They combed through thousands of L'Engle's journal entries, uncovering the secrets behind 'A Wrinkle in Time'

By David Canfield
March 12, 2018 at 04:08 PM EDT
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The granddaughters of A Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L’Engle recently uncovered thousands of her private letters and journal entries, compiling them for her biography, Becoming Madeleine. Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy combed through her diaries, which revealed a strikingly ambitious, cripplingly lonely, and intellectually invigorated storyteller who “wanted to make her mark on the world.” And make a mark L’Engle certainly did.

Their research process for Becoming Madeleine also led to some fascinating revelations about the making of A Wrinkle in Time, from what inspired L’Engle to write the book to how difficult it was to get it published. In honor of the film adaptation’s release on Friday, Voiklis and Roy caught up with EW to divulge the many secrets they uncovered, shedding new light on a beloved children’s book whose story is about to find a whole new audience. Read on below, and purchase Becoming Madeleine here.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY What was your relationship with Madeleine like growing up?

CHARLOTTE JONES VOIKLIS: We were very close. My sister and I were 14 months apart, so she and I are close in age, and then we, in turn, were close with our grandmother because we were her first grandchildren. We spent a lot of time with her as little children and larger children — weekends at her apartment in New York City. When we were in college, we lived with her. I lived with her for six years straight; my sister was in and out. She had a much more adventurous young adulthood than I did. I stayed close to home with my grandmother. We both graduated from high school in the same year, and that was the same summer that our grandfather died. It was a big time of change for her. We became very close during those years as well — hosting dinner parties together, spending quiet time together, going to the museums and ballet together. She traveled a lot after my grandfather died; I think she wanted to keep busy and active. But when she was home, it was great to be able to spend that time together.

I helped with her correspondence and scheduling off and on throughout that time as well, so I got to know her professionally as well. One of the things that we discovered together through the process of making the book was that we had different relationships with her. My sister is a writer herself and so really took inspiration from her in that way. I had a much more regular grandparent-grandchild relationship with her. Like just having conversations about the thing that incensed me as a young adult in college and having her take me seriously and listen to me — which doesn’t happen all the time to young people, to be taken seriously. That’s something that she really did.

LÉNA ROY: We were extremely close through my whole life and up until her death, and dare I say even now; I feel her spirit with me. She was larger than life. She made me see that anything was possible. She was able to relate to me at any age, so I felt understood. We were both artistic, creative souls, so she set that in me — including our “temperaments,” as she called it. I didn’t really know she was famous until second grade when my teacher starting reading A Wrinkle in Time out loud to us.

What was your relationship to the book when you were kids?

ROY: I just fell in love with the book. I couldn’t believe my grandmother had written it. The teacher read part of the first chapter, and I couldn’t wait. I went to school very close to my grandmother’s house; I would go over there after school and went straight and found the book, and curled up in her four-poster bed. I was 7 years old, and I read the whole thing. I just couldn’t believe that she had written it. I knew she was a writer, but she was mine — she was my grandmother — and when I learned she had this other part to her, it was incredible. It was really incredible. It was eye-opening, too, because she was my grandmother, but she wasn’t just mine. When you’re 7 and as you grow up, you think the world revolves around you. And then you realize it doesn’t. Her philosophy and her way of living in her imagination was hugely influential to me. She’s the biggest influence in my life.

VOIKLIS: Lena’s going to have a more interesting answer than me! I do not remember the first time I read it. I just remember always having the story within me, always knowing that she was Meg and that that character was really close to her. And my relationship to it has changed over the years. When I was quite small, I was really excited to let everybody know that my grandmother was Madeleine L’Engle and that she wrote this book everybody loved. As I moved into being a teenager, I was less comfortable with that. Not that it embarrassed me, but just that I didn’t want that to be the way people knew me. I wanted to be known for me. Now I’m in the middle.

She let you two, and only you two, into her famed “writing tower” when you were kids, correct?

VOIKLIS: The writing tower was a room over the garage. Everyone called it her “ivory tower,” including her! That was her private space for writing. When she was raising her kids, they were not allowed up there. When Lena and I came along, it shocked everybody that she let us come join her there. She allowed that because we knew how to be quiet. We weren’t making demands of her; we were happy to sit quietly with her and do our own reading and writing. It was a special time and place with her.

What was it like working on this project? Did you feel you got to know your grandmother in an entirely new way?

ROY: It was so moving to read journal entries, and Charlotte had most of the letters, so she’d say, “Oh my God, look at this letter, we have to add this!” It really felt like Gran was part of the process, because of the journals and the letters. It was healing for us, just that she was here with us. We felt her presence.

What were these journals and letters of hers? What did they look like and what were they used for?

VOIKLIS: She kept a journal from a very young age. The earliest one that we have is from around 1933. Her earliest ones are these sort of day books: They’re pre-written with a date, and they don’t have a whole lot of space, so she’d just write about what happened that day. As she got older, she would include emotional rants about something she was particularly happy or upset about. She’d also use it for writing character sketches about people. As is not uncommon, her consistency with the journals shifted over time, so she wrote more in high school. There’s only one notebook from college. And then she gets to be a more consistent writer as she gets older. There was one piece of advice she gave writers, which was to keep a journal. To use a metaphor, her mother was an accomplished pianist, and as a piano player, a musician has to practice their scales every day, or else they’re not going to be able to play the piece. The same’s true for a writer; you have to do your scales. Journal writing was like that for her.

Atsushi Nishijima/Disney

What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Madeleine?

VOIKLIS: One was realizing how ambitious she was. In her earliest journals, she was like, “Please grant me genius.” She wanted to be a great writer and to make her mark on the world. Because we knew her after she had already done that, it was a surprise — although also like a “Well, duh,” to see that was something she’d really worked hard for … [And] just how lonely she was. She was dumped at boarding school. It had a deep impact on her. When I think about what it must have felt like for her to be a little girl and to not understand what was happening, that still makes me cry.

What new insights into A Wrinkle in Time did you glean?

ROY: She was horrified by McCarthyism in the ’50s. … There’s this conformity, this need to have people conform. Maybe it’s just human nature. She was grappling with that seriously. Her father was horrified by war; she’d seen it kill him, she’d seen his depression. That followed her, the darkness. Writing is a way of making sense of the world. This is her aspirational hymn: writing for her hope.

Was there anything about her process writing Wrinkle that you learned?

VOIKLIS: The first draft happened very quickly for her, and then she went through lots and lots of revisions and sent it out to publishers. She stopped writing revisions because when publishers were reading it, the notes they were sending back were upsetting to her. They didn’t understand what she was trying to do. They’d ask, “Is this for adults or is it for children? You need to cut it in half. Cut out the science-fiction parts. Change your main character.” While she wasn’t afraid of revisions and she appreciated having a good editor, she didn’t think anyone understood what she was trying to do. It was going to violate her story and what she was trying to say. So she withdrew it from making the publishing rounds. Then she sent it to one more — one last time — because a friend of her mother’s knew the publisher, John Farrar. They liked it and they were afraid of it, so they sent it to an outside reader, which they often did to have another person evaluate a manuscript. The person wrote back saying “This is the worst book I’ve ever read. It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.” And they published it anyway!

ROY: It’s a book about all of her aspirations and hopes for the world, and hopes that she wanted to believe in. We see in early journal entries from 10 years earlier stuff about the tesseract. She starts reading a lot of science in the ’50s and finds comfort in Einstein, and seeing theology in it. There’s also stuff in her personal life. She very much felt like Meg: Meg is abandoned by her father and has to figure it out, and she was abandoned by her father at boarding school, but then also noticing and feeling that because he was never fully available to her, they had a beautiful relationship in some ways. But he was very depressed. He’d been gassed in World War I, and he’d been very successful before that war. He published detective novels and he was a journalist. … She always said that it was the war that killed him, it just took him 17 years to die afterwards. When people are depressed, they don’t mean to do it, but it’s a kind of emotional abandonment. It’s a chemical thing; they can’t help it. She understood that as an adult, but it was hard for her to understand as a child.

You now have such a vivid, complex memory of your grandmother.

VOIKLIS: We made the decision from the very beginning to not read her journals from when we knew her. Journals are private, and we wanted to be really respectful of that. We also felt that she would love that we were doing this, and that she’d be fully supportive of it. We really didn’t want to invade her privacy in a way that reading her journals from when we were alive felt. I think that would have been a violation and changed our relationship to our grandmother. One of the reasons I was reluctant to write a biography as opposed to a picture book is that she is my grandmother; I didn’t want her to become my subject. I didn’t want to have to change how I felt about her. Our approach felt really right because we could get close to this 11-year-old girl who was so vulnerable. We could discover what her adolescent voice was like — that she could be a mean girl, a little bit. But that’s just human. It was wonderful getting to know her better. We always related to her in a special way. She famously says that she’s every age she’s ever been, and I think that’s part of what made her such a great writer for middle-grade and young adult: She knew what it was like to be 8 or 14. She didn’t lose that. When we were together with her, she knew how to meet us where we were. She was still the adult, and mature, and we felt safe with her in ways that you don’t necessarily with your peers. But she was right there with us.

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A Wrinkle in Time

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