“Listening for Madeleine”: An Interview with Leonard S. Marcus about L’Engle
Madeleine L'Engle is perhaps best recognized as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, the enduring milestone work of fantasy fiction that won the 1963 John Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature and has enthralled millions of readers for the past fifty years. But to those who knew her well, L'Engle was much more besides: a larger-than-life persona, an inspiring mentor, a strong-willed matriarch, a spiritual guide, and a rare friend. In Listening for Madeleine, the renowned biographer Leonard S. Marcus reveals Madeleine L'Engle in all her complexity, through a series of incisive interviews with the people who knew her most intimately. Vivid reminiscences of family members, colleagues, and friends create a kaleidoscope of keen insights and snapshot moments that help readers to understand the many sides of this singularly fascinating woman.
Omnivoracious recently interviewed Marcus about L’Engle and the book. We think fans of this iconic writer will be fascinated by his answers…Amazon.com: What were some of the surprises in compiling this book?
Leonard S. Marcus: Going in, I knew about the Madeleine L’Engle who was a gallant public presence: the eloquent, funny, fluid conference speaker; the Buddha-like wise woman to whom young people in particular turned for spiritual guidance; the fearless champion of First Amendment rights. But before her friends and family spoke about it with me, I had not guessed the extent to which she was also a shy in some ways deeply needy person. It was only then that I realized what a pivotal experience L’Engle’s time as an actress must have been for her. Acting gave her the emotional equipment with which to reach beyond her misunderstood, neglected Meg-like childhood self, and to re-imagine herself as someone bigger, stronger, and less afraid. Acting—and her talent for storytelling—were the tools with which she reinvented herself as a loved and loving person capable of writing her books and connecting with everyone.
For most of her life, L’Engle did seem to know everybody. She met Betty Freidan, for instance, as a schoolmate at Smith College. Both went on to play major roles in redefining women’s roles in the workplace and home—but in distinctly different ways. (L’Engle abhorred movements and labels and refused to call herself a feminist.) Years later, when the director of the Authors Guild, bogged down in a Capitol Hill lobbying effort, needed to speak with the White House ophthalmologist in a hurry, L’Engle knew him, too.
Amazon.com: Did your own perception of L’Engle change as a result?
Leonard S. Marcus: I was touched to realize the extreme effort required of her to be the Madeleine L’Engle everyone knew.
Amazon.com: You decided to organize the book to present views of L’Engle as a writer, friend, icon, etc. How did you come to that decision, and were there other approaches you discarded?
Leonard S. Marcus: At first, I thought of editing the book like a documentary film, with a lot of crosscutting to juxtapose one person’s view of a particular topic with that of others. This could have worked but would have been much more challenging—and possibly frustrating—for the reader, too much like the chore of keeping track of who’s who in a Russian novel. So, I opted for simplicity. The “categories” in which I grouped the interviews presented themselves almost immediately as markers for the areas of her life that clearly mattered the most to her. I would have liked to have had a separate section devoted to the theater people in her life but sadly not enough of them were still alive or well enough to speak from memory.
Amazon.com: In compiling the interviews for publication, how did you decide on whether similarities created mere repetition as opposed to resonance?
Leonard S. Marcus: You are right to ask that question. It was a constant concern. By way of illustrating my approach: everyone who knew him at all wanted to talk about L’Engle’s close friend and spiritual adviser Canon Edward West, the man in charge of ritual observance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where L’Engle was the librarian and had the office next to his. In reality, her position at the Cathedral was closer to that of “writer in residence”—there’s no evidence that the Dewey Decimal System interested her! Canon West was a colorful, larger-than-life character who dressed in nineteenth-century cassock and swirling capes and spoke with a vaguely British stage accent. He was an easy person to caricature. Yet he clearly had a huge impact on L’Engle and it felt essential to find out why. With this in mind, I kept the stories told by the people who knew him well, and discarded all but a few of the others (the caricature was a part of the story, too, after all). My main goal was to give a fully rounded portrait of him and to suggest why he meant so much to L’Engle. After a while, I realized that Canon West’s wild embrace of idiosyncrasy must have appealed deeply to her; also the shrewdness with which he navigated Cathedral politics and his quest for an intimate, fad-free spiritual life. L’Engle had fun writing him into four of her novels as Canon Tallis, even imagining a cloak-and-dagger role for him as a secret agent for Interpol. The great thing was that Canon West’s personal assistant was able to explain the private joke behind this last reference. The Canon, who was the world’s reigning authority on Anglican liturgical matters, also had a fine ear for gossip. As Don Lundquist told me: “People would sometimes wonder out loud just where he had gotten this or that tidbit of information. Canon West never divulged his sources! He would only say, ‘My spies report to me. . .’”
Amazon.com: How heavily did you edit the interviews for the book?
Leonard S. Marcus: Some interviews called for more editing than others. Because people don’t always speak in consecutive thoughts, I see it is as fair game at times to re-order material with the goal of having a story told or a thought expressed in the clearest possible way. This kind of editing has to be done with an absolute commitment to fidelity both to the spirit and letter of what was said. For me, doing it well is the art-part of editing an interview.
As I worked on the book, I remembered Edwin Arlington Robinson’s classic poetry collection, Spoon River Anthology, in which, one by one, the late inhabitants of a certain town testify from the grave about their lives. The fifty-one people I interviewed for Listening for Madeleine were in a sense all testifying about Madeleine L’Engle, telling me what she was like, what she had meant to them, how she had changed their lives. So I began looking for chances to edit myself out of the interviews altogether, and create a continuous monologue. I didn’t edit all the interviews that way, but I did do this in several instances, and I find the effect to be quite powerful.
Amazon.com: What do you think was the most compelling part of L’Engle’s imagination for readers?
Leonard S. Marcus: What I find most compelling is her ability, as in A Wrinkle in Time, to tell an intimate coming-of-age story that also has an epic dimension. L’Engle makes her young readers feel understood, and therefore less alone in the universe. And she says, in effect: Don’t just hide in a corner somewhere. Go out and experience the bigness of life. It’s an exhilarating message. This same theme carries over into her memoirs—those four books, starting with A Circle of Quiet—that have meant so much to adult readers, and really into all her books.
Amazon.com: Do you have a favorite observation about L’Engle by one of the contributors?
Leonard S. Marcus: I found Madeleine L’Engle’s oldest living relative in Jacksonville, Florida, where, going back to the late nineteenth century, her mother’s father’s family, the Barnetts, owned the largest bank. Mary L’Engle Avent, known to all as “Sister,” was 92 when I spoke with her. Sister told me: “There is a saying in the L’Engle family that refers to the fact that we’re all stubborn and that we have all got our own ways. You might say to one of your relatives: ‘You have certainly inherited a lot of the Engle-arities!’ Madeleine had all of the L’Engle-arities. The Barnetts were pretty strong themselves, so you can imagine what that added up to.”