Madeleine L'Engle, a writer a little before her time

The year 2018 marks the centenary of the birth of Madeleine L'Engle, whose novel A Wrinkle in Time has remained popular with readers of all ages.

Author eyed giving up her writing career before A Wrinkle in Time was published

Undated photo, supplied by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, of author Madeleine L'Engle. (Sigrid Estrada/Farrar, Straus and Giroux/The Associated Press)

It was on her 40th birthday that author Madeleine L'Engle reached a make-or-break moment in her writing career. 

As the author later recounted to CBC Radio, receiving a rejection of her latest book that day sent her to her workroom where in a "great gesture of renunciation," she covered her typewriter.   

"I decided that was a message from on high, that I needed to learn to be a better housewife and make cherry pie," she told CBC Radio during a 1991 interview. 

But fortunately, for the readers of the as-yet unwritten novel A Wrinkle in Time, the story doesn't end there. 

Because as she walked up and down her workroom, she stopped, realizing that her subconscious mind was was "blip-blip-blipping a novel on failure up to me."

'I'm a writer' 

She uncovered the typewriter, and wrote in her journal that night: "I'm a writer. That's who I am, that's what I am. It's what I have to do whether I'm ever, ever published again." 

L'Engle continued writing, and as she told CBC: "I'm glad I made that decision in the pits, because it's easy to say now, things are going well."

Interviewer Bill Richardson sounded incredulous when he asked about her reported "philosophy of failure." 

"Now you're a woman who has had not an inconsiderable amount of success," said Richardson, who noted L'Engle had by then had 37 books published. 

"I've had a lot of failure, too," L'Engle said, referring to a period before A Wrinkle in Time was published. "I had 10 years between the fifth book and the sixth, when I couldn't sell anything I wrote."  

She further explained that publishers would ask, about A Wrinkle in Time, "who is this book for, is this book for children? ... [but] I don't write for an age group, I write books."

The author of A Wrinkle in Time on dealing with failure. 2:23

Four years after her she had almost given up on her writing career, A Wrinkle in Time was published, and it went on to win the Newbery Medal in 1963.

Richardson summed up the plot as "extraordinary" because it was "a device of physics" and not some form of magic that allowed the children to travel through time and space in the text.

'Why wouldn't I?'

Another aspect of the novel that made it unique for its time, she pointed out, is the gender of the protagonist, Meg Murry. 

"Well I'm a female, why wouldn't I have a female protagonist?" L'Engle asked. 

The image above shows the 2007 printing of Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, a division of Holtzbrink Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership. All rights reserved. (Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Further, as Richardson noted, Murry's mother was a scientist, and her marriage could be described as a liberated one "long before liberated marriages were popular in what's come to be called the young adult genre or problem fiction."

"Well, I was very lucky ... in that  I had that kind of a marriage," said L'Engle, noting she had a husband who "shared the nurture" in the raising of their children. 

"He was better at bathing the little babies than I was," she said.  

She also had Murry write letters to her husband, although he was lost somewhere in space and incommunicado. 

Richardson remarked that L'Engle and her husband, actor Hugh Franklin, would have been separated a lot, as "an actor's life is itinerant."

"Did you write each other all the time?" Richardson asked. 

"When we were separated we wrote every day," she answered. "Until we could afford to telephone." 

And "yes," she added, "I have the letters."

The author of the first book in the Time Quintet talks about her early entry into the science fantasy genre. 2:41

A Wrinkle in Time was made into a movie that hit theatres in 2018, and it remains a popular novel more than 50 years after its initial publication. With the follow-up publication of A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time, it became the first book of the Time Quintet.   

L'Engle was born Nov. 29, 1918, in New York City, and died, aged 88, in 2007.