Nov 29 2012 3:30pm
Listening for Madeleine (Excerpt)
In honor of Madeleine L'Engle's birthday, we have an excerpt from FSG's book Listening For Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus:
Writer. Matriarch. Mentor. Friend. Icon.
Madeleine L'Engle is perhaps best recognized as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, the enduring milestone work of fantasy fiction that won the 1963 John Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature and has enthralled millions of readers for the past fifty years. But to those who knew her well, L'Engle was much more besides: a larger-than-life persona, an inspiring mentor, a strong-willed matriarch, a spiritual guide, and a rare friend. In Listening for Madeleine, the renowned literary historian and biographer Leonard S. Marcus reveals Madeleine L'Engle in all her complexity, through a series of incisive interviews with the people who knew her most intimately. Vivid reminiscences of family members, colleagues, and friends create a kaleidoscope of keen insights and snapshop moments that help readers to understand the many sides of this singularly fascinating woman.
Catherine Hand is a former creative executive in the office of Norman Lear, vice president of Embassy Pictures, and director of development at American Zoetrope. In 2004, she served as executive producer of the Miramax/ABC film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time.
Q: How did you meet Madeleine L’Engle?
A: In 1979, I was working for the writer/producer Norman Lear as his assistant and was tasked with reviewing material for him to produce. Mostly, I read scripts submitted by agents, Norman’s colleagues, or friends. A friend of mine asked me, What would you like to produce? I know it sounds odd, but I was always thinking about what Norman might like to produce, never thinking about what I would like to produce. But with the question came my answer—a book I had read in fifth grade called A Wrinkle in Time.
I asked my friend to read it, and he loved it, which gave me the courage to ask Norman to read it, and he loved it, too. He suggested I check to see if the rights were available. I sent a letter to Madeleine, she followed up with a phone call, and three days later we met in New York at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center.
Q: The film was not produced until 2004. Why did it take so long?
A: Norman knew it needed a writer or director who had the right vision to bring it to the screen, but we never imagined that it would be a difficult book to adapt. We started with one of the best, Sir Robert Bolt, screenwriter for A Man for All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago, and Lawrence of Arabia. He was someone who knew how to tell big stories with great characters—which is how we saw Wrinkle. When his screenplay didn’t work, Madeleine asked to try her hand at writing the script. It was a very exciting time sitting around Norman’s conference table with Madeleine trying to map out the adaptation. Unfortunately, Madeleine was just too close to the material to see it differently as a film, and we realized we would have to bring in someone else.
At a critical point in the process, Norman’s company, Embassy Pictures, was sold to Coca-Cola/Columbia, and he kept Wrinkle out of the deal. That decision made it possible for me to continue my quest to bring the book to the screen. At a certain point, Norman’s option ran out, and Madeleine graciously gave me time to try to set it up elsewhere. I met with a number of folks at various studios who all wanted the rights, but just as I was about to give birth to my youngest daughter, I got a call from Bob Weinstein at Miramax. He was so insistent that he “had to make this movie” that I agreed to meet with him a week after the baby was born. I didn’t understand how a small independent company like Miramax could afford to make Wrinkle, but he assured me he would find a way. We signed a deal, and two months later Disney bought Miramax.
Q: What made it so very hard for such talented writers to come up with a satisfactory screenplay?
A: In her preface to one of the later editions of A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine wrote that the book has meant different things to different readers, and that it has even meant different things to the same reader at different times in his or her life. I have sat with many, many people who were absolutely sure they knew how A Wrinkle in Time should be made into a film, and each one had a different idea.
It was difficult to find agreement on how to change the characters and plot for a screen adaptation. I even had one executive say to me, “It has to be about something other than ‘love triumphs over all.’ People have said that for two thousand years, and we know it just doesn’t work.” I read a book called The Making of “The Wizard of Oz,” by Aljean Harmetz, from which I learned that the talent behind that movie had similar issues. There were dozens of screenplays written. Reading the book gave me hope and insight into our process.
Q: Were you still living in California?
A: Yes, first in Los Angeles when I worked with Norman, then in San Francisco when I worked at Zoetrope, for Francis Coppola, who at one point was interested in executive-producing the film.
Q: How often would you see Madeleine?
A: I would visit her periodically in New York, at her apartment or at the cathedral library. We would talk on the phone from time to time. I always sought her guidance about any major development. She was my touchstone. I would talk to her about the various people I was meeting with and about different directions the film might take.
Q: With Madeleine having a theater background, did the two of you enjoy exchanging stories about the entertainment business?
A: Yes, and that was a lot of fun, especially because Madeleine had been an assistant to the great actress Eva Le Gallienne. She told me that as she wrote A Wrinkle in Time, she had been imagining Eva Le Gallienne as one of the ladies.
Q: What about Madeleine herself? Was she ever considered for an acting part in the film?
A: No, but what I eventually realized was that she was the inspiration for all her characters and no one could ever play Meg as well as she could.
Q: She was fond of quoting from literature.
A: Yes, and that of course was Mrs Who. And she had such a great sense of joy—very much like Mrs Whatsit. She “trusted in us,”and that kept me going many times when I wanted to give up. She could also be like Mrs Which—very exacting and intimidating!
Q: Tell me about Thomas Banchoff.
A: In the early 1980s, I read anything I could get my hands on about higher dimensions, theories of time, things like that—topics that are much more widely discussed today. But back then it was all new thinking. One day I came across a Scientific American article about the work of Tom and his colleagues on fourthdimension imaging. I called Tom and asked to meet with him. He showed me a Möbius strip and a tesseract he had built out of cardboard. It was all so fascinating. I wanted whatever changes we would need to make to the book to include the current thinking about multiple dimensions. I introduced Tom to Madeleine, and we had interesting conversations about the tesseract—what it would look like, et cetera.
Q: Why was a television movie finally made instead of a feature film?
A: Everything in the entertainment business comes down to timing and money. Disney had decided not to make it as a big-budget picture, but Disney owned ABC, where there was interest in making it as a film for television. The problem was that it now had to be a four-hour miniseries, which was tough for the material to support. We were working under several other major constraints as well: an impending actors’ strike, the decision to make the film in Canada, and very little time for preproduction.
Q: Was Madeleine,who was not in good health by the time the film aired on television in May 2004, able to see it?
A: We had a reading of the first act for her, and she said she thought it was well written. But I think she was always concerned that the film was never going to live up to the book.
Q: Tell me more about what you learned from Madeleine.
A: She was my mentor in every way that a mentor can be. She supported me when I needed her support as a producer, which was very generous of her. She gave me important advice about life. She was there for me when my husband died. And I think I learned so much in talking with her about A Wrinkle in Time. Early on, Madeleine said to me that she understood the book was going to have to change for the screen, but she made me promise that one line would always be in it: “Like and equal are not the same thing.” To be honest, I didn’t quite understand why that was so important to her, but as my thinking evolved, my understanding of her request evolved, too. It’s really the essence of the story. Most readers will tell you it’s about love, because love does triumph over all. However, Meg’s development arc is connected to her ability to understand that like and equal are not the same thing, and it is out of that understanding that she realizes that she loves her brother in a way that the dark forces cannot. In the beginning of the story, she feels badly that she isn’t like everyone else—that she’s an oddball, a biological mistake. But when she meets Aunt Beast, she discovers that who you are as a person isn’t defined by what can be “seen,” but rather by what is “unseen”—the eternal truth of you. It’s really at the heart of anyone fighting for equality—I don’t look like you, I have a different religion, color of skin, gender . . . fill in the blank, but I’m a human being and want to be heard. Fundamentalists or absolutists are essentially people trying to make others like them. Tolerance, openness, new thinking, are about accepting our differences and “trusting” that differences might be more difficult, but also more rewarding in the end. Mrs. Murry says something to Meg that captures this really well: “Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” Madeleine wanted us always to be brave enough to ask questions. There is so much yet undiscovered. And at the same time we need also to be willing to trust, to have faith, and to love.
Q: At the core of the book is a girl’s search for her father.
A: Meg is searching for her father—because she wants her father to make everything better for her. Then she finds her father, and he isn’t able to make everything better; in fact, he makes things worse. Almost fifty years ago, Madeleine was wrestling with such fundamental questions about growing up: What happens when no one can save you? What is my place in the world? Are there others in the universe besides us? Are like and equal the same thing? What does trust mean? What does faith mean? What is love?
Q: Did she ever act out a scene from A Wrinkle in Time for you?
A: Yes. She and her husband, Hugh, would do readings of the book, and nobody read Meg like Madeleine. You couldn’t help but fall in love with Meg when Madeleine read her out loud. She would read with such intensity and earnestness. Meg was just like Madeleine—sometimes fiercely insecure and at other times fiercely determined, always with a passion about life. That is adolescence, isn’t it? Madeleine captured the essence of the young adolescent girl, and I think that for a great many girls that is why Meg has been such an incredibly important character.
Thomas Banchoff is a geometer and has been a professor of mathematics at Brown University since 1967.
Q: When did you meet Madeleine L’Engle?
A: I have a pretty good bead on that because I found my Wrinkle in Time folder and I have in it a letter I wrote to my daughter on February 19, 1984, just after meeting Madeleine L’Engle in person for the first time.
I was in touch with Madeleine after having first been contacted by the film producer Catherine Hand. Catherine had read a Scientific American cover story about there being eleven dimensions and our work on that subject at Brown University. We were working on areas that were related to the question of visualizing higher dimensions, and Catherine was interested in the images of higher dimensions because she was planning a movie or video or some adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. Catherine came to see us in Providence, and she was excited about the project, and she was very interested in the kinds of images we were creating with computer graphics.
By way of background, I’m a mathematician at Brown University. I got my Ph.D. in 1964. I’ve often told the story that shortly after I got here, I was introduced to Charles Strauss, a fellow my age who had just gotten his Ph.D. in computer graphics—the first computer science doctorate here at Brown. Charles’s mentor, Andy van Dam, was the first or second person in the country to have gotten such a degree. Charles had a remarkable computer program that allowed him to visualize higher dimensions.
By the early 1970s we were getting some publicity. In 1975 an article in The Washington Post led to an invitation from Salvador Dalí to collaborate with him.* In 1978, I gave a big presentation to the International Congress of Mathematicians in Helsinki. It might have been as early as 1981 that I started to work with Catherine Hand on images and ideas for her project. So, I was doing that before I was introduced to Madeleine, and she had already seen some of the images when she invited me to stop by her home on the West Side of Manhattan. And that’s when this letter I wrote to one of my two daughters takes over. Do you want me to read some of it?
*In 1954, Dalí had painted Corpus Hypercubus, a depiction of the Crucifixion that revealed his interest in the representation of higher dimensions.
A: This is from a letter:
. . . In the meantime, I want to organize my impressions ofyesterday and in particular my dinner [on February 18, 1984] with Madeleine L’Engle and Hugh Franklin last night. It went well, the sort of good time that makes people look forward to seeing each other again . . . I showed up just at 6:30 p.m. after an aggressive sixty-block taxi ride, and I easily found the elegant entrance to their apartment building between Broadway and West End Avenue. I was announced by the doorman, so Madeleine was waiting at the open door when Igot off the elevator at the fifth floor. She is tall, and the first thing you notice is that her hair is thin and combed down so that it is almost as if her eyes are slightly higher on her face than you’d expect. You notice her eyes also because they’re always alert, always taking in things, never looking dreamy or distant. I gave her the flowers I had bought outside Grand Central Station, six small roses—three yellow and three yellow-orange, which . . . she handed . . . over to her husband, Hugh, as she introduced him. You or your friends might know him as Dr. Tyler from one ofthe soap operas—All My Children. His eyes are prominent, but they aren’t always looking at you, like his wife’s. He seems to be thinking about something else every once in a while . . . We had drinks from glasses decorated with images from unicorn tapestries. Their living room is large, “the kind you only find on the Upper West Side,” Madeleine said, with a Steinway grand piano that she can play any hour of the day or night because noise doesn’t travel to their bedroom, let alone to the next apartment. There were a lot of great old pictures on the wall beside the sofa, including a portrait of her father in some orchard in Brittany. We talked about math,and she said that she had been discouraged in the fourth grade because, although she could easily understand why 3 × 0 should be 0,she couldn’t be convinced that 0 × 3 should be 0. “What makes those three oranges go away?” I said those were two separate questions, all right, and that the way that always made the most sense to me was to think of the area of a rectangle. If either the vertical or the horizontal dimension is zero, the area is going to be zero. Nobody had ever suggested a geometric interpretation to her when she was in school, she said. I realized that somehow I have always thought of multiplication in terms of a picture. She also said that her high school teacher couldn’t understand how someone so good in geometry could be so bad in algebra. I told her I had just said in my talk at IBM that afternoon that I was much better at geometric thinking than at algebraic thinking. Madeleine mentioned that their son had written a paper on polarity and hyper-polarity of molecules, and at that point I asked if people became left-right exchanged when they tessered as their molecules went from left-handed to right-handed and conversely. Then she said something that I found discouraging, that somehow all the molecules turned into energy as they moved into the fourth dimension, and that that was why they moved in time. That was so far from my own view that I thought there probably wasn’t anything I would have to contribute, if that was the interpretation she felt committed to maintaining in any film version ofher book.
Q: Are you saying that she didn’t really understand the science?
A: No, not at all. It was just that she had an alternative view of the science. Hers was more like Star Trek, you know: “Beam me up, Scotty!” That kind of thing. According to this view, the molecules somehow go into a different state and then re-form, whereas for me it’s just going into the fourth dimension, as an alternate spatial thing.
Let’s see [going back to reading from the letter]:
We didn’t pursue that any further at the time. We did talk about timing. I was assured that the 6:30 appointment was what it sounded [to be; that is, that she had not expected me to arrive fashionably late]. It was early, she said, so I would leave early. She had . . . [known] that she would be tired after a session at the Authors Guild in the afternoon and [that] she was still some what tired because of a combination of a cold and a case of shingles! “It doesn’t go away, but at least it doesn’t kill you.” She [had] said on the phone that I could help her with the dishes, an invitation for an informal supper, and indeed I was able to bring out the Crock-Pots too and the rice. We didn’t say grace, although even by that time we had talked a lot about religion. She’s very theological, she said, and we then discussed the fact that the three ladies [in A Wrinkle in Time] are angels in spite of the fact that some people want to purge such references from books in children’s libraries along with any witches or ghosts. “That rules out the Bible,” she said, with its witch of Endor and its accounts of Christ’s appearance after the Resurrection. She expressed the opinion that Michael and Lucifer had been best friends and denied that Wrinkle was based on some sort of Gnostic dualism with the forces of evil as powerful as the good, although she admitted that that symbolism was there. At dinner we talked about giving talks at different places. She gets fifteen hundred dollars for a talk, and I was actually surprised that she wouldn’t be getting more. It turns out she has talked twice at Barrington College [near Providence], although she is more Anglo-Catholic than Unitarian or fundamentalist. We talked about the Danforth Foundation and the American Scientific Affiliation—these different places where scientists and teachers try to reconcile views of religion and science, something Madeleine considers an important part ofher work. She said she had a lot of trouble getting a publisher to do Wrinkle because of all the theology in it. Later on she told me that she had tried any number of publishers before Farrar decided to publish it. They all wanted to cut out a lot of the stuff in it, and she refused to do any cuts. During all the conversation Hugh too was involved, although it was clear he wasn’t very deeply into the religious aspect. He was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, so he did know about the context of midwestern Protestantism. Madeleine said she could never really be a Protestant.“They have to have the answers,” she said—I think a comment that people used to make about Catholics. It turns out that Hugh is somewhat deaf, which became apparent when he answered a completely different question than one I had asked. (“You have to shout in his ear, right here,” Madeleine said.) He told about how he’d suggested deafness as a theme to the soap opera director, but he said there seems to be a resistance to treating the problems of aging, so he was fitted with a hearing aid . . . He and his wife had met when they were both acting in The Cherry Orchard, in a production with Joseph Schildkraut and Eva Le Gallienne, and they got married during their next play together because it was going to be in Chicago for a long time, and in those days “people just didn’t shack up together.” That was thirty-eight years ago, and she had stopped acting. She had only had bit parts, while he had gone on to star in several Broadway roles. I had seen a large political-type poster in the kitchen with “Russell” written under a younger picture of Hugh looking very dashing. I had asked him if it was from Of Thee I Sing, forgetting that it would have been “Wintergreen” in that case. And he said it was from Gore Vidal’s Best Man, which I had seen as a film some twenty years ago.* It must have been shortly after that that he quit acting, a decision that had lasted nine years. Both of them agreed that it had been a good move for him to come out of retirement for his present acting [job], although it seems that the Dr. Tyler role is over now.
*Hugh Franklin replaced Melvyn Douglas in the starring role as President William Russell in Gore Vidal’s political drama The Best Man, which had a successful run in Broadway’s Morosco Theatre from March 31, 1960, to July 8, 1961.
Madeleine loves to travel and she does a lot, just a little bit more than Hugh, who comes with her when his schedule permits. They have sailed around the Horn, for example. They’ve been to Russia together. I observed that she must love languages, and she said that she did, although she had to admit that she doesn’t speak all of the languages she used in Wrinkle. We talked off and on about the project to turn the book into a movie, and she mentioned that Catherine Hand is under the gun, because that option that Embassy [Pictures] has will run out in August. Madeleine has signed with them because she liked Catherine, because she liked Norman Lear’s work and understood that it would be the first film venture for him, and because she had been able to maintain control over the plot and the characters, a provision that had not been offered by any of the other producers who’ve been interested in doing the book over the years. The screenplays that have been generated were not acceptable. Robert Bolt’s attempt had made Meg into a ten-year-old, and the version by two other writers had made her into someone practically hysterical. Then Madeleine had done the screenplay herself, doing the whole thing in two weeks while she had shut herself up in a convent. That bothered the Hollywood people, she said, because it was supposed to take six months or something like that. So, she thinks there’s a pretty good screenplay to operate from, and the job Catherine has right now is to find a director. Hugh agrees with all this, though both of them claim no real familiarity with this business. They do counsel together with a lawyer as well as with an agent before doing any major dealings in that work. They’re happy with the advice they’re getting from Madeleine’s agent . . . In any case, she got the potential producer to double the original offer, so now she has something like 10 percent as part ofher agreement, but if the option is not renewed, she’s not at all sure if she will go for another producer. She doesn’t feel it’s necessary that the book be made into a film, although she agreed that a lot of people would like to see it. But they don’t want to see the basic things changed . . . I think the both of them have serious doubts that a movie could be made that would be satisfactory. They don’t know who would be a good director. They don’t seem to like Francis Ford Coppola. And I didn’t see much optimism about something developing within the crucial next few months. Madeleine clearly hopes that Catherine will be able to pull it off, though.
By the way, Madeleine told me that one of the writers who wrote a screenplay had made the main character into a little boy. “Can you imagine that?”she said. “Missed the entire point!”
At one point I raised the question of what part in the process I might play. Hugh seemed to react negatively: “I thought we were just meeting each other.” Madeleine didn’t seem to have any problem with exploring this, and we all agreed that there could be some value in looking over the mathematical and scientific images. They didn’t have a slide projector there, so we couldn’t look at any of the best things. But I said we could look at a couple of the models anyway, and at the end of the evening Hugh said that he wanted me to show “the pictures.” Around 8:30 they said that three hours was the optimum length for an evening, so we all leaped up when we realized it was already 9:40. Madeleine had offered coffee if I didn’t mind instant. So I took her up on that, while Hugh showed me a wall full of photos of their three children and their families and the two of them at earlier stages of their lives, including pictures of Hugh as President Russell shaking hands with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson when they came to see the play. I asked Hugh where he fit in to all the discussion of a possible film, and he said he honestly didn’t know, that no one had put that question to him in just that way. Madeleine came with the coffee. I opened my case to give some copies of the magazines with my work in them, and I pulled out the cross, the unfolding cubical cross—hypercube cross.
The article in The Washington Post had shown me holding this model . . . And that’s why Salvador Dalí had contacted me.
I pulled out the hypercube model. I set up the mousetrap model of a cube. I had this idea that you could take an ordinary cube and fold it out into a cross shape and if you did it with rubber bands, and left it in tension, then what would happen is that if a mouse got onto the middle of the cube, the tension would be released and all the sides would collapse into a cube and the mouse would be trapped in the middle. The four sides spread out into a plane under tension from a rubber band, so that it snaps up into 3-space when the mouse disturbs the equilibrium. They both seemed delighted by the image. I was sitting there on the floor explaining how the models worked, and they seemed much more receptive than earlier. As Madeleine said, “There’ve been a lot of developments in the last twenty years.” I asked Madeleine if she would sign my Wrinkle in Time and she did, “For Tom, with best wishes for successful tessering.” I signed a copy of Computer Graphics and Applications, “To Madeleine and Hugh, the best to you, Tom.” I asked Hugh if he would sign too. He said that he didn’t really have a part in the book, but Madeleine said, “That isn’t really true. You’re my Calvin.” He said, “You’ve never said that to me before,” and put his arms around her. It was really touching. They stood there with arms around each other and looking very happy. I went over to them, and we had a three-way hug and all laughed. So I asked Hugh again if he would write something, and he did . . . Earlier in the conversation, Madeleine said she had been booked up [for talks] through 1985. I asked her if she would ever like to talk at Brown, and she said yes. I said it was too bad about the heavy booking because a good time to speak would be this October. Madeleine asked why October was so important . . . I told her about our party for Flatland’s one hundredth birthday.* She [said she] wants to come! [She wasn’t able to.] After I left, I looked at what Hugh had written in my Wrinkle. “In search of my dimension. Hugh Franklin.” It’s a good story, right? Love, Dad
*Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), by the English schoolmaster and theologian Edwin Abbott Abbott, is a satirical novella that considers the consequences of inhabiting a two-dimensional world. In 1984, Thomas Banchoff organized a three-day conference at Brown University to celebrate the centenary of Abbott’s thought-provoking story and the scientific work on the visualization of multidimensionality that it helped inspire.
In a letter to me dated April 6, 1984, Madeleine wrote:
What a delightful letter to find waiting for [Hugh and me] when we got back from Egypt. It was a special treat in . . . the mail. Yes, Alex Murry [Meg’s father] was a teacher by nature, but by the time of Wrinkle he was involved with research. But I think of him very much the way I see you, as a teacher full of enthusiasm. I love the dialogue you wrote between Meg and her father. How was it the world got along so many centuries without zeros? I agree with Meg that sometimes they can be confusing. You almost convinced me that zero times three equals zero, but not quite. However, when I was in Egypt, one night I explained L’Engle’s Law, which, if you remember it, is that the square of any number is one more than the multiple of the numbers on either side of it [a well-known thing that she had somehow figured out by herself]. Now, if you multiply two numbers which are separated by one number, the answer will be two more than the multiple of the numbers on either side. If you multiply two numbers which are separated by two numbers the answer will be three more, et cetera, et cetera. That goes on forever in a beautiful pattern. Hugh and I hope to see you soon and meet the rest of the family. Love, Madeleine
Q: It sounds as if Madeleine did have an understanding of mathematics.
A: Yes, she did. Most of it was from the popular literature. She liked playing with numbers.
Q: Can you talk about tessering and the validity of what Madeleine says about it in Wrinkle?
A: Tessering is going into the fourth dimension to get from one position in the three-dimensional universe to another one. In the book there’s a place where Mrs Whatsit has an apron on and she shows how you can bring one portion of the apron close to another portion, which would then enable somebody on it to jump instantaneously from one place to another. Tessering essentially means going into a higher dimension where things can fold together, even though the people living in this folded universe aren’t aware of the fold. For them it just represents something kind of impossible. We can’t instantaneously go from earth to another planet unless there happens to be some such fold. Other science fiction writers talk about wormholes, which means that there are tunnels going from one place to another. But this is almost the same kind of thing. Tessering is moving out of the third dimension as we know it into another part of the universe or into a bigger universe. At one point when they’re tessering around on their way to Camazotz, they actually spend a brief time on a two-dimensional universe, which is very, very stifling because it’s like living on a planet with a huge gravitational field, and then they have to get off it. They can’t live in two dimensions. So I guess the idea is that the created universe consists of pieces that are two-dimensional pieces, and that there are also three-dimensional pieces and also pieces that are in the fourth dimension. Camazotz itself is rather three-dimensional. You just have to get there by going through the fourth dimension. As a matter of fact, Madeleine talks about going through the fifth dimension. That’s because she already thinks of the physical world as consisting of the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time. So she needs an additional spatial dimension. Now, I would count it differently and say we have four spatial dimensions and time. Time is a fourth dimension; it’s not the fourth dimension. In order to have a tessering, there has to be at least one more spatial dimension than the three we’re familiar with. It’s not time travel; it’s space travel. And she understood that.
Q: So, from a scientific point of view, what she describes is hypothetically possible?
A: If the universe is curved back on itself . . . but I don’t know that anyone has ever had any evidence of anything like that. The unexplained things in the universe are things like black holes and white holes and various things that you can’t escape from, that are so dense that light can’t escape from them, so you can’t get a message back at all. Who knows where they lead? That sort of thing . . . In science fiction, some characters travel at warp speed, others find shortcuts, and hers is more of a shortcut universe than a warp-speed universe.
Q: Is what she says on the subject rooted in the work of any particular scientist?
A: No. I never got that impression from her. She was familiar with science fiction. She said she wrote the manuscript on a cross-country trip. She and her family were driving across country, and she was writing as they were going along, sometime in the 1950s. She said she wasn’t spending a lot of time ferreting things out of libraries.
Q: Did you know A Wrinkle in Time from before you met Madeleine?
A: Yes. From the time I was at Brown, I was teaching a course on the fourth dimension. Most of my female students would have read A Wrinkle in Time when they were in junior high school, and a lot of the male students had read it too. A couple of students even did projects based on A Wrinkle in Time, including a couple who tried to write a screenplay. We discussed the mathematics behind the book.
In 1998, I was a visiting professor at Yale for one semester, teaching a course on the fourth dimension. One group of students did their final project on various aspects of A Wrinkle in Time, including the religious dimensions and use in classrooms. One first year student, Jessica Weare, made a complete analysis of all the mathematical aspects of the book, a very impressive project.
Q: Would you say that the science that Madeleine was drawing on in Wrinkle was fairly current, or had the ideas she was playing with been around for decades by then?
A: I would say that she didn’t have to go very far. She didn’t need anything very deep. She just needed the ability to move in space.
Q: Or to ask the question differently, would someone who was steeped in science fiction have found anything that was particularly new or cutting-edge in her book?
A: I think that it is science fiction in some sense, but I don’t know which science fiction writers I would compare her to. It was more of an adventure story. A girl’s father disappears mysteriously. It’s really adolescent literature: How can the kid save her old man?
Q: Is there an underlying consistency to the math and science in the book?
A: I can make sense of just about everything that is in it. I believe that Dr. Murry was imprisoned in a hypercube in Camazotz. There are different models of the four-dimensional cube projected into 3-space, the most common one being a cube within a cube. Do you know that image? If you think about looking down a long hallway, at the end of it you’d have a rectangle, another rectangle inside, and the corresponding corners connected, going off to a vanishing point. You can do the same thing in one higher dimension: have a cube inside a smaller cube, with corresponding corners connected. All those lines that connect corresponding corners from outside to inside would all meet at the center. That’s called a tesseract. That’s where the word “tessering”comes from. I don’t know who invented the word, but it was definitely used by C. Howard Hinton, who was a contemporary of Edwin Abbott, the author of Flatland.* They knew each other’s work. They diverged, though, because Hinton was primarily a scientist, whereas Abbott was more interested in using the exploration of dimensionality as a metaphor for social commentary and for the physiology of sense experience and for investigating epistemology—how we know things, especially those things that transcend our ability to gather sense data about them. Abbott was much more philosophical, more theological in fact—and much more in the spirit of Madeleine L’Engle. Madeleine really was interested in theological import. Her ladies were angels, and she was quite aware of the dualism built into Camazotz, the fact that the cold and the warm universes are interlaced, if you will. Those are the images that I was pushing. The central image that I use in my own work is a torus, the surface of a doughnut or an inner tube that turns inside out in the fourth dimension, so that you get the impression that you have a doughnut that is wrapped around another doughnut. One is the world of warm and the other is the world of cold, and they somehow both envelop our existence. So we’re very, very close to both worlds at all times. I always thought of cold and warm as being the essential duality rather than dark and light, which is problematic for other reasons. I have some images that I really thought were absolute naturals for the beginning and the ending of the film.
*Charles Howard Hinton was a late-nineteenth-century British scientist, science fiction writer, and follower of Theosophy who devised methods of visualizing higher dimensions.
Salvador Dalí was probably the most fascinating person I’ve ever met—and the strangest person I ever met, including mathematicians! Madeleine was a very impressive person, but I wouldn’t consider her a strange person at all. In fact, she was very approachable. In 1993, I was there for her seventy-fifth birthday celebration at St. John the D ivine. That was the last time I saw her. It was an open-air kind of event, and she was surrounded by people who loved and admired her.
In my file there’s an e-mail message, dated November 19, 1993, from me to my editor and good friend Jerry Lyons:
I did do a bit of reading of A Wrinkle in Time, impressed once again at how skillfully Madeleine L’Engle handled the displacement her heroine feels. She’s really out of her time and that has to be addressed.
Excerpted from Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus, published in November 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Leonard S. Marcus. All rights reserved.