Day 6

'A Wrinkle in Time': How a book that was almost never published became a Hollywood blockbuster

Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughters have written a biography detailing the loneliness and rejections the author overcame to release her now-famous novel.
Madeleine L'Engle, author of "A Wrinkle in Time," reads with her granddaughters Charlotte and Léna circa 1976. (Crosswicks, Ltd.)

by Brent Bambury

When she wrote A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle was struggling. It was the end of the 1950s and she'd been a writer for all of her adult life, but lately publishers were returning her work. Her husband, an actor, was only sporadically employed. She was entering her '40s, and L'Engle worried about the security of her three children as rejection notices for A Wrinkle in Time poured into their Connecticut farmhouse.

But she never doubted the book they were passing up.

She would be so thrilled that people are talking about the book, the themes in the book and that it's reaching a wider audience.- Léna Roy, co-author 'Becoming Madeleine'

"She believed in it," her granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis says on Day 6.  "She believed in it with every part of herself."

L'Engle was right. Today, 56 years after it was first published, A Wrinkle in Time has never been out of print. A blockbuster Disney film adaptation just opened, bringing the story to millions more. Léna Roy, another granddaughter, imagines L'Engle would enjoy the spectacle.

"She would be thrilled", Roy says. "She would be so thrilled that people are talking about the book, the themes in the book and that it's reaching a wider audience."

This image released by Disney shows Reese Witherspoon, left, and Storm Reid in a scene from "A Wrinkle In Time." (Atsushi Nishijima/Disney via AP)

A special relationship

From birth, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and her sister Léna Roy had a close relationship with their famous grandmother. It deepened as they grew. When they went to university they both spent time living in L'Engle's apartment in New York City.

Roy remembers a rich upbringing.

An undated photo of author Madeleine L'Engle, supplied by publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (AP Photo/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sigrid Estrada)

"We'd have parties with multi ages and we would share books and music and we would go to theatre. She just really she expanded my world so much," she says. "But she always insisted that we kept her young. We kept her grounded in the present and it was really wonderful."

L'Engle's most famous book is anything but grounded. A Wrinkle in Time is a cosmological fantasy for children — a blend of theology and quantum physics, a joy ride through dimensions and a meditation on the problem of evil. L'Engle brilliantly balances the ethereal narrative with an earthly protagonist.

She places the story on the shoulders of Meg Murry, an utterly unaffected rendering of an insecure girl on the cusp of adolescence.

"She always said she was Meg Murry", Roy notes.  "I think that's why people connected to her so much because many, many, many people, including us, could see ourselves in Meg Murry."

Author Madeleine L'Engle at her writing desk. (Crosswicks, Ltd.)

'Becoming Madeleine'

When Madeleine L'Engle was Meg Murry's age she was already keeping a diary. Her granddaughters have drawn on L'Engle's journal entries, through childhood and adolescence, in their biography of L'Engle called Becoming Madeleine.

We learn L'Engle's early years were lonely. Her parents moved to Europe after the market crashed in 1929 and they dropped her at a boarding school in Switzerland. For an awkward 11-year-old, it was grim. Voiklis Jones says reading about the experience in L'Engle's journals underlines how much it hurt their grandmother.

The cover of Becoming Madeleine, written by Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy. (Farrar Straus Giroux)

"I never really understood it to be traumatic because she had she always talked about it so calmly, so reading it in real time really brought that home to me."

Readers will also recognize in the young L'Engle's drive to overcome self-doubt the qualities of her protagonist Meg Murry.

"It was just delightful to see some journal entries that sounded exactly like Meg," says Roy.

They were equally delighted to recognize their grandmother's voice so early in her writing. "We could read a journal entry from when she was 12 or 15 or 20 and immediately recognize her as our grandmother and that was very special," Jones Voiklis says. "It was also, you know, it was not something we took lightly."

Out of respect for their grandmother's privacy they limited their excursions into her journals to the period covered in their book, from L'Engle's birth in 1918 to the publication of A Wrinkle in Time. They avoided reading entries that exposed her later life.

She said that, you know, if she'd ever written a book that said what she believed about God and the universe this was it.- Charlotte Jones Voiklis, co-author 'Becoming Madeleine'

"Although she's our subject for this biography, she's our grandmother and we wanted to maintain that relationship as well," says Jones Voiklis. "I think that would have changed if we had read more, further in."

"And while the book ends when she's 41 with the publication of A Wrinkle in Time, let me tell you, life does not end when you're 41. You are still constantly becoming. She was still becoming up until the very end. So in some ways, it's a false ending."

"Her psalm of praise to life "

Before it found a publisher A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 26 times. Roy says L'Engle's enduring belief in the book shows a maturity in the writer, and a conviction in her themes.

"It was the story of her", she says. "She couldn't have written it when she was 20. She had to have all of these experiences and she had to read all these philosophers and scientists and do all this thinking."

"And experience rejection," Jones Voiklis adds.

"She said that, you know, if she'd ever written a book that said what she believed about God and the universe this was it. This was her psalm of praise to life. So it was deeply, deeply important to her."

"And so I think her experience of rejection and what she saw as failure in her thirties was important for her to go through so that she could then affirm like, no, it's still worth it", says Jones Voiklis.

"It's still worth it," Roy agrees. "She always told me if you're not free to fail then you're not free."

The granddaughters of Madeleine L'Engle and authors of her biography, 'Becoming Madeleine.' (Amy Drucker)
To hear our full interview with Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.