Wordy Wednesday–”Under the Influence” Series, Part 3
My mother has some cool cousins. I mean, they’re her cousins, so it’s not like I myself am particularly close to any of them, but the one I’m probably closest to is Hali, with whom I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 2011, and who has invited my Paul and me to a “Moon Dance” in mid-August. We don’t really know what that means, but we’re going to be sure to find out. When I was a kid I thought she was intimidatingly beautiful. Now she just makes me feel happily like I’m not so far from being an abridged hippie after all. Guilty by association or something.
My mom gets along with all her cousins, but the one she’s probably closest to is Ann. Cousin Ann and I share a birthday, so we already have something in common, too. As a child, during our very rare Extended-Family reunions, I would always try to play with Ann’s daughters, both of whom were slightly younger but also prettier and less socially awkward than I was. Maybe. Maybe we were all socially awkward, because I definitely remember wanting to be friends with them, and having less than zero ideas what to talk to them about–but I’m not sure they were any better at making conversation. I like to think we would all do better now–although I’m probably no less socially awkward–but unfortunately I haven’t seen either of them in years.
Their family had a permanent impact on me, however, because it was Cousin Ann or maybe her mother, Auntie Eva, who first recommended that I read the book A Wrinkle in Time. I remember overhearing this conversation but maybe not quite being a part of it, and, as with most books which had been recommended for my reading pleasure by older relatives, feeling somewhat resistant to it. (I always ended up loving those books, too, though, once I gave in to the pressure.) Probably the main motivator to check it out was that I had this sneaking suspicion that Cousin Ann’s daughters were not only prettier, but also smarter, than I was and that reading a book they had read might help me catch up, even if I couldn’t get ahead.
I have read this book as an adult and wondered what it was that captivated me about it as a tween, and I’ve decided it wasn’t the writing, but the fact is, after I broke down and read it for the first time, I really was captivated. I remember being fully aware that it was science fiction, but also aware that there was enough science in it to make the fiction believable and thinking it was kind of astonishing and inspiring that a writer could know so much about science and hoping I could someday write that believably about something I didn’t, at the time, know that much about.
I went on to read many more books by Madeleine L’Engle–not all or even most of them, but both her fiction and nonfiction, and both her books for children and for adults. Here is what I like about her books besides the Extraneous Knowledge thing:
1. She wrote fiction and nonfiction.
2. She wrote for children and adults.
3. Her characters overlap in her novels. She wrote novels in series (A Wrinkle in Time was the first in a trilogy, until in the 90’s she wrote a book about the twin siblings who didn’t get much air time in the trilogy–and I’m still not sure if that was supposed to be part of the series, or a stand-alone), but then you’d be reading a book in another series and suddenly a side character from the last series you read would be a main character in that series, and even though crazy sci-fi/supernatural/paranormal stuff might happen in the story (and then again it might not), it would remind me that life is like that. Everyone’s a main character in their own story, even if they seem like a side character in someone else’s. I have been asked in years past to write a sequel to Trees in the Pavement, and I just can’t because although the ending is somewhat open, I feel like it’s a self-contained story from which an add-on would just detract. However, that’s not to say I haven’t considered utilising Zari’s ex-best-friend as a character in a novel–maybe in a novel for adults, in which the ex-best-friend (and Zari, for that matter) is an adult, too.
4. Certain characters had more sci-fi things happen to them and other characters were in more “realistic” stories, but L’Engle didn’t let that prevent the overlap, even if it was slight. I’m also not positive about this, but I do think that some of the characters in her children’s books ended up sneaking into some of her adult novels as well. I am not sure it’s strictly true to say she used magical realism in her stories, but there was realism, and there was “magic,” and I liked that combo. Lately I have got a few story ideas up my sleeve along the same lines. I’ve tried to write fantasy like Lewis and Tolkein before, and I just can’t do it, but I think I could take the L’Engle approach pretty successfully.
I never had a correspondence with Madeleine L’Engle like I had with Lloyd Alexander, but I did meet her once when she came to my college with a number of other authors (notably Chaim Potok and Frederick Buechner). I wanted an autograph, but all of my copies of her books were back home in New England, and I was in Chicagoland. What I did have was a blank book which I used to have my friends sign after choir tours and mission trips and things. I opened it up to an empty page and mumbled apologetically, “This is a little weird, but . . . can you sign it anyway?”