- Conversations with Madeleine L'Engle ed. by Jackie C. Horne
A welcome addition to the Literary Conversations Series under the general editorship of Monika Gehlawat, children's literature historian Jackie Horne's collection of print and radio interviews with Madeleine L'Engle spans from 1967—four years after she won the Newbery medal for A Wrinkle in Time—to 2006, within a year of L'Engle's death at the age of eighty-eight. Horne's media sources for the thirteen, chronologically ordered interviews vary widely, from journals like Children's Literature in Education, to recordings from an oral history course at Columbia University, to the Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation; from the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute on the Christian and the Imagination, to Leonard S. Marcus's The Wand and the Word (2006).
Horne's fifteen-page introduction gives a sound overview of L'Engle's career (including how children's librarians championed Wrinkle, often in spite of fierce opposition). Here, Horne also accounts for L'Engle's many roles (mother, public speaker, church worker, children's author, memoirist, essayist), and the author's widespread influence. Horne acknowledges inconsistencies in the author's autobiographical storytelling in the interviews. For example, L'Engle's report of how many publishers at first rejected A Wrinkle in Time varies. At one point L'Engle claimed to have been around a lot of books growing up, at another she did not, which motivated her to write her own. Most of all, Horne introduces L'Engle as complex, evolving as an author and as a deeply spiritual person.
Moreover, as Horne observes, the interviews document a keen mind observing the times in which she found herself: L'Engle's well-informed fear of nuclear warfare, concern for the planet, apprehension about DNA experimentation, mistrust of plastic, and research on dolphins all contribute to our understanding her and her writings within an eco-critical framework: "Another word for consumers is devourers," she said as early as 1976 (67). L'Engle stated this in a remark about advertising and Madison Avenue's detrimental influence especially on women, urging them to be superwomen who "never [have] underarm odor" and whose kitchens are always tidy. Rather than buy into this "false image," she believed we must "nourish each other out of our own humanness, which means accepting are own failures, ourselves as we are" (67). In this sort of comment we see how her sense of community with the people in her life, her larger ideas and observations about her species (and the planet), and her own brand of theology inform one another. That [End Page 110] she also believed in unicorns speaks to what made her remarkable—and an author. No wonder this woman could imagine the process of tessering across time and space with such conviction.
Not surprisingly, given the significant role of (largely Christian) spirituality that we encounter in L'Engle's entire literary oeuvre, it is her abiding spirituality that comes through most forcefully in the interviews about her writing over. The three major themes that Jackie Horne introduces, which are woven through the book are, therefore, the author's creative process (about which, naturally, she was most often asked); her sense of the mystical or the spiritual (which for her was also concomitant, never at odds, with science), and her relationship with family. The interviews testify to how deeply intertwined rather than discrete these aspects of L'Engle's life were.
L'Engle's writing process was open-ended just as her spirituality was open-minded; she respected her characters as being something apart from her, and followed where they led her. Unlike Nabokov's famous reference to his characters as "galley slaves," for instance, L'Engle was constantly surprised—not only by what the people in her novels did, but also how they appeared or reappeared in her large body of work. This openness is reflected too in that she repeatedly told interviewers she did not write fiction for children or for adults, for Christians or (specifically) non-Christians, or even "for an audience...