Madeleine L'Engle is one of those rare authors whose books find readers of all ages. While she is probably best known for "A Wrinkle in time," the book that won the Newbery Award in 1963 for the year's outstanding contribution to American literature for children, she says she has never written for a child in her life.
"Nobody told me you have to write differently for a child than for an adult, and so I didn't," she says of an early book.
"I write for myself, and I am not a child and have not been for a long time. I write about what interests me, what I'm passionately concerned about at the moment -- which is usually in some way a theological concept, something to do with why life matters, why it matters that you were born and I was born.
"Children are perfectly capable of coping with that, but they're not childish questions," she says.
She finds she writes the book that demands to be written at the moment, and it's a method that seems to work well: She has just published her 27th or 28th book -- "I can't remember which." Among her works are adult novels ("novel novels," she calls them), poetry, fantasy, and autobiographical works. She is successful at what seem, from the description, to be some very tricky accomplishments, such as making books about scientific, philosophic, or theological concepts appeal to children and teens as well as adults.
"A Ring of Endless Light," her new book, is the fourth about the Austin family. The book's central character and narrator is 15- year-old Vicky Austin, but the theme, from the first sentence, is death, and the ways people respond to the profoundest challenges of human experience: by running from them, being defeated by them, or standing defiantly against them to affirm what is good and lasting.
The reasons for Miss L'Engle's success become more apparent simply from being in her presence. There is an encompassing concern about her, as if there were nothing she could not care about, and certainly almost nothing she would not care to talk about, knowledgably and seriously, but also with a childlike enthusiasm. On a spring day in her Manhattan apartment her conversation ranges from theology to physics to the magnolias on Broadway to marriage. She uses broad, sweeping gestures and such vocal emphasis on certain words that, sometimes, from the corner of my eye I can almost see the recording meter on my tape machine hitting the red.
"I am 61 and don't pretend to be any other age. But I'm still 12 and 15 and 23. I haven't lost any of that; that's still a part of me," she says.
"People say to me, 'Are your young protagonists your daughters?' Of course they're not my daughters, they're me."m
Many of her books explore scientific ideas or possibilities: Einsteinian concepts of time and space, the regeneration of limbs in starfish, and, in the new book, telepathic communication with dolphins. She goes beyond the literal-minded view that the end goal of science is provable facts.
"The end of science is to uncover, to discover, to find things out. It's an openess to change, to new questions, to different answers to old questions.
"Also, there is in science and in art a reverence for simplicity and beauty. You can prove that the Ptolemaic system of the heavens is correct. It can be proved in mathematical equations, but they are cumbersome; they're not pretty equations. Copernicus looked at these equations, and he didn't think they were aesthetically pleasing. And so he set about to find some aesthetically pleasing equations, which changed the whole nature of the universe as it was then conceived.
"So that, in science and in art when something is ugly and cumbersome, there's likely to be something untruthful about it," she said.
Another trick she manages in her books is the combination of imaginative speculation with realistic issues.
"I think 'A Ring of Endless Light' deals with contemporary issues," she says. "But just because it goes into dolphin research doesn't take it out of reality. Anytime I deal with scientific possibilities they have to be reasonable possibilities. Because, unless they are, the child shouldn't believe in them and not only shouldn't but wouldn't," she says.
About what she thinks literature should try to do, she says, "I am bored stiff with antiheroes. I want to read somebody who's going to make me fell like I can do more, not that I am stuck with being less.
"I think we want out imaginations opened; we want to feel our own potential is unlimited rather than be made to feel that we should get back in our box and close the door.
"I think what I would hope to do in future work, as well as present and past work, is to affirm the validity of love and commitment."