If you’ve poked around here, you know I like to write fan letters to authors. I’ve never written a note to one who has passed. But who knows? Maybe Madeleine’s listening. She was always listening.
Dear Madeleine L’Engle,
I never knew you, but I miss you. You’ve saved my skin more than once.
There was the chilly Connecticut afternoon my mom picked me up from school and took me to hear you speak at the local library. I was just a kid—you’d never say “just a kid”—and I’d never before been in a room with an author, not to mention one I’d read and admired. I decided on the spot that the whole funny business of thinking and writing and talking about ideas was for me.
The Newberry Award-winning A Wrinkle in Time chronicled the adventures of the Murry family, but I was always an Austin family girl. I grew up alongside that great, warm bunch and saw the pain and beauty of coming of age through Vicky’s eyes. I’m rereading the series now.
I take heart when I think of your long battle to get A Wrinkle in Time published. Twenty-six houses turned it down. I don’t claim to have a gem like yours on my hands, but I’m battling, too—I know you would understand. You’d been published before, but Is this a kids’ book or an adult book? muckety mucks in Manhattan, so in love with labels, wanted to know. Turns out Wrinkle was both, and it showed Them all when it sold gillions of copies.
Here’s what you said, and we’ll never forget it: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
And this, too: Before I grasped what the word introvert really meant, I read your Circle of Quiet, and you showed me a way. Permission was granted: I started go at my own pace, to breathe a little easier. You said yes to people with all your heart, but you needed your escapes to the brook. I don’t have a brook, but I manage with a hammock and the bathtub and solitary walks and a chair in the corner of my bedroom.
I revisit sections of Circle at least once each year.
As I approached middle age, I wondered why churchy church was starting to rattle me and why it seemed we’d tossed over mystery for an exaggerated (and sometimes smug) sense of certainty. Then I read “Bright Morning Star” and I knew I wasn’t alone.
When I started to write in earnest, I was surprised by the zen of the process. I threatened to squash it with structure and the cerebral, with outlines. The joy and the wonderful fear of not knowing what’s coming next would have, perhaps, flown, had someone not given me a small blue copy of Walking on Water.
The other day, you sent me another reminder. I’ve been flailing about with a young adult novel (oh those pesky labels, again) for a couple years now—too long. (I banged out my first book in six weeks, my second in a few months. You were crazy prolific, so you must have learned not to overly agonize.) I’ve been fretting that my third story is too quiet. (My stories are always “too quiet,” so say the encouraging but ultimately spirit-crushing rejection notes.)
And then I stuck Camilla Dickinson in my suitcase for a trip last week. All these years, I’ve remembered Camilla’s silvery green dress and her fancy dinner date with her father. But I needed to be prompted about the gorgeousness of a book in which what’s at stake is a girl’s soul. There’s no doubt, sensitive Camilla is going to come of age—we all have to—but hanging in the balance is how. Will she choose numbing every emotion like her father or being alive like Frank? Will she be fragile like her mother or strong? Will fear run her over and will she learn to reach for the nearest source of security, or will she accept change and uncertainty as part of the messy affair called life?
All this and more is wrestled with over New York (the city is one of the book’s beloved characters) walks and talks, over dinners in diners and drugstores, in apartment living rooms and inside Camilla’s own head. Every moment of grappling is, to me, more impactful than all the book world’s vampire battles and dystopian sagas.
Through it all, the novel’s dysfunctional parents and the manipulative best friend, it’s clear you loved the entire motley crew (well, maybe not Jacques). To love is to create, you’ve said. You gave your characters free will and let their flaws reap their havoc, but you loved them.
Would Camilla, elegantly written and published in 1951, be published today? Where would an introspective tale, sprinkled generously with adverbs, of a 15-year-old princess facing grownup problems like alcoholism and adultery and suicide and disability fit? Who, They would demand to know, is this book for, teens or adults?
The answer, of course, is both.