When Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11 of this year, I kept silent most of the day and mourned the rest of the week. Vonnegut had a huge impact not only on my early fiction-writing but also on my early philosophical development: In both areas, he taught me not to take anything — especially myself — too seriously, but at the same time he always hinted at this wry but sublime sense of wonder and seriousness. I loved that man as much as it’s possible to love a stranger. Still, while I did have the splendid good fortune to have heard him speak, at Trinity University in San Antonio some dozen years ago, I had never actually met him.
I did meet Madeleine L’Engle. She autographed my copy of A Wrinkle in Time, and that same day, I was lucky enough to have interviewed her for my college newspaper.
Okay, to be honest, it wasn’t entirely luck, since I was managing editor of the paper and had arranged it so I would be the one to write the interview, because I understood even then what a huge opportunity it was to meet the woman, to speak with her face to face. But I blew the interview, I think. Standing on the auditorium stage after her lecture to the campus, I felt overwhelmed just by her presence, the profundity of her lecture and then, alone with her, the enormity of her fame. My memory of the interview is pretty thin — I remember stammering a few times, and my voice seemed uncharacteristically small, my questions too vague and too few — and the article we printed in the paper, while adequate, is no shining example of award-winning journalism.
But tonight, this is beside the point. I met the woman. I shook her hand. I spoke to her, and she spoke to me. She listened.
I’ve met dozens of authors since. It became a regular part of my graduate studies, and it remains a regular part of my professional life. I meet them, I drink with them, I talk about our craft and about their experiences, I coolly pretend I am on their level as I nod along with their ideas. It’s the game we writers play.
But sometimes I meet a writer worth fawning over, worth doting on, worth dropping pretense and unabashedly saying, “I think you’re brilliant, and I’d love to hear you talk about writing.” Of these, Madeleine L’Engle was the first for me. And now she has died.
In her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time, a trio of kids travel through space and time, across the universe, even. L’Engle calls it “tessering” in the book, as in, “They tessered across the universe.”
In our small paperback copy — my college girlfriend’s, if I remember right, but since I married her, the copy is ours — Madeleine L’Engle, aged already, wrote in her shaky hand, “for Sam & Jennifer tesser well” and signed her name. For all its obvious, self-referential simplicity, it remains one of my favorite autograph-epigraphs. And I’d like to offer it back:
Tesser well, Ms. L’Engle. “I’m sorry we don’t have time to say good-bye to you properly.”* I hope you get where you’re going quickly, and happily.
* This is one of the final lines in A Wrinkle in Time. I hope she doesn’t mind that I’ve borrowed it.