An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Madeleine L’Engle and a Wrinkle in Time.

Oct 25, 2018 by

 1. Professor Elder, there will always be debate and discussion about who the most famous women writers in the U.S. were and are, but perhaps we can agree that Madeleine L’Engle was one of America’s most famous women writers for children literature. What do we know about her early childhood?

Madeleine L’Engle Camp was born in New York City on November 29, 1918. She had two very accomplished parents: her father had gained acclaim as a writer, while her mother excelled at the piano. Because of her parents’ affluence, Madeleine began her education at a private school in New York City. Immediately drawn to fiction, at the age of five Madeleine wrote her first story. Unfortunately, this is did not impress her teachers, and she soon developed a reputation at that school as a low achiever. Her parents then took her out of that school, and began to use private tutors to further her education.

In an effort to help heal lung damage that her father had suffered during the First World War, the Camp family moved to the French Alps, and Madeleine began attending a boarding school in Switzerland. When her maternal grandmother fell into ill health in 1933, the family moved to Florida to be near her.

For high school, her parents sent Madeleine to Ashley Hall, a boarding school in Charleston, South Carolina. Upon her graduation, she attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Graduating cum laude in 1941, she moved to New York City, and embarked on a career as a writer.

2. After achieving some success, what did she turn her efforts to?

Initially, her literary efforts met with great favor. In 1945, Vanguard Press published her novel The Small Rain, and a year later that published her novel Ilsa. That same year, she married an actor named Hugh Franklin. When she had moved to New York City after graduating from college, she had taken up an acting career, and had met Franklin while performing in the play The Cherry Orchard. Upon her marriage, Madeleine gave up her stage career, concentrating instead on her writing and raising a family.

3. Like many writers, she experienced many rejections. Any insights into how she handled these?

After having two novels published in quick succession, Madeleine then went three years before her next book (And Both Were Young) appeared in print. Two years later, Simon & Schuster published her novel Camilla Dickinson. Over the next seven years, Madeleine found no publishers for the books she wrote. Discouraged, she decided in 1958 at the age of forty to give up writing altogether. Soon, however, she found herself still creating works of fiction in her head. Having a moment of inspiration during an extended family trip in 1959, she began to write a novel that she titled A Wrinkle in Time.

Thirty publishers rejected her manuscript, but finally Farrar, Straus, & Giroux accepted it. Published in 1962, it became an instant children’s classic. She thus stands as an example to all writers of a person who believed in the value of her work regardless of what publishers initially thought of it.

4. Apparently she kept busy during her life teaching, writing, and engaging in a multitude of things. What were some of her activities?

To help her husband resume his acting career, Madeleine had agreed to move back to New York City in 1960, and at that time she began to teach at a private school located there. She left the faculty in 1966, but came back for one-year appointments during the 1980s. An Episcopalian, she became an unpaid librarian for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And throughout the rest of her life, she continued to write fiction of all types.

5. Sorrow and despair seemed to follow this poor woman during her life: can you make a few comments?

As previously noted, Madeleine’s first teachers did not recognize the writing gift that she possessed. Stung by their criticisms, she became withdrawn. While attending Ashley Hall in 1936, her father suffered a serious health setback, and he died before Madeleine could return from school to see him one last time. During the 1980s, her husband received a diagnosis of cancer, and he succumbed to that malady in 1986. Finally, in 1999 her only son died from the long-term effects of alcohol abuse. She therefore did indeed have a number of personal tragedies to deal with throughout her life.

6. Sadly, she suffered some medical problems and left us all too soon. What was the end of her life like?

After leading a productive life, Madeleine began to suffer from osteoporosis in the 1990s. Her condition became progressively worse, and while Madeleine continued to write, she began to scale back on her activities. A cerebral hemorrhage in 2002 caused her to give up almost all of her speaking duties. After that setback, she went to live in an assisted living facility in Connecticut. She passed away there in September of 2007.

7. What have I neglected to ask?

After she received the Newberry Medal in 1963 for A Wrinkle in Time, an interviewer asked her what insight she could offer about writing children’s literature. Madeleine suggested that an author had to have “an intuitive understanding of his [or her] own childhood.” Many observers have interpreted this to mean that authors should make their books “childlike,” rather than “childish.” This seems like excellent advice for anyone who aspires to become an author of works designed to be read by younger audiences.

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