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The Influence of Madeleine L’Engle

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much Madeleine L”Engle has influenced me, both as a person/reader, and as a writer. I read the Time Quartet as a kid, or maybe as a teen, and I LOVED those books! I saw myself in Meg Murry: I was smart but awkward, I felt ugly, and I wasn’t always confident in myself. Seeing an ordinary character like that face something so scary and beyond understanding was a pretty amazing thing. Nowadays it seems like a lot of YA heroines are bad-ass. They can fight and run and shoot and do these incredible physical feats. While I love a lot of these characters (Katniss Everdeen Forever!), I can’t quite identify with them, and I couldn’t as a teen, either. I’ve never been athletic, fast, or strong. L’Engle gave me a character that was none of those things.

I also loved how L’Engle allowed science and faith to co-exist. I grew up being taught that evolution was false and that God created the world. It seemed to me that faith and science were at odds with each other, but L’Engle taught me that they, in fact, are not. I guess you could say she had already begun to open my little conservative evangelical box long before I went through a faith crisis as an adult. Now, I believe in evolution. And I believe God created the world. I don’t care to fuss over the details or the specifics of it all. And I think that’s because L’Engle showed me a different way. She showed me the deep soul-searching and wonder of a person of faith, and she also showed me quantum physics and tesseracts and time travel, and there was nothing wrong with it all fitting together.

In college, I went on a Madeleine L’Engle kick one summer and read all the Vicky Austin books for the first time. This is L’Engle’s realistic fiction YA series.  I was getting over a bad breakup, and it was weird because Zachary Grey reminded me so much of the guy I’d broken up with. I just couldn’t imagine how Madeleine L’Engle could KNOW!? Of course, now I know that there are Zachary Greys everywhere, but at the time, it seemed like these books were written just for me. I loved how Vicky could just telepathically call the dolphins in A Ring of Endless Light. I understood the incomparable beauty of the ocean, the oneness that she felt with the sea and sky and world.

I’m on another L’Engle kick right now, 20 years later. After A Wrinkle in Time came out last spring, I re-read the Time series and lately I’ve been re-reading the Vicky Austin series again. I still find myself relating to Vicky, even though I’m 40 now. In A Ring of Endless Light, her grandfather is dying, and Vicky wonders why and where God is, just as I wonder the same things about the death of my brother. In The Young Unicorns, the Austins have moved to New York, and Vicky is having to adjust, just as my family is adjusting to Louisiana. (News flash: We moved to Louisiana for a job for my husband!) Vicky looks at the world with an inquisitive mind. She wants to find the things with real meaning, and sometimes she looks in the wrong places, but other times she’s spot on, understanding life with a deep maturity. She reminds me of my own teenage daughter, Madeleine. There is something timeless about L’Engle’s books. That is kind of book I want to write. A book that can be read decade after decade and still be relevant.

All this to say . . . I am writing a second novel. On Thursday I’ll start NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, where I’ll aim to write around 1600 words a day in order to have a 50,000 word first draft by the end of November. My first novel Ashes (which, by the way, is still on submission to editors . . . another long, arduous process, but thankfully my literary agent is doing most of the grunt work there!) was one that had been in my head for four years before I ever started writing it. Since it was about a teen who moved to Thailand and felt torn between two countries, two religions, two cultures, and two languages, I could most definitely write from my own experience as a missionary kid in Thailand. In a way, I feel like Ashes is my love letter to Thailand, but it’s also its own story, and the main character, Jasmine, is not me. Jasmine, a 16 yo mixed Thai/American girl moves from her hometown of Washington, D.C. to her mom’s hometown of Bangkok, Thailand, after Jasmine causes an accident that leaves a classmate paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Jasmine must reckon with what she did and find a way to forgive herself all while acculturating to Thailand, trying to make new friends, questioning God, and figuring out if she can be Thai. Of course, there is also a love story woven in.

My second novel is related to but not a sequel to Ashes. Maybe you could call it a companion novel? It’s the story of the girl who was paralyzed. Sarah is what everyone would call the quintessential high school girl: cheerleader, SGA secretary, pianist, beautiful, smart, confident, always-has-a-boyfriend kind of girl. Then the accident happens, and she has to face life with a damaged face and paralyzed legs. Sarah’s father, always focused on the image of a perfect family, descends into anger and revenge, further complicating Sarah’s trauma. Lane, boy in her chemistry class, befriends her (Lane is also a minor character in Ashes), and Sarah finds herself falling for him. But can Lane care for a girl like Sarah?

So for this book, since I’m not paralyzed or handicapped myself, I want to tread very carefully. I want to get the experience of a handicapped person right. I’ve already done a lot of research online, but one thing that’s been bothering me is that I have no personal connection to this. With the first novel, I did, but a girl injured in an accident? A teenager in a wheelchair? I’ve been basically afraid that I can’t write this.

But I was talking to my mom this weekend about my grandmother, who I never knew because she died when I was a baby. My grandmother had MS, which was complicated by a fall resulting in a broken hip and a couple of strokes. After she broke her hip, my grandmother could never walk again. She was confined to a wheelchair for the latter few years of her life. My mom told me about times she’d have to go shopping or do other activities without her mom because there were very few handicapped parking spaces or ramps in the 60s and 70s. And suddenly, I realized I DO have a small connection! I only wish my grandmother were here so that I could talk to her about life in a wheelchair.

I’m still very overwhelmed about writing this book, but thinking about my grandmother gives me a new passion for writing Sarah’s story.

So. . . here we go. Novel number 2. Wish me luck!

 

 

3 comments

  1. Tim Stair says:

    Karissa, L’Engle has long been one of my favorites as well, both her fiction and nonfiction. A Wrinkle in Time is in my top 3 books (fiction or nonfiction) of all time (along with Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale and Martin Luther King, Jr’s The Strength to Love). The scene where Meg is struggling with, and finally realizes, what she has that IT does not, and is able to call Charles Wallace back, is, in my humble opinion, one of the most dramatic and theologically wonderful sections of fiction of all time. May the new novel go well. I’m in the midst of a fledgling new writing group of 4-5 of us in our local area who I admire as writers. I’m still working on getting the novel that was the basis for my MFA thesis where I want it to be, along with a collection of short stories on baptisms in unusual contexts and circumstances. May your family transitions go well also. Grace and peace to you. – Tim

  2. Niki Kantzios says:

    I love L’Engle, too. I think it was she (and Rosemary Sutcliffe) who taught me that YA fiction could still be magnificently literary!

  3. Valerie Petschulat says:

    I often get on a L’Engle kick and reread a series. They never get old to me. I can’t wait to read your novels!

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