

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.

What books did you read when you were a child? Do you have a favorite childhood book?
My favorite was Emily of New Moon by Louise Maude Montgomery, who is better known for her Anne of Green Gable books. Emily wanted to be a writer. Emily and I had a lot in common. Emily lived on Prince Edward Island and I live on Manhattan Island. Both are islands! Emily's father was dying of bad lungs and so was mine. Emily also had some rather formidable aunts and cousin Jimmy, who wasn't quite all there. And her best friend was Ilse - there was a mystery about Ilse's mother having run away, but no one knew why.

As a child, did you daydream a lot? If so, is that where your story ideas come from?
I daydreamed a great deal as a child. The stories I wrote as a child were wishful about the kind of child I'd like to be. I was slightly lame, and that does not make one popular with one's peers. When teams were chosen, I was always the last chosen - that's not good for one's self-esteem. But, I was an only child in New York City, so I had a lot of time to read, write, and draw.

How old were you when you decided to start writing?
As soon as I could hold a pen and write letters. I started early because we didn't have many books. The only way to get more books was to write them!

How did you know you wanted to become an author?
I lived in a house full of books. My parents read aloud to each other every night. I was allowed to look at any books I wanted. My favorite was The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. It had marvelous, glorious illustrations.

How did you get the idea for A Wrinkle in Time?
It was my discovery of particle physics and quantum mechanics. I'd always been very bad at arithmetic, but this was beyond arithmetic - this was exciting. In 1942, I started reading Einstein. I picked up a book about him - I don't quite know why. I started writing the book in 1961 and it won the Newbery Medal in 1963.

Would you like to travel through space and time like Meg does?
Of course! You might be interested to know that astronaut Janice Voss wrote me a letter saying that when kids write to her and ask her why she became an astronaut, she says it's because she loves A Wrinkle in Time. And then she wrote me another letter asking me if I would like her to bring a copy of the book into space with her. I said of course I would! (laughs) But I had to ask her why she wouldn't take me into space with her.

Is Meg anything like you were when you were a kid? Or is she anything like you wanted to be?
Who would've wanted to be like Meg? I made Meg good at math and bad at English, and I was good at English and bad at math. Otherwise, we were very much alike! Meg couldn't keep her hair nice and she was not a beauty. She was a difficult child. She is a lot like me!

You've created a web of recurring characters in you books. Why? Do they stand for anything?
Well, when I write about a character in one book, I don't want to lose that character - I want to write more about him. And why do they have to stand for something? I hope I stand for courage and honor and truth, but I'm just me. Meg and Canon Tallis are who they are - and just as we are not like anyone else, they are not like anyone else either.

Are tesseracts real?
Yes, it's a real concept. I came across it in a half-page article. There wasn't very much in the article, but I just took off from there. I didn't know much about it, but I thought it was interesting - the concept of extra dimensions that allows you to move in space and time. So I just worked it out, and what I wrote is actually pretty close to what's being studied. After the book was published, I met a Dr. Tom Banchoff in the math department at Brown University. His big thing is the tesseract, and he has a video that his students made for him of the tesseract. I've seen the video - the tesseract falls flat, and then it pulls out. It's fantastic-looking.

What is the fourth dimension like?
It's a lot less simple mathematically. I think dreams are another dimension, actually. I once dreamt that a shark was instructing me on something, and at the end of the dream, he ate me! He said to me, "Not being eaten was never part of the bargain!" I think there is a fourth dimension. I think there are a lot of dimensions we don't know about!

Are there really 11 dimensions?
Eleven is a number that's often mentioned in articles on physics, but I don't know why. Why 11 dimensions instead of 10 or 12? Who knows? It's just a guess!

Where did you learn so much about time travel and tesseracts? Did you study that kind of science in college?
I avoided science in school as much as possible. It was my discovery of particle physics, which was not being taught to grade school students. But I thought it was fascinating, and read it for myself . . . not for school. I found it fascinating that light is a particle and that it is also a straight line.

Why would no one publish A Wrinkle in Time at first?
I haven't the faintest idea. I thought it was the best thing I've ever written. One response I've had from bright adults was, "I love the Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great- grandmother. I do not understand A Wrinkle in Time. A Wrinkle in Time assumes we know how to use our imaginations. We know how to say, "Yes, but what if. . . ." We know that acting with love is very different than acting with anger. And I wouldn't say that is either harder or easier, it's just different.

Do you consider A Wrinkle in Time science fiction or fantasy?
It's a book. I don't like categorizing. There is a new term, "science fantasy." I suppose that comes fairly close.

What happens to Charles Wallace as a grownup?
I don't know yet! When I find out, I'll get it in a book. I don't know if he's going to be in the new Meg book. I have to learn a lot more about particle physics before I can figure out what happens to Charles Wallace.

Is Charles Wallace based on a real person?
I don't base my characters on real people because if I do I'm limited by what I know of that person. I like them to be who they are. The only real person would be Meg.

Do you think it's important for books to tell a lesson?
I don't think my books tell a lesson, but they do tell a story. We do live in a world where there is darkness and light, and the sooner kids know that, the better. They need to know that we have a choice, and we do have the option to choose good.

What types of books do you like to read?
I'm very eclectic. I like fiction. Right now I'm reading murder mysteries because I'm very tired, and they just ease along. I'm also reading a book of very brief biographies of scientists in the early world of physics, and what they did. I like to read a book for fun along with a book for instruction. I'm a reader - I read all the time. If there's nothing else to read, I'll try the phone book or the cereal box. And I can't go to bed without reading first. Once I was visiting a friend in northwest Canada, and the power went out. We had a terrible time getting to sleep because we couldn't read!

Why did you decide to be an actress?
Well, I had to earn my living - and with less naivetÈ than you might think, I thought I'd become an actress to support my writing. Hearing words was very good for me - you hear a lot of words in the theater. I revised a lot - not every word that drops from our pen is a priceless pearl. We can change, revise, deepen. The theater helped me with that. But I haven't worked in the theater for a long time now! Three children and dozens of animals later. . . .

Have you ever considered going back to the theater?
Yes, but there's just too much going on - my writing, speaking engagements, conferences, writers workshops, and traveling. If anyone came and offered me a job, I'd take it. I was married to an actor for 40 years, and I love the theater, but I've done it. Been there, done that!

How did you get the idea for "It?"
"It," the naked brain - it has no heart. It can only think. I recently read a book by a physician whose theory is that the heart does think. He was quoted in another book that there are new ideas about the relationship between the brain and the heart.

You said that the three W's were angels, but if they were angels why were they harsh at times?
Well, I suspect that if we do wrong things, angels will be harsh. They were certainly more loving than harsh.

How did you pick the name Fortinbras for the dog's name in A Wrinkle in Time?
Fortinbras is the prince who comes at the end of the play Hamlet. And many of my characters are named after people in plays. We had Oliver from Oliver Twist because Oliver was an orphan.

Has your fiction for children ever been compared with that of C. S. Lewis?
Yes, it has. I think that the main difference is that C. S. Lewis has more answers and I have more questions. I wasn't the right age to read him when he was being published. But my children grew up with him. I spent time this past summer at Oxford and Cambridge for a C. S. Lewis conference.

I have been reading your books since I was in fourth grade - the first one was A Wrinkle in Time - and have always been fascinated by the presence of God your writing reflects.
It's nothing I did on purpose. I live in a world I believe is started by God. So, His presence is always there.

Did you get the idea for Many Waters from the Book of Genesis? How did you come up with the strange world you created in that book?
Sure! No one pays any attention to two lines in the Bible from the Book of Genesis. "There were Nephilim in the world in those days, and they saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful, and they went unto them and married them." And I loved those lines, so I decided to write about them. I loved writing that book! And when I went to museums and saw suits of armor that were worn in those days, I saw that the men who wore them were tiny - and I figured the women and mammoths must be tinier! So I thought it would be fun to have mammoths that were tiny, since most people know them as being enormous. You can never tell where an idea will come from! And I expect things were pretty hot in those days - we hadn't yet cooled off as a planet. I try to make things tally with what we know as much as possible. So I made it very, very hot.

What was the hardest book to write?
They're all hard! I used to say to my kids, "If it's worth doing, it's not easy!" Every book gets written and rewritten. I love to revise. It's difficult and wonderful.

What kind of prewriting do you do to start a book?
I don't do any prewriting; I sit down and start the book. I have it all planned out from beginning to end, first thing - but it never does what I've planned! The characters are always surprising me and doing things I don't expect - they know themselves better than I know them - so I go along with it as much as possible. The twins, for example, are consistent with who they are in other books - but Many Waters is their adventure.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I would give the same advice to writers of any age - and that's keep an honest, unpublishable journal that you don't show to anyone. You dump things into it - it's your private garbage can. Also, you have to read to be a writer. You have to write every day - not necessarily in your journal. But you have to do it every day. It's like practicing a musical instrument - you have to practice and stick with it. I love every bit of it. I love getting the ideas, and I live with the ideas for a long time before I write them - I may write two or three other books while thinking about an idea. And I love sitting down to work at the computer and just starting.

Does all the research you have to do for a book sometimes discourage you?
No. The research doesn't discourage me. It's something I do because I love doing it. I learn a lot. And sometimes I learn surprising things I didn't expect to learn. For example, when I was working on A Wind in the Door, I was having a hard time. A close friend gave me an article from the New England Journal of Medicine on mitochondria. I had never heard of mitochondria. And yet, that's where my book wanted to go. So, I said to myself I will have to study cellular biology. I went up to Columbia University and learned as much as I could from a textbook.

What is the most interesting fact you have learned from your research?
I learned that mitochondria provide the energy that makes us able to do things. Without mitochondria, we'd have no energy.

How do you come up with such creative titles for your books? Do you come up with them before or after you write your books?
Before, after, during, and I don't think of them all myself. My mother titled A Wrinkle in Time. I was calling it Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, which the publishers didn't like. The publishers were calling it The Worlds of Charles Wallace, which I didn't like. My mother was visiting us and one morning I took her for a cup of coffee. She said to me, "I think I found a title right out of your own text - A Wrinkle in Time. How do you come up with the names for your characters? Do they have any special significance?
Each character has its own name. Sometimes I know what the significance is and sometimes I don't. For instance, Charles is the name of my father and Wallace is my father-in-law. When I was writing Dragons in the Waters, I was calling my protagonist "Ben," and he wasn't coming to life. Suddenly in the middle of the night, I heard a little voice say, "My name is NOT Ben, it's Simon after Simon Bolivar." Once I knew his name, the book worked!

What are the two or three most important things you do to create characters that are truly memorable and authentic?
I try to listen to the characters. They tell me everything I need to know, but I must listen. Listen to the story, write, and not worry about grammar and perfection at first. That comes later. Listen to stories and hear them. It doesn't matter if you spell things wrong when you start writing. You can look them up later.

How many times on average have you had to edit a book to get it accepted?
The more I write, the more I revise. But since A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery, I've not had to fight to get my books accepted.

What is your favorite part of being a writer?
Being able to earn my living writing stories, which is what I love the most. I love the response I get in the mail from people who love my stories. I get about 100 letters a day and I do answer all of them.

Where can students write to you?
175 Ninth Avenue, V Cathedral, New York, NY 10025

As an author, do you travel a lot?
Well, I travel a lot, but not necessarily as an author. As a child, I traveled because my father's work took him all over the world. I've been to all continents and all 50 states. As an adult, I travel to speak at schools, universities, and conferences. So, I do travel a lot, and I love it!

I hear that you use the library at St. John the Divine in New York City a lot. How does that help you in your writing?
Well, that library is where I sit and write. I knew there was this beautiful, unused library there. And I was always writing at home, with my actor husband wandering in and out. So I asked if I could use it, and they said yes. Then one day, the librarian went to jury duty and never came back! So I just took it over. People come in and ask to borrow books, and they can do that. It's a beautiful room and a beautiful place of trees and flowers.

Do you think Earth will end up like Camazotz some day?
Well, most people are both good and evil at once. It's an oversimplification to make people all good or all bad. Here we get into free will and choice. We have the freedom to say no as well as the freedom to say yes. Somebody offers me a psychedelic drug, and I say, what will it do for me? And they say, instant meditation. But I'd rather meditate the ordinary way, thank you. So I am making a choice. When I got out of college, there was a bookstore near me that had a bin of books that sold for 19 cents. And I was fascinated by the books in that bin, but I had to choose between books and cigarettes. And you guess which I chose - and now I'm very glad I did choose books, because in those days we didn't know how bad cigarettes are for you! It's like a candy bar - if you eat it, it's gone. But with a book, you can read it over and over again, year after year.

Have you ever visited an abandoned subway station like the one in The Young Unicorns?
There's one on the IRT in New York (the subway that runs uptown-downtown on Manhattan's west side) - if you're going downtown from 110th Street. If you get in the front car, you can see it as you go through 90th Street. But I've never been in it. In The Young Unicorns, I moved it farther uptown. I had to see what it was like - the walls are mosaic, but it's off the regular routes and it's not being used anymore. So I moved it - that's what you can do as a writer!

Why do you like to write mysterious books?
They're fun! If a book isn't interesting, you don't bother to read it. And, if it isn't interesting, you don't bother to write it.

Do you know the ending of a story before you begin writing a book?
Oh, I know exactly how it will end, and it never ends that way. It always surprises me. Characters say things I don't expect them to say and that changes the plot. That's part of the fun of writing - listening and having things happen you don't expect.

If you had to choose between writing for children and writing for adults, which would you pick?
I don't see any difference. I write exactly the same - the best I can. If a book is going to be marketed toward children, the main character is usually a child. But the writing is the same. Some people think that writing for children is easier, but it isn't. In some ways it's harder - children are very complex. And you have to be absolutely faithful to them - you can't cheat.

How did you get the idea for Mrs. Who to speak in quotes?
I don't really know. I do have an English book of classical quotations. It's being on my desk gave me the idea. I used it!

What tips can you give to young science fiction writers?
That's categorizing! My main tip is that if you want to be a writer of any kind, you have to write a little bit every day. You have to read a lot. And, if you want to write science fiction, read the best science fiction that's been published.

Is anyone else in your family a writer?
My father was a journalist, which is a different kind of writer. My father was a foreign correspondent. He looked at what was going on in the world and predicted what would happen. When you see nations quarreling, lining up against each other, you know it's not good. We have a lot of that going on right now.

Do you have any upcoming books that will be published soon?
I have a book on friends praying together that I'm writing with a friend who is a poet. I'm also working on a novel about the grownup Meg.

Did you always want to be a writer when you were growing up?
Yes. I always loved writing.

What would you like to do if you weren't a writer?
Well, I'd love to play the piano. I love music, and I do play piano. And I used to be an actress. The only thing in the arts I've never wanted to do is a be a ballet dancer, because I am very clumsy! Before I had children I used to paint.

Do you base your books on any of your dreams?
I very seldom do! I have lots and lots of dreams, and I've only based stories on dreams twice over all the years I've been writing. Dreams are really another language. I don't know any other writers who write based on their dreams - unless you're writing a dream journal. If my dreams are interesting, I write them down in my journal. But they have to be interesting, otherwise I'd never have a chance to write about anything else!

What do you like best about Einstein?
The thing that awakened me to Einstein was that he said that anyone who is not lost in rapture and awe at the mind of the Maker was just about as good as a burnt-out candle. And that impressed me. I think too many people go around not seeing anything, and that's wrong. We need to keep our eyes open! In New York, you walk up and down the streets and see as many different characters as could exist in all the novels that could be written.

When you first started writing, did you have any doubts about whether you could do it?
No. I always knew that was what I was supposed to do. I knew it meant I had to work. Everyone has doubts, but your faith that you can do it are stronger than your doubts.

Tell us about one of your favorite teachers. How did he or she influence you?
Oddly enough it was my arithmetic teacher in sixth or seventh grade. The reason she was terrific was because she expected me to do more than I could do. And because she expected it, I did it. She believed in me!

Did anybody ever discourage your writing as a child? If so, why?
All of my middle-grade teachers thought I was stupid. They thought I couldn't do it. So, I didn't do much in middle school. If I did my homework, they put it down. They criticized and made me feel bad. So, I didn't do well. Later on, in high school and college, I had wonderful teachers. They encouraged me.

Did you have any role models growing up?
Most of my role models would've been fictional. I don't think I thought about living role models until I was in high school. Then it was the great artists of various disciplines - like Einstein. People who had a dream and then did it. Those were my role models.

Do you like Shakespeare?
Yes, when he was an actor and didn't think much about himself as a writer. He had such wonderful ideas, and he made up words! And those words have come into our vocabulary! And he had fun! We don't have as much fun as he did, and our fun is not the right kind of fun. Like playing charades after dinner - that's good fun. Another fun thing is to tell circular stories - you stop and the next person has to pick it up.

Do you feel that you are transported into a story as you write and that you are just recording the events?
I'm transported to the story, but I don't just record the events - I have some control over what happens. I can put the character in a situation, and have two characters meet, so I'm not just recording - I'm collaborating with them.

Why did you dedicate A Wrinkle in Time to Charles Wadsworth Camp and Wallace Collin Franklin?
They were my father and father-in-law, respectively, and they were both wonderful men - that's why I dedicated the book to them.

Do you have control over the illustrations on the covers of your books?
No, unfortunately, a writer doesn't have control over the cover illustrations. Some of my book covers have been better than others. They haven't been bad for A Wrinkle in Time - the new ones are very nice. I just received the new one for Meet the Austins, and I had to call the publisher and ask if they'd sent me the cover for someone else's books! There's a whole set of cover illustrations for the Time Trilogy that have eggs - graphically they're quite interesting, but I have no idea what the eggs are about.

Do you have a favorite part in A Wrinkle in Time?
Do I have to have a favorite part? I don't. Maybe when the three Mrs. Ws turn into those strange, great winged beasts, and the kids ride them.

Do you believe that there is life in outer space?
Sure. We've discovered that there are billions more galaxies than we thought - not just solar systems, GALAXIES. And to think that we're the only one with life on it would be mathematically irrational.

Do you think children today watch too much TV?
I think their parents watch too much TV. I think everyone watches too much TV except people like me who never turn it on. TV is not as good as it could or should be. I shouldn't put it down, though, my husband was a TV actor!

Do you think that television has too much violence?
I think the world has too much violence and TV reflects and encourages it. When my kids were little, my daughters resented that I let my son watch the farm program Saturday mornings. The girls thought I was being mean - they wanted to watch cartoons. But I felt cartoons were too violent. There's a quote, "There is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence does not redeem." I think this is totally accurate.

What kind of music do you listen to, and does it help you write?
I listen to mostly baroque music, preferably Bach, but also Scarlatti and Beethoven. And sometimes I just turn on my classical music station and listen to whatever it's playing. I don't know if it helps me write. It's just background. And if you live in New York City like I do, it covers up the unpleasant background noise like sirens, horns, and brakes.

What do you think a 2-D planet would look like?
A 2-D planet would be flat. There is a famous book called Flatland that describes what a flat world would be like. We couldn't get along in it because were used to a 3-D and even 4-D world. I'm glad we live in a multi-dimensional world.

Who would you name as the light bearers of our generation?
Mother Theresa, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Day.

What award do you treasure most?
Awards are wonderful, but they're not why you write. They are affirmations that what you write is reaching people.

Do you have any mystery-writing tips?
You've got to make people want to turn the page to find out what happens next and who did it. You need a good plot. And, a sense of good versus evil.

Do you think the Internet will affect how or what children read?
It probably will, but since I'm not that familiar with the Internet, I can't answer that one. I think one of the dangers of the Internet is that you can have acquaintances with people you never see.

When you write your books, do you ever think one of your stories will come true?
I don't think about it consciously, but it often happens. I start with truth because I write about places I've been to and people I know. Not literally, but ideas come from real people and places. I could write a story about a child growing up on a farm, since I've done that. But, I couldn't write about a child growing up in the slums of Bombay, since I did not experience that. You have to stay within your frame of reference.

What do you do to get past a writer's block?
I walk the dog. I go for a swim. I play the piano. These things break the block that comes between the intellect and the intuition. When intellect takes over, you stop using imagination.

Madeleine, do you have any final words for the audience?
Read. Read for fun!

  • Subjects:
    Research Skills, Writing Process
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