books, writing

Learning an author by heart

“I do not know everything; still many things I understand.” Madeleine L’Engle, “A Wrinkle in Time”

These three Madeleine L’Engle books are among several that feature the Austin family. They were written over nearly 40 years, although the characters age only four years or so. The way L’Engle fit the same characters into the day into which they were written is fascinating.

Most of my favorite authors didn’t come into my life through a best-seller list or, horrors, a summer reading list. It’s pretty much been serendipity.

One recent favorite, Madeline L’Engle, was discovered in the local library. I know, there’s nothing new about her. She was hugely famous in her time and remains so, most notably because of her Newberry Award-winning, A Wrinkle In Time, which was made into a movie last year.

I met her, oddly enough, through, Two-Part Invention, a dramatically lesser-read autobiography of her love story with husband Hugh Franklin. I was wandering the non-fiction stacks and was surprised to see her name on the front of a non-fiction work. I picked it up, took it home and was immediately hooked. I am now reading through L’Engle’s body of work.

Interestingly, even though I will never meet the now-late author, I realize I will likely know her by heart by the time I am through. It’s the interplay of her auto-biography and her fiction. She’s there — still living and breathing — on every page of her work.

Fatherless daughter themes? L’Engle’s own father’s lungs were damaged in World War I. He was sick when she was born and died when she was 17. Drama and mystery? She was a stage actress, as was her husband, who later starred in the All My Children soap opera. Time-bending themes? She loved science, delving into the writings of Einstein — a year of such study was the inspiration for A Wrinkle in Time.

She also loved both a rambling old house in Connecticut and an apartment in New York. Both places show up in her work at various times. As does adoption. One of her children was the suddenly orphaned child of close friends. Yet another peek at her heart: She was a Christian and was deeply hurt when her fantasy work was criticized by some church groups.

I come by this type of author-immersion honestly. My mom and grandma did similar things with the works of Jack London, John Steinbeck and Gene Stratton-Porter, even wrapping up body-of-work reading sprees with visits to their homes, now museums.

It’s an odd hobby, perhaps, but one that would probably serve any writer well. How about you, fellow writers? Does anyone have any author “friends” they want to share?

17 thoughts on “Learning an author by heart”

    1. I like her philosophy of life — even in the novels that lean toward fantasy, which is not my favorite genre. My overall favorite so far is “Troubling a Star,” an eco/geo-political thriller. 🙂

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  1. I think that’s true for lots of readers. My mom loved the Perry Mason mysteries, later Ironsides. A few years after I picked up an Erle Stanley Gardner paperback and eventually read everything he wrote. Perhaps not as profound or complex as L’Engle whose books I also like. My brother gave me a book by little-known Mary Leister, something of a Rachel Carson— Seasons of Heron Pond, and I immediately began looking for everything she ever wrote. I also found some early essays Harper Lee write. Authors are a literary goldmine!

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  2. We lived in a university town and didn’t move until a semester after I graduated. So I audited some classes, including a course in C. S. Lewis. As a slow reader (I don’t just read the story, I direct the movie) I balked at the reading list – fourteen books in one semester! I doubted I’d get through half of them, but by the end of the semester I had read all of them and gone to the library to find a few more. The Narnia books and “The Screwtape Letters” are still my favorites, read multiple times each. I’ve lost count of how many copies I’ve bought and given as gifts. I’m so looking forward to meeting Lewis. 😉

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      1. Allow yourself time. The first time I read it I could only do one chapter at a time and let the truths sink in. Everything is said in reverse – God is referred to as “Our Enemy” while Satan is “Our Father Below,” etc.

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  3. Recently I was invited to an Anne of Green Gables birthday party! I wore a loose linen dress and boots in an attempt to look a bit orphanly, and we had a talk by someone who was the president of the local Arthur Ransome Society and had a healthy obsession with LM Montgomery. She had recently visited Prince Edward Island to saturate herself in the background of the Anne books. I love meeting people with a delighted obsession with certain authors, and your enthusiasm reminds me why.

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    1. Oooh. How fun. I imagine you looked wonderful! 🙂 I have to admit a big interest in L.M. Montgomery, too, although it’s faded a bit over the years. (There’s nothing of her left to read…) This interest peaked in my late 20s — to the extent that my wedding dress was a white copy of a lavender dress on the cover of one of the Anne books, “Anne of the Island.”

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  4. Ann Patchett. I’ve read many of her books, and one of the highlights of my life was meeting her at Chautauqua Institution a few years ago and having her sign all of my books that she wrote and telling her what food I prepared for book club when we read “The Magician’s Wife.” I just love her!

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    1. 🙂 How fun! And, that’s a whole other facet — the meet and the autograph. They are so special. I only have a couple of signed books, but they’ll be in my bookcase a long, long time.


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