There is such a thing as a tesseract.

By Alex

I know, I’m late to this memorial, and stalling, because I already know anything I say today will be inadequate. I lost two great writer/teachers this month and I’m wrung out. But this belongs on Murderati.

From Publishers Weekly, 9/7/2007

Madeleine L’Engle

Children’s book author Madeleine L’Engle died on Thursday, September 6, in Litchfield, Conn. She was 88.

Over the course of six decades, L’Engle authored over 60 books for adults and children, which often melded elements of science, religion and fantasy and have been treasured by generations of readers.

L’Engle published several novels before her best-known work, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the 1963 Newbery Award. But it was that book and its sequels about the Murry family that earned her widespread acclaim, along with another series that began with her 1960 book, Meet the Austins. Holtzbrinck’s Square Fish imprint reissued two new editions of the Time Quintet, A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters and An Acceptable Time this past spring. A forthcoming young adult book from L’Engle, The Joys of Love, is scheduled for spring 2008 publication, from L’Engle’s longtime publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

L’Engle was born on November 29, 1918 in New York City. She attended Smith College, and went on to marry actor Hugh Franklin. She volunteered as a librarian and served as a writer-in-residence for many years at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Along with her husband, she founded the Crosswicks Foundation, Ltd., which has given money to community and arts organizations in New York and Connecticut for over 20 years. She is survived by two daughters, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

When people ask me why I write what I do, or even just why I write, instead of rambling on I could just as well just say A WRINKLE IN TIME. A surreal number of my female author and screenwriter friends, and a good number of the men as well, have said the same thing to me over the years. I could win a fair amount of money if someone would pay me a dollar to guess every regular Rati reader and writer who would make the same claim – in fact, I suspect just about every woman genre writer who came of age pre-Harry Potter. Meg Murry wasn’t just our Hermione – she was our Harry Potter. She is every smart girl who ever lived.

I’ve read just about everything L’Engle ever wrote. Once in a while I realize I’ve missed something and it’s always a huge treat to add that book to my shelf. She was a huge part of my extremely random spiritual education… I was raised with both no religion and a smattering of a large number of religions, but once I was in college and away from any friends who would drag me along to church or temple when I spent the night, I developed my own ritual. When I was down, or lost, I would find myself heading to a bookstore on Telegraph Ave. called Logos. It took me about two years to realize it was a Christian bookshop – it was pure Berkeley. It had crystals in the windows and rainbows on the walls and was just – light. And peace. And it had every Madeleine L’Engle book yet published, all in the same section, and I’d go and stay and read there until I felt better and then I’d buy the book to take with me and go on, comforted.

But her equally profound influence on me (it’s inseparable, really) was as a genre writer. I always gravitated toward the spooky, the thrilling, the fantastical, the twisted, in my reading. I discovered A WRINKLE IN TIME when I was in sixth grade and something in my mind said – “THIS is what a book is supposed to be, do, feel like.” I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything ever since (except, um, HAMLET) that feels as perfect in every way – character, theme, structure, dialogue, action, spectacle, catharsis – every single layer and detail.

I’ve read it hundreds and hundreds of times and I learn something new about how to tell a story every single pass. And not just about the how of it, but the WHY as well. It makes no sense on the surface to write as dark as I do and say that I aspire to the spirituality of that book, but it’s true.

As L’Engle said:

“Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

I am grateful for every word L’Engle ever wrote. There are other books of hers that shaped me as a writer, an author, a genre writer. She wrote thrillers – ARM OF THE STARFISH is a wonderful YA spy thriller, again with a profound spiritual dimension, and even her dramas have such an thriller edge – I’m thinking specifically of A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT – that I’d almost call them cross-genre. She put urgency and cosmic stakes into everything she ever put on paper.

But A WRINKLE IN TIME is a masterwork… and I guess it’s always in the back of my mind, the question – will I ever be open enough, focused enough, skilled enough, mature enough… enough anything – to write something that is everything I could write, in a perfect world?

I don’t know. But at least I have a light to guide me on that path.

To make up for everything I would like to say and haven’t, here is a constantly updating roundup of the coverage on L’Engle.

I hope others here will share L’Engle stories, and maybe thoughts on other authors’ masterworks.

In eternal gratitude.

20 thoughts on “There is such a thing as a tesseract.

  1. billie

    Alex, someone here in my house is almost always reading Madeleine L’Engle’s books. I haven’t begun to read all of them, but among my favorite is her book A Circle of Quiet, which was instrumental in my starting to write seriously the same year I had my second child. I think if I hadn’t read that book right at that time in my life I might have spontaneously combusted.

    I have the first chapter of a YA novel that in my mind at least aims to capture some of the mystery and magic and spirituality of L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. I don’t know yet if I can do it – it’s percolating in some deep place right now.

    Thank you for creating this memorial. You’re absolutely right – it belongs here.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, you used a word that I left out but that absolutely belongs here. Magic. In fact if I concentrated everything I was trying to say above into one word, that would be it.

    From all I know and have read of you, I believe absolutely that you have that in you. And actually, I have it in me, too. I hope we both find some channel to make it happen. Or really I mean – LET it happen.

    Reply
  3. billie

    Thank you, Alex. That means a lot. Often with writing I feel like all I need to do is center myself and then open the passageway – and the amazing stuff comes through. Easier said than done, but I agree – it’s allowing rather than making.

    I was just thinking how fitting that she died at the age of 88. Which I see as double infinity. And if you add it and add again, you end up with 7, which is such a mystical number.

    Reply
  4. Naomi

    You know that I spent some brief moments with Madeleine L’Engle at a writers meeting a decade ago? A majestic and uncompromising woman, she hated labels like “Christian writer” (she just preferred writer). I’m glad that your hippie dippie Christian bookstore on Telegraph carried her books because ironically the more traditional CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) ones don’t because her books fail to fall in their narrow criteria.

    I’m leading a writing workshop for a church women’s group tomorrow and I had decided to start off with a few verses from her poetry collection, THE WEATHER OF THE HEART.

    For me, as a high school student, I became enamored with Doris Lessing. I fell in love with SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK; it, in fact, could have influenced my debut mystery title. Don’t ask me why the teenager me resonated so much with a story of a fortysomething British woman with grown children on the path of self-discovery. That’s the magic of books and reading. Strangers with seemingly nothing in common discover that they do have something in common.

    Reply
  5. Lisa

    Alex — The night her death was announced on the internet I sent a text message to one of my closest friends telling her — she called me back from a party and talked to me as if my favorite aunt had just died. I think Madeline L’Engle — and I’m the child of two professional writers — taught me that I could be a writer when I grew up. She was magic. I remember reading somewhere that she hoped, after she died, that she could talk to Shakespeare and play a duet with Bach. Hope she is.Thanks so much for the post.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    X, I’m a graduate of the A WRINKLE IN TIME school as well. Thanks for a fine tribute here to a wonderful woman and writer.

    Reply
  7. norby

    I spent most of my childhood fighting with my mother about something or other. We just didn’t get along. The one thing we had in common though, was that we both loved A Wrinkle in Time.

    I swiped my mother’s copy of that book, it’s sitting on my bookshelf right now. I don’t how many times I’ve read it, or how many more times I’ll read it. All I know is that Meg Murry was someone that I identified with. The kid who didn’t fit in, who felt awkward everywhere she went, and just wanted to be strong.

    The first thing I did when I read that Madeleine L’Engle died was call my mom.

    Reply
  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Naomi, it simply never occurred to me that L’Engle could even be called a “Christian writer” until, well, until I realized that my bookstore was a Christian bookstore. I am very envious that you met her!

    SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK goes on my reading list, thanks!

    Lisa, thanks for that anecdote. I am absolutely certain that Ms. L’Engle is in perfect communion with Will and JS, as we speak. I love the thought.

    Reply
  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise, as if you had to tell me! We wear it like a tattoo.

    (Interesting thought, actually – what would a A WRINKLE IN TIME tattoo look like?)

    Norby, thanks, I was really moved by your story. Mothers and daughters, yike… the depths, there. It’s… well, harrowing. But there is a shining and true power of the feminine about L’Engle’s work that DOES cut through all that.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, look, EE – on the days that I was not at the “hippie dippie” Christian bookstore, I was at the incomparable and tragically closed original Cody’s Books, a block away. Buying the complete works of Ayn Rand, and having oh-so-Berkeley clerks telling me reproachfully as they rang me up, “Shame on you.”

    This is complete and total blasphemy, but those two authors are inseparable, to me.

    So when do we get the latest dirt – I mean report – from you? Please post a link here!!!!

    Reply
  11. Tom

    This will sound odd, but it’s what happened.

    I read WRINKLE when I was 8 or 9. It stayed with me, to be sure.

    A couple years ago after one of those sudden corporate layoffs where they dump all the pro communicators, I was interviewing for a new gig with a big mortgage company. The veep talking to me (she looked a whole lot like Twist) asked about what book had most influenced me in my life.

    The correct answer, Elaine and X, might have been ATLAS SHRUGGED. But I was honest, and said, “Wrinkle.” Family, courage, determination, etc.

    Saw something change in the veep’s eyes, and I knew I wasn’t getting the gig.

    Turned out for the best. SEC and several other gummint agencies had a field day examining their books – which were much more fictitious than one would have hoped.

    The world has less joy in it without L’Engle.

    Reply
  12. Rae

    Such a lovely post, Alex, thanks. I particularly like the title: There is such a thing as a tesseract. Great writing makes us believe, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  13. pari

    Thank you for this, Alex. (Actually, I mention L’Engle in my post for Monday, too.)

    I didn’t discover her writing until I was in college, but her influence was just as great. I found absolutely everything I could by her and went through my first-ever reading frenzy — stayed up late, skipped classes, forgot to eat.

    At three a.m. one morning, when I’d closed the cover of the very last book, I wrote her a heartfelt note telling her how she’d inspired me so tremendously I’d never be the same again.

    I sent the letter to her publisher. She was the first writer I’d ever written to.

    Six months later, I got a beautiful reply that spoke about the joy of life and capturing it in one’s writing.

    What a treasure she was. How lucky we all are for having her work still in this world.

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hah, more true believers! I knew it!

    Tom, that’s funny. Rand – L’Engle. Rand – L’Engle. That may be the point/counterpoint of my whole life.

    In fact, Rae, I was thinking maybe the answer to my “What would a tattoo of A WRINKLE IN TIME” be? – would be that little drawing of Mrs. Who’s skirt with the ant crawling across it.

    Pari, you did what I should have done. Looking forward to Monday’s post.

    Reply
  15. Elaine Flinn

    So you’re an Ayn Rand & Lessing fan too? I KNEW there was much about you I loved!! 🙂

    The dirt? What? Oh..that. 🙂 Well, if you insist. “Evil E’s Scoop”- originally intended for the ITW Subscriber list – has moved. The first installment is this coming Monday – and you can get the scoop at: http:/www.evil-e.org

    So come on by! And thanks, Alex – for the plug. It’ll cost you. You know that. Maybe another interview? Muhahahaha.

    xoxoEvil

    Reply
  16. Christa Miller

    Oh, Alex, great memorial! Thank you so much!

    And Billie, I could have written your words: “I haven’t begun to read all of them, but among my favorite is her book A Circle of Quiet, which was instrumental in my starting to write seriously the same year I had my second child. I think if I hadn’t read that book right at that time in my life I might have spontaneously combusted.”

    A friend sent it and the other Crosswicks Journals as a wedding gift. I reread them and the rest of my collection while I nursed my firstborn. That was when I started to take my novel seriously, too. And I was flabbergasted at how much these books had influenced my spiritual faith, which I never realized before.

    Just recently, I sent the Crosswicks Journals to my best friend, who is thinking about what to do with her life now that her children are not as needy. She’s always wanted to write. I hope they inspire her as they did me.

    Reply

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