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Madeleine L'Engle discusses her novel "A Severed Wasp"

BROADCAST: Jan. 30, 1983 | DURATION: 00:51:04


Author Madeleine L'Engle discusses her novel "A Severed Wasp," about a retired concert pianist (Katherine Forrester, who appeared in L'Engle's first novel, "The Small Rain") who puts on a benefit concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at the request of her old friend, Felix Bodeway. Like Katherine, L'Engle is a pianist and the interview is interspersed with Bach fugues throughout. In addition to discussing the plot, Terkel and L'Engle discuss several of the book's characters and their histories and motivations. They also discuss L'Engle's own history as a writer and her relationship with her current publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who ultimately published her most famous novel, "A Wrinkle in Time"). The interview begins and concludes with L'Engle reading excerpts from "A Severed Wasp."


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Madeleine L'Engle is unique among American writers as she works two worlds, two literary worlds. She's a distinguished writer of young people's books notice, I have said young people's books, not children's books. Take it away from that once upon a time patronizing world, the books, "A Wrinkle in Time" ais her most celebrated and, as she will tell you as you go along that young people's books are more sophisticated than many of the adult books. She also writes novels for - I can't find the word - grownups is the word. Her most recent is a very provocative one, a very thoughtful one. It's called "A Severed Wasp" and how this title and its implications more to go [unintelligible]. Her publishers, as they have been for most of her books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And so those severed wasps will be our theme. That is the novel itself but also her thoughts about particularly young people books and grown ups as we go along after this message.


Madeleine L'Engle "The very size of the cathedral was a surprise. The old woman looked around at the columns rising up into shadows at the vast nave sweeping the full length of a city block. Despite a sudden unseasonable heat wave that had turned April into summer, she relaxed into a strange coolness of space and height of soft light filtering through the stained glass of the high windows. She could sense deep love and the retired bishop's voice as he propelled her further into the nave. I've never known a cathedral more beautiful than St. John the Divine and I preached and visited in many. The fact that the building started out Romanesque and got changed to Gothic in midstream doesn't matter. Somehow the mishmash of architecture works. Katherine turned slowly enjoying the coolness that seemed to breathe from the stones. The soft light shimmered against the columns so that they shone like mother of pearl. The bishop said, 'I suppose you are familiar with most of the great cathedrals in Europe.' 'Felix, I'm a pianist, I work hard. I've had little time for sightseeing.' He smiled slightly. 'There are other reasons for going to a cathedral than sightseeing.'

Studs Terkel This is the very opening passage of the novel "A Severed Wasp" read by the author, Madeleine L'Engle and there was a Bach at the piano preceding that. And so this double this double dimension and what we heard is what the book is about too isn't it?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, the the the way a fugue, a fugue weaves like the double helix of DNA. So the the stories of the characters are also as intricately interwoven as a fugue, and, of course, Katherine is a concert pianist who's had a long and very successful career and she's particularly well known for her playing of Bach.

Studs Terkel And this is Katherine Forrester Vigernas and she is retired, she's a grandmother, she's about 70 or so.

Madeleine L'Engle Well, I fudge on her age I think she's a bit older than that.

Studs Terkel Older but let's say mid 70s. She's retired and she visits this cathedral because an old, old, old friend from the past who has just retired as bishop. By--it is St. John the Divine?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes it is.

Studs Terkel And so it is also an Episcopalian.

Madeleine L'Engle Which she finds out to her surprise because she didn't even know they were Episcopal cathedrals or Episcopal [deacons?] or Episcopal

Studs Terkel But how could that be? She lived in this world of music I suppose so so much that the world-

Madeleine L'Engle She mostly lived in France and in Europe and her husband was French and so the world of the Anglican world was completely unknown to her.

Studs Terkel But the story begins. And by the way you mentioned something about a double helix and we'll come to that and your young people's books, but let's stick with Katherine. So we set we set the theme: It's a cathedral plays, the cathedral plays a big role in this novel as does the question of herself and playing a benefit concert at the request -urgent request- of her old friend the retired bishop, Felix Bodeway.

Madeleine L'Engle I see the cathedral as the setting for Katherine's story, just as a ring must have a setting a stone in a ring. But it's her story which is important but she can't escape her past the past comes up and touches on the present that she's drawn into the present and into a world which she thought she had no connection with but finds indeed she does.

Studs Terkel It begins seemingly quietly. You know, Bach music, cathedral, an elderly, retired concert pianist [known?] Her old friend this gentle, genteel, retired bishop. And yet, underneath we sense a tear a tear in her life and past and so are past the past and present converged don't they?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, they do. And in their converging what I wanted to do was to talk about real love, to knock down some of the sexual shibboleths that have grown up in this century and talk about real love. The word relationship only came into the vocabulary about 15 years ago. I did very nicely without it. We have friends, we have lovers. I don't like relationships.

Studs Terkel It's somewhat of a euphemistic word, too, isn't

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, to avoid real friendship.

Studs Terkel We love euphemisms, you know, today. Well, you know what, we call some of the attacks on Vietnam.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel Names Operation Mayflower. Would you

Madeleine L'Engle Oh horrors.

Studs Terkel And so the euphemisms coming coming back to them. The two words Katherine's past converges on her as she meets her old friend--

Madeleine L'Engle Her old friend Felix whom she knew when she was a young, struggling student living in Greenwich Village had a disastrous love affair and Felix was part of their group and at that point he was a pretty lightweight young man. And I first wrote about Felix and Katherine in my very first novel "The Small Rain," which was published in 1945 and which is being reissued. A marvelous thing as your characters keep on growing behind your back while you're not looking. And suddenly there is Felix, a wonderful full, rich human being. I've become very fond of the old man, I never thought he'd turn out that way.

Studs Terkel Well, you see, you never thought he'd turn out that - so in your, sometimes he goes off your typewriter.

Madeleine L'Engle Oh, frequently.

Studs Terkel Now, he - Katharine appeared in an earlier novel.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, my very, very first novel, most of which was written while I was in college and finished when I got out and was published shortly

Studs Terkel Was she young in that novel?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, I left her age about 17, about to start a career, going back to study with Justin her teacher whom she subsequently married. And I knew all of these years that I had to find out what happened to her, but I had to wait to grow up, to be old enough myself to know what had happened to her.

Studs Terkel So you pick her up

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, yes in this this [non-age?]

Studs Terkel But the world we're talking about that other world is the world of Europe. It's also the world of Naziism too.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes which very definitely affected Katherine and her husband. She was in prison outside Paris and her husband was in Auschwitz as many musicians were who refused to play for the Nazis and he was tortured.

Studs Terkel Oh that was the -- she did what Toscanini did.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel She refused to play and so

Madeleine L'Engle And when she's asked why she says, "I don't know. I'm just stubborn to the point of pigheadedness, I couldn't do it."

Studs Terkel Katherine [stick with it?], I wonder whether you have a model for - she was not political really was she?

Madeleine L'Engle No, I think people who devote their lives entirely to an art, as she did to the piano, are apolitical. But when suddenly faced with politics, with the Nazis who were destroying people, musicians, artists, professors simply because they were Jews. She could not she could not stay out of being political because to say "I will not play for you" was a political statement.

Studs Terkel And so this past comes to her as she meets Felix but also as the question is should she or should not play this benefit though she's promised to retire.

Madeleine L'Engle She will play that benefit for Felix where she would not play a benefit for the Nazis. But one of the extraordinary things to me in working out the the people in this book was how important in her life became Lucas, who had been the Nazi in charge of her prison in Paris, and who was subsequently disillusioned with the Nazi religion. And he becomes a very, very strong influence in her life.

Studs Terkel And in a way where something happens in this book Lucas an aspect of Lucas appears later on.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, that's rather surprising.

Studs Terkel That materializes. So the - so as she's in New York and, of course, there's violence in the world in big cities. She's back and forth, herr mind and thoughts go back and forth. The cathedral is still, the cathedral in the yard the community where the

Madeleine L'Engle [Are?] the setting, yes. But I think as we grow older we live in more than one world. I have seen old people who simply live in the year that they are in which seems to me a very limited kind of world to live in. I'm all of the years I have lived. I'm the young Katherine. I haven't got to the old Katherine yet she's about a good bit older than I am. But we don't lose any of our lives and so the past and the future do interweave and the three men who are important in her life are out of Europe. And then comes Felix and in the present.

Studs Terkel And rather with Katherine your your protagonist was there someone like her whom you knew or?

Madeleine L'Engle When I first wrote about Katherine in "The Small Rain," I was trying to write about the artist's commitment to work. And I do play the piano and my mother was a pianist. I was Katherine, I simply made her a pianist instead of a writer because the commitment is pretty much the same.

Studs Terkel Katherine's mother was a musician too,

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel And she was a singer? Was she?

Madeleine L'Engle No, she was a pianist.

Studs Terkel She was

Madeleine L'Engle She was a pianist who's career was cut off very early. My mother happily lived to be 90.

Studs Terkel But we come to to the people of the community now surrounding St. John's, the Divine, the cathedral.

Madeleine L'Engle Now, St. John the Divine stands in a rather peculiar place up on the Heights in New York City. South of it is the Hispanic world and east of it is Harlem. West of it is more or less middle class America, more like the Village and then north of it are the educational enclaves. Columbia, Barnard, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, the Manhattan School of Music so it lives in the middle of a very very varied community.

Studs Terkel So this is the world, so when you speak of the yard the stone yard, it's really the world,

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, it's a microcosm.

Studs Terkel Yeah, a microcosm of the world. And Katherine is now part of that world. But always there's always an aspect of that terror what will happen to you in life not just streets, but memories, and Nazis. But you also there's reference to a cockroach. She doesn't like cockroaches [and some will have the thought?] cockroaches are the only species that will survive a nuclear war.

Madeleine L'Engle And if you live in an old New York apartment building, as we do, it's a constant battle against these creatures who are going to survive anything. Now, I'm not coy about age. I was born shortly after the armistice that ended the First World War. My father was gassed in the First World War. I have lived in a century of war and terror of war. My young womanhood was in the Second World War in which my French cousins were in the Maquis or fighting with de Gaulle. Many of my friends were killed. We have not lived in a green and pleasant land, it has been a world of fear and terror that I brought my children up in. And now that my grandchildren are growing up in it's also been a world of extraordinary fascination.

Studs Terkel I think you see in all your books I'm thinking of "A Wrinkle in Time" which is the children's book can I should say, a young people's book. And there's a reason why I hesitate using children's because of that one equivalent of a Pulitzer, Rudolph, and Newbery Award and all your children's books about 15 16 or so in number.

Madeleine L'Engle I don't know. I have 33 books published and I can't keep track of which is which. But "Wrinkle" almost never got published. It was projected for two and a half years, you name any major publisher they will have rejected it. And the chief reason is that it is too difficult for adults. It deals with post-Newtonian concepts of science with Einstein's theories of relativity, with Planck's quantum theory the Tesseract is a real word. I didn't make it up and so editors assume children couldn't understand it.

Studs Terkel Since we've gone to this, we'll return to "A Severed

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, please.

Studs Terkel We'll return to "A Severed Wasp," but there's something you said here we can't leave this. You and your books they deal with post Newtonian physics. The young people, you're implying, understand where is the grown

Madeleine L'Engle The young people have grown up in the world of physics and cellular biology and non-linear time. But this didn't burst upon the world until the late '40s and most people my age went to school before all of this happened. Now, I don't like lower math. I'm not any good at it. I can't add, I can't do the multiplication table, and I can never figure out how much to tip. But I understand higher math because it ask questions, it asks questions about the nature of being. I liked the idea that time can flow backwards as well as forwards and the smallest thing we found a tiny subatomic particles, the quanta, that cannot be a [quantum?], because quanta cannot live in isolation they only live together in that nasty word, relationship, and it seems that they -- experiments have proven that they can communicate with each other across time and space. What I call kything.

Studs Terkel But kids understand

Madeleine L'Engle Oh yes.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Madeleine L'Engle Because their minds are still open. They haven't shut down their their barricades they haven't barred the doors and closed the shutters they still open to new ideas.

Studs Terkel These are more sophisticated books than the adult books, to some extent.

Madeleine L'Engle Well, that certainly in as far as the technological world is concerned yes they are. They deal with new things. I'm fascinated by the new sciences and I read a lot about them.

Studs Terkel Buckminster Fuller was saying that his granddaughter in the buggy heard this not good or not but heard the sound of an airplane before she heard the voice of a nightingale. That is the world of technology and science has so overwhelmed the young people growing up today that they hear the invented sound sooner than the natural sound.

Madeleine L'Engle And I think that's a terrible loss and that's why I have set my Murry family who are the protagonists of the scientific books in the country. Where the twins have a vegetable garden, where they are still in touch with the land as well as with the world of the new sciences. But they do hear the nightingale before they hear the airplane.

Studs Terkel That's it. You are working on a film version of "A Wrinkle in Time."

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, I'm writing the screenplay for Norman Lear and I have an extraordinary contract in which I actually have in red ink, which is as close as I can get to blood, that character and theme may not be changed. It's a very,very interesting project. I'm enjoying it.

Studs Terkel So, we're talking about the double world with you. But how do you work that world of young people's books and adult novels?

Madeleine L'Engle I don't work if I simply write books.

Studs Terkel Yeah, you write books.

Madeleine L'Engle But they're not as far as I'm concerned -- we decide how to market them after I finish them. But I approach a science fiction novel or a fantasy novel in exactly the same way that I approach a realistic novel. If I think the book is going to be too difficult for adults, I will make my protagonist 12, 14 something like that.

Studs Terkel We're going to return to "A Severed Wasp," which is the novel we're talking about, but I can't quite leave this yet. When did this change take place and what was once known as children's books now called young people's books and a change in the nature of writing and themes that made them not the patronizing little things they were but something else. When did this

Madeleine L'Engle It began to change in the 60s and I was a little ahead of the change which may be one reason it took me so long to get my first children's books published. I'd written half a dozen regular novels, but in the 60s we were discovering all kinds of new things. We discovered that children are intelligent. They need not be protected from such ideas as death and evil and war that they know about these things that we might as well write about them and give them a little hope that their lives are not meaningless. I think children are looking for meaning in a world which is confused and I hope my books offer some hope for meaning for that structure which liberates rather than the structure which imprisons and the new sciences I find very liberating and very exciting.

Studs Terkel You know I think it was a, you know, Bronowski was talking about Einstein, about Niels Bohr and way back Newton. He says "the scientist the real scientist is a poet." That's why you liked the higher math to do with the word relation with attitudes toward life and beings. That is the science -- it's the technician who is the plotter.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel Who goes from one step to another and doesn't care that the end result may be napalm or whatever it is not. Whereas the scientist is one who leaps, who does take quantum leaps, one thought leads like a poet but has the mind of a poet and an artist.

Madeleine L'Engle And then the technician has to come back and work out the equations that lead up to where the scientists have taken the quantum leaps. Einstein's leaps were incredibly poetic. He himself said that anyone who was not lost in rapturous awe at the glory of the power of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt out candle. Then there was a man in England now called Stephen Hawkings [sic] who has neuron motor disease, he's entirely crippled, he can't feed himself. But within this crippled body he says he has more freedom to think and he has taken astrophysics as far beyond Einstein as Einstein took it beyond Newton and this is very exciting.

Studs Terkel Hawkings [sic], yes. But isn't that funny? So now what Hawkings [sic], would someone like Hawkings [sic] become the protagonist of one of your young people's books? Possibly?

Madeleine L'Engle Possibly.

Studs Terkel I don't mean he, someone like him.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, I think it's very likely. I would have to do a great deal more serious studying in whichever area of science I choose to delve. When I wrote "A Wind in the Door", which is ten books later than "A Wrinkle in Time" but the first companion piece, I had to spend about a year learning cellular biology because it deals with the world of celluar biology and the mitochondria. It's a real word. I like to do research, it's one thing I learned in college.

Studs Terkel What happens when a young person who is reading that book comes across that word? Looks it up or just understands it by vir-- by nature of its being in a certain passage?

Madeleine L'Engle I think young people reading read exactly the way I read if I came to a word I didn't know I just went on. I didn't stop to look it up. And by the time I'd come across it two or three times intuitively and I learned what it meant. Many, many that are saying our mitochondria are real? And yes, of course, they are real.

Studs Terkel OK, now, we'll return. So, not accidentally, you use metaphors like in "A Severed Wasp," the novel at hand. Madeleine L'Engle is my guest and we're talking about her most recent book "A Severed Wasp" dealing with the retired concert pianist Katherine Forrester Vigneras, Vigneras.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes I

Studs Terkel --. Vigneras and meeting her old friend. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, the publishers. She can still play but she figures it's time to quit.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes. She still plays probably as well as she ever did. But in her youth she did hear Paderewski's last concert as I did in my youth and the old men couldn't play. And it was tragic. And I was in college and when some of my friends left, I went into the bathroom and wept.

Studs Terkel You remember that?

Madeleine L'Engle Oh I'll never forget it. But on the other hand I heard Rubinstein play when he was equally old and his fingers looked like gnarled turnips and the music came out of them just as gorgeous as ever. So, when your time to stop comes is not legislated chronologically like my grandfather always said he would retire young and retired at the age he'd always planned to retire which is 95. And he was a marvelous old man. You would have thought he was sixty.

Studs Terkel Was he a craftsman?

Madeleine L'Engle In his own way, he was a banker. But that can be

Studs Terkel That can be a craft, indeed. But he retired in his own time at 95.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, at 95.

Studs Terkel And other than the question-- it's the question of when and for an artist, of course, especially so.

Madeleine L'Engle To know, to sense when your powers are beginning to diminish is

Studs Terkel You know, as I was reading my guest's book "A Severed Wasp," and the dilemma facing the artist who had retired and was questioning when or should she do this benefit concert. I thought of Lotte Lehmann, one of the great lieder singers of our century and Lotte Lehmann at Town Hall, sometime in the late forties I think [I forget when it was?] decides to tell the public that just worships her they're there. It's a packed house. She's still in her prime. And here's what she said, this is the actual actual words:.

Lotte Lehmann I didn't want to announce it before because I don't like to celebrate my own funeral. But this tonight is my farewell recital in New York. Thank you, I hope you will protest but please don't [argue with me?]. You see I started to sing in public in 1910 and after forty one years of hard work, [inattention?], and nervous strain, I think I deserve to take it easy and to relax. I think you know that the Marschallin in "Rosenkavalier" has always been one of my favorite parts. This Marschallin is a very wise woman. She looks into the mirror and she says, "It is time," so I, as a singer, look into the mirror, and I say, "It is time." Oh, yes. I have made up my mind. These have been very, very happy years which I have sung for you. Town Hall has always been a kind of a home to me, a home which now which, reluctantly and sadly, I have to abandon. My managers have been very nice, everything they did for me--.

Studs Terkel That was quite a moving moment. And then she pays tributes to all her tribute to all her colleagues. But that decision on her part even though the audience cries out, "No no.".

Madeleine L'Engle A singer or a dancer have to retire earlier than many other artists because they're the voice, the body deteriorates we hope before the mind. And it is perhaps easier to make a decision as to when to stop. We have a number of friends in the City Ballet who know that their life expectancy as dancers is not long, but for someone who uses another instrument like Katherine the piano or a violin or me with words, the dividing line is is harder to find. And I think she's wise in stopping when she knows she's at the height of her power.

Studs Terkel And so we have Katherine now, this is one of the dimensions of the book, "A Severed Wasp," but then there's another aspect. We'll take a pause now or return as to the underlying terror, not simply of Katharine and the memories of Europe but also of a late phone call she gets from our friend Felix. And again something's going on in this world, I can't quite figure out within within the stone yard of this cathedral.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, that's right. But within that area of New York City we walk daily with terror.

Studs Terkel So you speak of the city and violence and a world.

Madeleine L'Engle Now, not just New York City I don't want to give New York the bad name that it has but it's the entire world, now.

Studs Terkel It's the world really, and the city itself is almost the living metaphor.

Madeleine L'Engle And some of the most horrible acts of of just dreadful things have been in little tiny villages.

Studs Terkel Absolutely.

Madeleine L'Engle So it's not just the cities, the atmosphere of the entire planet.

Studs Terkel We'll come to that. That's what it's about to-- we'll come to that. And also that that title itself coming from Orwell. [I'd like to?] talk about that in a moment. Madeleine L'Engle, Farrar Straus Giroux, the publishers, "A Severed Wasp," we'll resume after this message. So we'll resume with the novel.

Madeleine L'Engle Ok.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible] We're delighted to have you as a guest again.

Madeleine L'Engle Oh I love being with you, you always do your homework and it's just fun to work with you.

Studs Terkel Well, I'm thinking of the epigraph from the beginning. Yeah he says it's Orwell hey, this quote in the book, "I've just discovered it though Dave his colleague says it was old hat when he was in the seminary. He,George Orwell, talks about a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp." Unquote. And then the bishop looks down at the page and I quotes Orwell, "He was sucking jam on my plate, the wasp, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention merely went on with his meal on a tiny stream of jam trickled out of a severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. And then. It's the same with modern man. And there was a period twenty years perhaps during which he did not notice it was absolutely necessary that the soul be cut away. Religious belief in the form that we had known it had to be abandoned." And so, he's picking up on the Orwell.

Madeleine L'Engle I think what's happened is that we have grown intellectually and technologically so far ahead of our spiritual and inner development. And that's one reason that we're out of synchronization with ourselves and that's one reason I have lived in a century of war and a century of terror. We need to get back into synchronization and I think that's one of the things I like about Katherine and Felix that as old people they have learned to be in sync with themselves, to accept all of themselves not just a part.

Studs Terkel Is this? This is you say this is a recurring theme in all your work isn't

Madeleine L'Engle It very likely is.

Studs Terkel In your, in your if I use the word, "young people's books" as well as the adult book, this is a recurring theme?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, I think so that we need to catch up with ourselves that we're--

Studs Terkel And so we're, at the moment, many of us is in the condition of the wasp.

Madeleine L'Engle That's right.

Studs Terkel Who's

Madeleine L'Engle And not realizing that he is incomplete and proclaiming, "This is how it ought to be." And, of course, it's only when as as Allie,who's reading it, says only when we discover that we have a wound that we can hope to heal it.

Studs Terkel And so not removed from that baby, at the moment, the granddaughter of a renowned thinker like Bucky Fuller, she first heard the airplane before the nightingale and you and your books have both happening, but the nightingale is heard because they live out of

Madeleine L'Engle They live out as the city and they grow plants and they dig in the deep rich dirt earth and they're not completely out of touch with the natural rhythms of the planet. We have lost our are our intercourse with the planet and I think that's a tragic thing. Otherwise-- we couldn't destroy cities, we couldn't destroy towns or we do if we had remained in contact with our Earth.

Studs Terkel I suppose, in a grotesque case would be the approach of our Secretary of Interior today, to the very thing you're talking about.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes. Or the fact that during the Vietnam War a town had to be destroyed in order to be saved. That was one of the most horrible ironies. As a matter of fact, Katharine's husband writes a concerto about that

Studs Terkel That's right, that's in your book isn't it?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel The the Katharine's husband whose fingers were broken by the Nazis, he refused to play. Justin?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel Wrote something so he had to write something about the world in which he lived.

Madeleine L'Engle About man's inhumanity to man, to use the old, old phrase.

Studs Terkel But coming back to the matter of the the one part of life being explored, the scien-- the technolog- the technical.

Madeleine L'Engle It's become technocratic rather than technological. That's what's wrong with it

Studs Terkel Technocratic and so Katherine and Felix are living in that world. We just talked to them [alone?],now we come to the other people in the book. There is the the bishop who succeeded Felix, Undercroft.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel And his wife who was a very -- Yolanda

Madeleine L'Engle A very complicated character born in Buenaventura,Columbia. And I've been in Buenaventura,Columbia and it is dismal dismal terrible poverty something that we simply don't know in this country. And she's been abused all her life. She's discovered to have a magnificent voice but her managers abuse her and it's only when she falls in love with Allie and he with her that she realizes

Studs Terkel - Allie is?

Madeleine L'Engle Is the bishop - that there can be such a thing as as honest love between people not manipulative and controlling but true,real honest love.

Studs Terkel And so-- but Yolanda also-- we also come to two different forms of worship too,don't we here? You mention the Hispanic community where among the places where St. John the Divine's is. And she's Hispanic and the woman who works for them is to as the two little children.

Madeleine L'Engle Portuguese Hispanic.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And so something's going on I'm not quite certain of, that is Katherine and Felix. The religion practiced by the Hispanic is different from the Episcopalian cool one.

Madeleine L'Engle Well, not not really. There are many Hispanics who come to the cathedral but the majority of Hispanics are are Roman Catholic. But Yolanda grew up really in a religion less world where religion was totally pagan and she can't lose that entirely. And as a popular singer she was used to being worshiped, she was used to being God and that's very hard to let go. And she hasn't been able quite to relinquish being the goddess the pagan goddess and that causes her, and everybody else, a great deal of trouble.

Studs Terkel You know, she reminds me of, I'm thinking

Madeleine L'Engle Yma - yes!

Studs Terkel Were you thinking of Yma Sumac?

Madeleine L'Engle I probably was.

Studs Terkel Yolanda Xabo.

Madeleine L'Engle Well, she has the same kind of incredible range although I've been told that Yma Sumac did not come from

Studs Terkel But to see Yolanda's range and appearance we're seeing pictures of Sumac that that have-- so something we have to come to our friend. We know we just touched on the life, the past, and the present of Katherine and the Germany and the camps and the horror. Felix has his own kind of terrors and fears.

Madeleine L'Engle Felix, the-- a gentle artistic nature, was sent in the war to Graves Registration. Graves Registration meaning to gather together the remnants of bodies so they can be sent home and buried. An incredible job. When he saw aviator's hung up at [Freisen?] elongated like spaghetti and there were bones of five aviators, they couldn't make the bones come out. It was for Felix, strangely enough, it was a conversion experience it was so horrible that God had to be there. But many of the people who were in Graves Registration have had terrible nightmares the rest of their lives as indeed Felix had but I did not write that out of thin air.

Studs Terkel [What is that?]?

Madeleine L'Engle Well, I mean, I knew somebody who went through these experiences I couldn't have written about them. I couldn't have imagined them.

Studs Terkel This experience helped Felix. Perhaps the person you know to become something different than he seemed to be becoming when he was young.

Madeleine L'Engle Well he said that the chaplain gave them his whiskey ration so that they could get drunk on good liquor rather than bad because that was the only way they could cope with them trying to sort out the bones of five aviators. And he said perhaps it was that act of kindness that made him turn towards a vocation where he would have to think of other people.

Studs Terkel And so out of a horror came a calling.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, as often happens.

Studs Terkel But then he also is worried because something is bothering him. Calls are coming.

Madeleine L'Engle Right, he's being terrorized. He's he's getting frightening phone calls. There's a call which threatens to expose a rather nasty episode in his past which really wasn't nasty but could be construed as such.

Studs Terkel I misinterpreted it-- in fact, I was going to criticize you and [now I see?], I didn't read that sequence carefully enough. It brought implications that Felix was gay and, thus, discharged from the Army and I had the impression that in your book you're saying he was not really gay and I was getting angry at you, Madeleine L'Engle, for copping out.

Madeleine L'Engle No,Felix is

Studs Terkel He is gay.

Madeleine L'Engle But he was discharged unjustly because the discharge came from the fact that he was having a nightmare. One of his sergeant heard him screaming and came in to comfort him. And they were accused.

Studs Terkel No, but I'm saying--.

Madeleine L'Engle But Felix--.

Studs Terkel About my

Madeleine L'Engle Oh!

Studs Terkel -careless reading of that part. I was getting mad at you, Katherine L'Engle [sic], you should not cop to-- In the play, "Tea and Sympathy,".

Madeleine L'Engle Yeah, that's

Studs Terkel I was furious at that play because the boy was accused of being gay, at the end it turned out all he need was a good understanding

Madeleine L'Engle And a cup of tea.

Studs Terkel And so, "Tea and Sympathy," I was furious! And I thought you were doing the same thing, but, fortunately, Felix does turn out to be gay.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, he

Studs Terkel So, I was I was misinterpreting you. And this, 'cause this is one of the one of the flaws I find in some writings of the past of that when the subject was not as brought out of the closet as today. This copping out but you don't.

Madeleine L'Engle Now, that's one of the things I wanted to write about because Felix is somebody who knows who he is and therefore is capable of truly loving. Now, we cannot love either heterosexually or homosexually unless we know who we are.

Studs Terkel I'm coming now, we are coming now to Katherine. Her decision. She's going to do this benefit concert for Felix who, obviously, Felix's dream was to finish some part of the cathedral to raise some dough and cash and [a benefit to do it?] and now you you threw out music plays a role, music plays a role in the novel.

Madeleine L'Engle Music is healing. To find out who we are is to accept that we're wounded. And when we accept that we're wounded then we need to be healed. And for Katherine, who has many incredible psychic and actual wounds, music is what gets her through them. But neither Katherine nor Felix ever make the mistake of pretending that a wound is is good. It's always something that you have to be healed from in order to grow more deeply into who you really are.

Studs Terkel But there she is in this apartment, she owns this building in the Village and there's the playing. I mean you know that was a marvelous actress named Sybil Thorndike.

Madeleine L'Engle Oh yes,

Studs Terkel Doyenne of British is [unintelligible] at the age of 90. Just, "Well-" I interviewed her once, you'd get a tremendous kick out of her. She was about 89 making her debut in a musical. It was "Becky Sharp," it was a musical and she's going to sing. And she was 89, 90. Oh, maybe she was 90? In the dressing room, she goes, "Oh, I'm just I'm learning to play and I had a little [chest?] at home, so I play Bach every day. I play" -she had that voice you know- "I play Bach every day,always lifts my spirits.

Madeleine L'Engle Well, I play Bach everyday too.

Studs Terkel Do you?

Madeleine L'Engle Yes I do. In the evening before I cook dinner, I go to the piano for about an hour, an hour and a half and I'll play other things too, but Bach always has to be part of what I'm playing to round out the day.

Studs Terkel Suppose we --it's you, here, this is you, Madeleine L'Engle, and it's Katherine and we hear let's say sometime during the day she's feeling pretty low. She sits at the piano. I suppose that could be Katherine, happened to be Rosalyn Turek in this case, but you are one of the few novelists, you know, it's never been fully dealt with the music and the novel or the life of a musician and of course Thomas Mann, I suppose the most celebrated of the novelists who deals with the musical life. It really, it hasn't been touched too often.

Madeleine L'Engle And Romain Rolland in "Jean-Christophe"

Studs Terkel [unintelligble] Rolland, yeah.

Madeleine L'Engle Music I suppose I write about music because it is my my secondary my my avocation. I grew up with music and if I'm confused, if I'm disturbed and I can't figure something out either in something I'm writing or in my own life if I can go to the piano and play for a while I will that will that will free my subconscious mind to send me what I need. One time when I was extremely disturbed and upset about something my young son said, "Oh mother go to the piano and play for an hour." Knowing that that would put me back into proportion.

Studs Terkel So this plays a part here certainly and in a lot of your work.So also do you do when you work a novel, right? Did you think in terms of the way Bach would think of music? [I'm thinking that of?] architectural--.

Madeleine L'Engle I think a novel is architectural in very much the same way that that a fugue is. What's called [foreign language?]. And that you have to, your characters twine and intertwine as as as in the double helix of DNA that they cannot be--the lives cannot be separated and that we, like unintelligible], cannot be studied objectively because to look at us to change us. So you have characters interacting in conflict, in joy, in pain and the interaction changes them.

Studs Terkel And I think also some of the other characters in your book we haven't talked about. There's little boy, [Topaz?],

Madeleine L'Engle Oh, [Topaz].

Studs Terkel He's a the son of a woman who works there, Mrs. Gomez, strange figure, who I feel that you may have short changed Mrs. Gomez.

Madeleine L'Engle Well I think probably I did short change Mrs. Gomez. We had to cut the book down from an 800 page manuscript.

Studs Terkel But you describe [Topaz?] as a beautiful boy, remind you of a Renaissance child and as you said that a sudden memory came to me. I was in Verona for a certain occasion back in 63. There were awards, Prix Italia Awards and as about half a dozen of us are picking up these awards that evening in this castle in this medieval castle in Verona. The guy who is going to give me the award, the old Italian sort of ambassador says, "You must wear-- wear a cravat. Do not wear your bow tie, go to a store along the Via Mancini --that's the shopping mall-- and you and ask for a [Italian], pearl gray cravat. So, I go into the store, and there was a boy and he's about 13, and, I know Verona is a Renaissance city. He was a Renaissance child. He had that beautiful face. I gave him the bow tie and he gave me this cravat. I looked in the mirror I saw that that night we're passing we're going after the banquet we're in the basement in the cellar of this castle. And there are many Renaissance paintings that were put there because of the Allied bombings toward the end of the War of North Italy and they put the protection and we stop another guy a big Englishman named [Larry Gilliam?] who was head of the committee. I stop in front of this one painting by a guy named Veronese, 15th century, and it says "Bambino seduto." I look at that picture that boy seated and I say to [Gilliam?], I saw that boy this afternoon and it was like an identical boy. I mean it here was 1962, 63 and here is 1542, same boy.

Madeleine L'Engle But it's interesting they're always city boys, they're always street

Studs Terkel Street boys, that's right. The

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel But there was something about that city and that climate that made it Renaissance. And so this kid you describe [Topaz?] has that quality.

Madeleine L'Engle [Topaz?] does and he's a wounded sparrow as many city street gamins are. I have great affection

Studs Terkel And you said wounded sparrow, you said sparrow.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel Well, Piaf. Edith Piaf.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, of course, was the sparrow.

Studs Terkel That was the name, sparrow.

Madeleine L'Engle I heard Piaf sing. Oh how magnificent she was--

Studs Terkel But she was of that--

Madeleine L'Engle [Topazes?] from New York but the same kind of street background where you have to discover yourself in the most difficult possible ways and he, he forms a strange affection for Katherine, who he called his music lady, because music is important in his life which has very little beauty otherwise.

Studs Terkel And then of course there's a girl, Emily.

Madeleine L'Engle Yes.

Studs Terkel Who also is someone quite--she's the child of the young dean.

Madeleine L'Engle And Emily has met with terror in her life and has to pick up a career. She's been a child ballet dancer with what everybody thought was a great career ahead of her. And in an act of terror her leg is crushed and she loses one leg and so ballet is out and she has to find herself at age 11 or 12 all over again. So, Emily is again someone who has to accept her wounds and find out who she is and what she can do.

Studs Terkel So it's, so it's a question of wounds that are inflicted and the adjusting or accepting of them and then continue to find

Madeleine L'Engle Well it's an odd thing that we do grow out of experience and particularly out of experience that hurts us. I once said to a very famous [man that better be nameless?] that most of my best work had come out of pain at which he remarked calmly, "Let's hope something terrible happens to you soon." So I didn't really appreciate, but it's, it is strangely true.

Studs Terkel It's funny. Even though he meant that as a gag, of course.

Madeleine L'Engle He was also serious at

Studs Terkel Yeah, well, you know, Nelson Algren, my friend who I quote very often was talking about digging into the pain of this world, you know, sort of trying to lance the boil or get at it or the canker, whatever it might be. And then he says, "Life is terrible, thank God."

Madeleine L'Engle Yes, and I think that's a marvelous analogy to try to dig into the pain and to cut it out so that you have healthy tissue.

Studs Terkel "Life is terrible, thank God" this is for this particular kind of creative artist who has to get into

Madeleine L'Engle Because then it is also marvelous, you can't have one without the other. That's the extraordinary

Studs Terkel So, we're talking about Madeleine L'Engle and "A Severed Wasp" is the novel. Before we hear some more Bach to the wind up, coming back to the two world you live in and you say it's really one. I mean the young people's books and the adult books.

Madeleine L'Engle I don't write them any differently but I am very blessed with having a publisher who has refused to go conglomerate and be owned by Corn Flakes.

Studs Terkel [That] is one of the few, Farrar-- I should point this out, Farrar, Straus and Giroux is one of the few--

Madeleine L'Engle Independent publishers--

Studs Terkel --non

Madeleine L'Engle And they allowed me to write whatever I want to write. There's no pressure on me to repeat a bestseller. No pressure to do the same thing in different colors and I'm very very grateful to Roger Strauss, Bob Giroux and, of course to John Farrar who is now dead but who was the one who first brought me into that firm.

Studs Terkel So, you've been with Farrar, Straus and Giroux throughout?

Madeleine L'Engle No I went to them with "A Wrinkle in Time" which was my seventh book to be published but I have been with them ever since then, that was in, they they accepted it in 1961, published it in 1962.

Studs Terkel So this is Madeleine L'Engle's most recent book, "A Severed Wasp," it might be good to read, [you can read?] Katherine as a finding of selves here to some extent and she's gone to the cathedral to offer the benefit concert crowd and perhaps just read the last of three or four sentences and that's [at the point?] we'll go into Bach by way of thanking you very much, Madeleine L'Engle, for being a guest once again on the program.

Madeleine L'Engle It's always wonderful to be with you. Katherine says at one point that if we're to survive we must have great compassion on ourselves. And so she returns Emily's smile just before she's about to start the piano "and glanced once more at all these people she had known for only a few months. Between them all they held a great many secrets. Between them all they had worked out as much peace as the human being is likely to have. She turned her mind away from them and focused it on music. The rustlings in the stalls and throughout the crowded nave stopped and there was anticipatory silence. For Katherine as she held her hands over the keyboard, there was nothing but the piano and she and the sensitive instrument were no more than living extensions of each other. When the music had fully entered into her, she began to play."