Listening for the Story: The Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle

March 26, 2018 | 3 books mentioned 2 7 min read

Throughout her life, Madeleine L’Engle, most famously known for her 1962 classic, A Wrinkle in Time, wrote 60 books. Penned by L’Engle’s granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy, Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters chronicles her life and illustrious career. The biography offers an intimate look at the late author’s upbringing by fusing together excerpts from her journal entries, family photos and letters, and the memories she shared with her children and grandchildren. Similar to many of L’Engle’s novels, the book skews toward a younger audience, yet contains treasures for older readers as well.

Charlotte Jones Voiklis holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and manages L’Engle’s literary business. Her sister, Léna Roy is the author of the novel Edges.

covercoverI spoke with the authors on their recent trip to Los Angeles about A Wrinkle in Time, Becoming Madeleine, and writing family.

The Millions: Is it fair to compare a book to a movie?

Léna Roy: Not really. Books and movies are two completely different mediums: a book unfolds a narrative through characters and relationships with description and metaphor, while a movie tells a story in terms of visual scenes. I am in love with books. I love how reading is an intimate act, how I get to use my imagination and co-create along with the author. And I can take my time digesting it! A movie is magical because it tells a story in under two hours, and shows you another vision of the world, so it also has the power to deepen our understanding of it. And Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time was definitely magical in that way.

TM: Having said that, what one word would you use to describe the book, and what one word would you use to describe the movie?

LR: The word for the book is transformative. The word for the movie is visionary.

TM: Why do you love the story so much?

Charlotte Jones Voiklis: It just gives me great hope. And inspiration. It’s the story of Meg, this sort of underestimated and misunderstood girl who travels the universe in search of her missing father, thinking that when she finds him, he’s going to make everything better. And he doesn’t make everything better. She has to make things better. And she learns to trust herself, her skills, and her faults, and discovers that she has the ability to save her brother, save the universe, “be a warrior” is the phrase the movie is using. So it just leaves you with this sense of inspiration that individuals matter.

But I also think what’s so wonderful about it is that it’s not a simple story of self-empowerment. It’s not just about “I can do this.” She does it because she loves her family. She does it because she wants to save her brother, and she wants to find her father. It’s not just a selfish kind of sense of, you know, I’m going to work out and then kick some butt. It’s in relationships that we discover our calling. And it’s in doing for others that we fight the darkness.

TM: Tell me a little bit about your parents.

CJV: So our mother, Josephine, is our grandmother’s first child, but we really don’t talk about our parents in the biography. Because we were reading sort of family letters and journals, we wanted to be careful and respectful of other people’s experience and telling other people’s stories so we focused on our grandmother as a writer, and her development as a writer. We end the biography before we’re born, with the publication of A Wrinkle in Time.

TM: Léna, how long did it take you to write your first novel, Edges, and how long did it take for the two of you to write Becoming Madeleine?

LR: Well with my first novel, once I decided “I’m gonna do this,” the first draft took about three months because I just wrote it beginning to end. I just pushed through it. And then I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it a lot of times. I think it took a lot of time to be published. I kept rewriting it after every rejection, and workshopping it and rewriting it.

So writing Becoming Madeleine was a very different experience, very lucky too because I was working on it with my sister. I had always wanted to write something about my grandmother, but I also knew that I didn’t want to be the only one telling the story. So I was waiting for my sister to be ready, or for our relationship to be ready. So once she was convinced that it was the right thing to do, we started working together, and I think all in all, it took about a year and a half. We were lucky because of who our grandmother is. People are interested. Charlotte, as the executor of the estate, was already in contact with Gran’s publisher, and the publisher was already interested. They just didn’t necessarily have the confidence that we could write it, that maybe we were too close. But then we worked something up and it was awesome, and they were very happy and very excited. So we started working on it.

TM: What did you learn about the craft of writing by writing this book, specifically writing a biography?

LR: Well, when we started, I started fictionalizing because I wanted to hear her voice. Charlotte and I had started brainstorming and we thought, Oh, you start in medias res, you start in the middle of a dramatic scene. So when she was 11, she got abandoned, dumped at a boarding school. We thought, Whoa, that’s horrifying. That really shaped her, so I just started fictionalizing that and imagining dialogue: the way their house looked, and them getting in the car and going off for a picnic, and her having no idea. So I wrote a bunch and I gave it to Charlotte and she said, “Great! But I don’t think this is the way to write a biography, I don’t think we can do this, but keep going.” So then we did it more chronologically and included her in it. She’s infused in it. So by using her journal entries, her voice is really a part of the book, and our forward and afterword—it’s interesting because we built upon stories she had told us and then the journal entries added to it, and then us being older—we felt a deeper connection to her and to her life, the shape of her life. And it was super fun working with Charlotte because I have, even though I am terrified of the blank page, I’ve trained myself to just write that shitty first draft, you know, to just write through the voices in your head telling you you suck, and then so I would write and she would edit and she would write some more and edit. It was just seamless. All of it is the two of us together. I can’t think of a page or a sentence that’s just one of us—that’s all Charlotte or that’s all Léna. It was really beautiful. So it was a different kind of writing, because whenever one of us was stuck, we could lean on the other. And I think when I’m doing my own writing, especially if I’m writing a novel, and I’m stuck—oh boy! I just need to put it away for awhile, and I go back to it with fresh eyes, or I need to have somebody else read it, pick on some poor soul to help me. It’s just a different process.

TM: What fears, if any, did you experience when writing the book?

LR: I had no fears. I knew it was a challenge I wanted to explore.

CJV: We really wanted to be truthful, interesting, respectful, and make her proud. It’s hard to carry all those things when you’re writing.

TM: Charlotte, what did it take for you to be “ready” to write the biography?

CJV: Time! I needed some distance, and then I needed to think about what it would be like for someone else to tell her story. I knew that they’d need my help with primary materials, photos, etc., and I thought if it’s going to be my labor anyway, why not tell the story ourselves?

TM: How did you know when the book was “ready?”

CJV: I still don’t know it’s ready. I always want to rewrite. We just had to trust it, and the editor.

TM: In Becoming Madeleine, your grandmother became your protagonist, so to speak. In what ways did writing about her life change you?

LR: It deepened our connection to her, to each other, and to our ancestors. Being able to incorporate her own voice into her story was very powerful.

TM: Léna, you work with youth, and Edges has a young protagonist. Did your grandmother’s affinity for writing for and about young adults impact your work?

LR: She impacted me in so, so many ways. I too am definitely “every age I’ve ever been.” I’ve always been interested in turning points in people’s lives, and my grandmother helped me appreciate how every moment can be a turning point. I love how kids and teens are constantly having them, so it’s really something to be able to explore the inner life of a character who is growing and changing so fast. And I am so lucky that I get to witness these changes with my students every day at Writopia Lab.

TM: Are there moments where you are tempted to compare yourself to your grandma?

LR: I work on NOT doing that! She was fond of saying: “comparisons are odious” because she too was always working on not doing that herself. We are alike in so many ways, but I am definitely not as prolific, ambitious, or disciplined as she was. I have to believe that she would approve of the person she helped me become.

TM: I have a book-specific question. On page 79 you write, “It gave her her first inkling that her writing knew more than she did.” And I wanted just a little bit of an explanation as to what that meant.

CJV: Yeah, well, she said her books knew more than she did and that, you know, she was a disciplined, skilled writer. She wrote every day. She wasn’t sort of like, “Oh, the spirit will move me.” But she also felt that she needed to listen and the story would come to her. She needed to listen to the story that was being given to her and so, didn’t force things. Like she would say that she didn’t realize until she was finished writing A Wrinkle In Time that part of what the message behind the disembodied brain is that, you know, the intellect without heart is terrifying. But she didn’t consciously set out to write that message. She didn’t sort of plot it out and say, ‘This is gonna be one of the themes of the book,” right? She didn’t do outlines of her work. She sat down to write and she listened to the story that was coming to her.

coverAnother example of that is in a book called The Arm of the Starfish, which was written just couple of years after A Wrinkle in Time but actually features Meg and Calvin as married grown-ups with children of their own. There’s a main character in that book that dies and her children were reading it in draft form and said, “Change it! You can’t let Joshua [the character] die.” And she had to explain to them that, “Well, I can’t change it. That’s what happened.” She wasn’t in control. She didn’t force her characters. They were already living for her and she was, you know, I hate to say, and she wouldn’t use this phrase and this isn’t quite right, she wasn’t just simply a scribe. You know? But she definitely had a sense that she was listening to what was given to her and was available to it. And that because of her discipline of journal writing, and practicing writing every day, the tools were there so that when a book came or a character came, she was able to serve it.

is a Los Angeles-based entertainment and culture writer. She attended Pomona College and Spelman College as a Media Studies major, where she studied how TV, film, and other media construct and intersect with race, culture, and gender. She’s a regular contributor for The Root, The Delta, and she’s written for EBONY, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, Daily Actor, and others. Chanté is committed to creating socially conscious and soul conscious art.


  1. Excellent interview! L’Engle is such a rich “text” is so many ways. I listened to her oral history interview at work (shameless plug) and have been wanting more about her in any form I can get. Thanks for these leads to more.

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