What happens when you revisit the woefully misremembered science fiction of your youth? Joe Howley (Latin teacher) and Johannah King-Slutzky (internet wraith) asked adults to re-read their genre favorites from childhood. For the second in our Time Quartet series, we talked to bona fide adult Julia Wetherell, a radio producer for Playing on Air and one of the developers of the upcoming Autostraddle podcast. We spoke with Julia via Gchat about how A Wind in the Door initiated her into dramas of the unseen, our permanent fascination with mitochondria, and why Proginoskes is the series’ dearest sassy gay friend. (The following conversation has been gently massaged for clarity.)
Previously: Our interview with archaeologist Kate Franklin about A Wrinkle in Time.
JOHANNAH: Hi, everyone here?
JOE: Well hello there!
JOHANNAH: Alright, Julia, can you tell us a little about your professional (or personal, if you want) background?
JOE: Julia: who the heck are you.
JULIA: I’m a radio producer and I do a couple of things. I’m the associate producer of Playing on Air, which is a public radio program/podcast for contemporary short theater, so I edit a lot of radio plays and interviews, and get to work with actors and playwrights. I’ve also done radio feature work, mostly for Studio 360. I also do random freelance work, which is sometimes boring, and sometimes awesome! Such as, right now I’m on a team developing a new podcast for Autostraddle.com. And I’m a hobbyist science fiction writer.
JOE: When did you first encounter this book, and have you read it many times since then?
JULIA: I think my grandma gave me all of the Wrinkle in Time books when I was, say, 7? 8?
JOE: Solid grandmaing.
JULIA: Yeah, she was really good at passing on the subtly Judeo-Christian fantasy literature, which I appreciated a lot. I don’t explicitly remember reading any of them more than once, but I must have. At least the first one. And honestly, A Swiftly Tilting Planet might be my favorite — or at least the one that I thought about the most when I was nine years old. But for some reason A Wind in the Door jumped out at me when Johannah mentioned doing this. And it is 100% because of the mitochondria and the farandolae.
JOE: The first thing I said to Johannah about this book was that I didn’t enjoy it, and the root of that seemed to be the mitochondria and farandolae.
JULIA: Man, it’s definitely not as cohesive or charming as the others. It’s very dream- or anime-like.
JOE: Part of my complaint was that I never really believed any of it was happening or real, which is maybe my way of articulating the same thing.
JULIA: But it’s all real! It’s just taking place on different scales. I thought about that a lot on this re-read — how the focus on the tiny scale might appeal to a child reader. Did you guys ever read/see Powers of Ten, that movie from the ’60s? It’s a short film that starts zoomed all the way out in the milky way and then zooms in by powers of ten, all the way down to a cell.
JOHANNAH: Magic Schoolbus books also love that.
JULIA: Yeah, exactly, or Fantastic Voyage. Or Osmosis Jones. I remember being really into that idea when I was a kid, that different parts of your body had different jobs.
JOE: Is that what you responded to, do you think? Or was it something about the farandolae in particular?
JULIA: I honestly don’t remember! I did think sometimes about the body being a kind of community, like there were little people in there doing their jobs, like a city. But I don’t know if that was connected to this book. I don’t think I totally learned or knew what mitochondria were from this book.
JOHANNAH: Earlier I was trying to think of the origins of that trope and the best I could come up with is that it’s an inverse of the body politic, where lots of people make up one big non-person.
JOE: The idea of being able to go inside the body and talk to its parts, when the body is mysterious and unknowable (especially in puberty), does have a certain appeal to me.
JULIA: Yeah, right? And Charles Wallace is sort of permanently childlike. Or gets his power/intelligence from being a child? It’s like Baby Geniuses. I don’t know why I keep on thinking of these terrible ’90s children’s movies.
JOHANNAH: Mitochondria did and still do exercise a strong hold on me— they feel so efficient, which is one of my favorite feelings in the world— almost the exact opposite of the dark mysteriousness of the body.
JOE: They do feel like this kind of miracle of the cell. As I was reading I kept thinking that with all the explanations of mitochondria and farandolae, it felt like L’Engle had just learned about mitochondria and was just super excited about them.
JULIA: She was! She gave herself a crash course in biology (according to Wikipedia).
JOHANNAH: But Joe, you said you looked it up and mitochondria had been discovered waaay before the ’70s, when MLE was writing.
JULIA: She didn’t know much about it until she wrote this book, at any rate — but I read that it was the idea of mitochondria that energized her “away from the macrocosm and into the microcosm.” A Wind in the Door started as a short story that had nothing to do with mitochondria, just this idea of a “cosmic school” where Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin go and are classmates with Proginoskes and the mouse-shrimp dude (Sporos), and the Mr. Jenkins element was there, too. Then someone introduced her to the idea of mitochondria, and it became about the cosmic and the microcosmic.
JOHANNAH: As we discussed last time, the books fixate on making real that which is not easily visualized.
JOE: Yes, one of the big ideas that goes with mitochondria and farandolae is that they are of vital importance but you cannot see them—yet you see their effects. It’s comparable to the old chestnut of an argument for faith in the divine, which gets used in this book, about seeing the trees moving in the wind even though you can’t see the wind. And at the end of the book, even though the magic pals are all gone, the door is blown open by the wind. It seems like this new scientific idea is exciting to her in part because it leads you down a cognitive path so similar to that of faith. Hebrews 11:1 and all that: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Mitochondria are the conviction of things not seen.
JULIA: It’s a beautiful idea.
JOE: You said your grandma had a thing about these gently religious books, though. Do you remember if you discerned that as a kid?
JULIA: Reading this now it definitely felt like a very religious text to me. And I don’t feel like I need to question that. I remember knowing that Madeleine L’Engle worked, in some capacity, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine [in New York City] and thinking that I could go see her sometime if I wanted to. When she died I was sad that I never had.
But I was also heavily into Tolkien, and read those books in a way that was removed from religious allegory, because I had always thought that Tolkien (unlike C.S. Lewis) eschewed allegory — even when people were comparing LotR to the world wars, etc. Then I took a class in college with a medievalist, who was also a very spiritual and vocal Catholic, and she frequently told us there was no way to read Tolkien without reading the Christian symbolism in there, because his faith was such a part of him. And that kind of upset me, for selfish reasons!
JOHANNAH: Joe, do you think the Christian physics is part of what distinguishes this book (which you didn’t like) from other speculative fiction?
JOE: There’s a boldness to it that sets it apart. In a lot of ways, L’Engle is not inventing, say, technologies, she’s actually inventing new science. She’s saying: there is such a thing as hate and it is an essential power in the universe. Not to mention the farandolae!
JOHANNAH: I was SO BUMMED when me and my close high school friend (Hi Bonnie!) asked my honors bio teacher if farandolae were real and she’d never heard of them.
JULIA: Are farandolae not real??
JOHANNAH: :(( They’re real in my heart.
Julia, can you talk a little about how you think this book and its ideas affected your professional or personal interests as you’ve gotten older?
JULIA: I guess the idea of being attuned to things on different frequencies, or listening closely, is a part of my professional life these days.
Honestly, reading this book as an adult, I thought a lot about Mr. Jenkins. I thought, there’s a whole alternate narrative here, where Mr. Jenkins is having some kind of breakdown and he’s seeing all this shit, and these kids are spirit-guiding him through these terrifying nightmarescapes. Try as he might, he just hates himself so much! And he’s the grown-up, he’s the one who just does his job every day, and that makes him vulnerable to attracting these cosmic hatemonsters.
JOE: Yeah! I had so much sympathy for Mr. Jenkins.
JOHANNAH: Mr. Jenkins is way more accepting than he gets credit for. He took being impersonated by two echthroi in stride, he’s just like, “Let’s get Charles Wallace back to school, don’t worry about my doppelgangers,” and only expresses exhaustion by fainting once it’s all over.
JOE: I was fascinated by how much of Meg’s journey in this book is about learning to have compassion for Mr. Jenkins, to “love” him in the book’s terms. A major part of that is that Meg starts out thinking he is just the pits, just so evil, and then she sees him in the context of the echthroi, which are pure hate, and she realizes he is a human being capable of love. So the presence of absolute evil makes you appreciate humans as human, as not evil, because however much you dislike them, they are not pure evil. The echthroi, as embodiments of evil, are this reference point for the bad end of the morality spectrum. Meg needs to learn to love on her own terms, but she only gets the necessary perspective by having the goalposts of evil and good sketched out for her.
JULIA: Meg is such a selfless character, I mean, her whole life is about defending Charles Wallace, but the book is really about her learning empathy.
JOE: Should we talk echthroi? It took me most of the way into the book before I really cared about them as antagonists.
JULIA: They’re not embodied, so they’re hard to conceive of!
JOHANNAH: I remember being super into them for the same reason I liked mitochondria— because it neatly explained metaphysical phenomena in an instrumental way. Everyone/thing has its job.
Something interesting to me about this book is that it says romantic love is at the heart of kything and naming, which are the echthroi’s downfall. Meg’s love for Calvin, the way she feels when they’re together in nature, is how she learns to kythe. I wonder if there is a similar origin story to the echthroi, or if they just are? It’s a curiously unexplained part of the cosmogony.
JULIA: They must come from some other dimension than ours/the book’s.
JOHANNAH: Maybe it’s related to the idea of echthroi as X — something unnamed, an algebraic variable— something that just is.
JULIA: I am that I am.
JOE: The reason I didn’t buy them is that they were just bad for bad’s sake. But in the final showdown they articulate an actual message: nihilism. Once they had a politics I could see that, yes, they are bad because they want to enforce this particular messed up ideology. I mean, ἐχθρός is just Greek for “hateful” or “enemy,” and I don’t know why pure hate wasn’t villainous enough for me.
JULIA: It didn’t have enough ~personality.~ Everything in this book is super abstract.
JOHANNAH: They’re pure hate but they’re also a vacuum, which is a bit of a contradiction. As we know from Milton, it’s not fun to have even explicitly evil anti-heroes that aren’t at all relatable.
JOE: Most of the action takes place in this realm where there is no movement or vision?!?!
JOHANNAH: Like we discussed previously, there’s nothing easily visualized in this book (as in A Wrinkle in Time)— except for the two books’ matching line drawings.
JOE: Oh, I loved coming across that line drawing. What a lovely echo of the ant/dress diagram in the first one.
JULIA: Remind me about that?? I read this like two weeks ago.
JOHANNAH: There’s a line drawing of an electrocardiograph which was supposedly produced by the plant Calvin read about in the paper who could remotely sense its owner taking off on a plane.
JULIA: I just found it! Oh, Calvin, so pragmatic.
JOHANNAH: How do you feel about Calvin? This was a source of great debate last time.
JULIA: I’d have to read A Wrinkle in Time again. Their romance has a charmed magnetism I found romantic when I was a preteen.
JOE: It’s much more endearing in this one, for sure.
JULIA: All of the descriptions of their kything felt healthy and supportive. I don’t know, Meg has so much support all of the time.
JOHANNAH: I softened to him this time around, maybe because he was so down with Sporos and I could imagine an alternate universe where Calvin’s the good kid who gets in with a bunch of roguish no-good skater punks (if this were a different kind of YA).
JOE: Johannah, you pointed out that there is zero mention of sex in this book, but kything, which is this super intimate act, is just all over it.
JULIA: Well, there’s a whole orgiastic farandolae frenzy. I guess it depends on what you think of as sex, which is a large question for the many scales of this universe.
JOHANNAH: Something I am perpetually fascinated by is ’60s/’70s science fiction’s obsession with telekinesis and how that relates to that era’s political dream of unfiltered communication in which bodies with race, gender, etc. have no bearing. But also these books (A Wind in the Door, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune) inevitably feature a remark something along the lines of “but not THAT kind of love, not THAT kind of unfiltered communication,” which in this book was not gay sex, as in my other two examples, but familial love which the book seemingly unnecessarily explains is different from pure romantic love. To bring it back to sex, that is a mark of how scrubbed of genital sexuality this book is, that love for one’s family took genital sexuality’s more ’70s-SF-traditional “other kind of love” place. Even though Calvin at least is 16 at this point.
Also, a sidenote— were either of you reading Proginoskes as the sassy gay friend? Because that’s how I’ve been reading him as an adult.
JULIA: Oh, totally.
JOE: No, but I love it.
JULIA: He’s always ruffling.
JOE: He was my favorite character in either book so far.
JOHANNAH: Right?! And he’s sooo sarcastic. And very pretty.
JULIA: Very pretty!
JOHANNAH: Almost a peacock.
JOE: I love that he’s compared to a hundred dragons. L’Engle is playing on the singular/plural issues in Old Testament Hebrew (one of the names of God in the Old Testament, Elohim, is also a plural—much can be made of this by those so inclined).
JULIA: L’Engle is making the point that we’re all plural beings— or that we’re all part of some huger plural being.
JOHANNAH: Joe, can you explain why you think Madeleine L’Engle knew Greek? You had an interesting theory when we last spoke.
JOE: It’s not much of a theory, but it has to do with “Proginoskes”—his name is from an ancient Greek verb that means something like “to know in advance” or “to have foreknowledge,” but she’s simplified the spelling for the young English-speaker. In general there is a lot of Greek going on in the Christianizing mythos of the books that makes it seem like she at least knew her New Testament (Koine) Greek. For a librarian at a Cathedral that wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.
JULIA: That’s fascinating. Did she have an academic background, other than being a librarian? I know she and her husband were actors.
JOE: No, but she went to a Swiss boarding school. You can learn all kinds of dead languages in a European boarding school. I can recommend the “early life” section of her Wikipedia article. Her childhood sounds very stressful.
JOHANNAH: I refuse to look up her biographical information and insist that people just dribble me facts with each interview.
JOE: Julia, we like for these interviews to end with the subject saying, “Yes, it’s all so clear now, A Wind in the Door is why I became a radio journalist!” Is there any hope of that here?
JULIA: Ohh man. I mean, I work in narrative radio, and theater, and I write fiction, so I suppose I spend a lot of time working with the unseen (literally, a lot of the time, because I’m making things to be heard).
JOHANNAH: Be honest though, is that actually a way this book influenced you or are you just saying that? Because that seems really abstract, especially for a young person’s thinking.
JOE: Shh, Johannah, this is good stuff.
JULIA: When I read these books when I was a kid, I remember thinking that I wanted to be a writer, and I wrote/thought about writing things that were totally derivative of MLE books. There’s a more realistic answer. I remember literally stealing names from MLE, but I think from A Swiftly Tilting Planet, so that’s not in my purview. Man, it’s just those farandolae. This is mostly bullshit, but the idea of looking so closely at something that you’re just making things up about it, or guessing what’s going on in there, that’s pretty relevant to anyone working in narrative media, right?
JOHANNAH: Yeah! Almost like this book is one big “behind the scenes.” “The secret story of… [your biological cells]” or whatever.
JULIA: Who knows what’s really going on inside there.
JOHANNAH: Julia, any spare thoughts before we wrap up?
JULIA: The splash image for this article should be Horton Hears A Who. I thought about that book a lot while i was thinking about what to say in this interview but then I forgot it until just now. The microcosmic and the macrocosmic, communicating through poetry and filial love and compassion. ~~farandola dance~~
JOE: Did you know: a farandole is a kind of dance. I have several advanced degrees and I learned this by using Wikipedia.
JOHANNAH: My parents told me that Dr. Seuss was racist and this chasm between text and authorial intent so disturbed me that I never got into Horton Hears a Who, what’s the plot of that one again?
JOE: Oh, he hears this tiny voice, and then it turns out to be this whole microscopic world, right?
JULIA: Yeah, this whole world lives inside a speck.
JOE: You know, at the beginning of A Wind in the Door, when Blajeny takes them on the wacky trip, I thought, “Here we go again, that old saw about how atomic structures are like solar systems, what if we just live in a giant atom, the end of the first Men in Black movie, blah blah,” but L’Engle is going somewhere totally different!
JOHANNAH: Yeah she doesn’t give a fuck about this solar system, she’s thinking inter-dimensional.
JULIA: All the characters keep saying size means nothing, scale means nothing.
JOE: Right! it’s just a matter of perspective.
JOHANNAH: That Blajeny scene gave me horrible Matrix flashbacks. “What IS real?” I loved that as a kid but now it drives me nuts. I’m more amenable to “size is an illusion” but it’s still my least favorite part of the book.
JOE: What’s Blajeny even doing in this book.
JOHANNAH: With each reading I scrub Blajeny from my memory almost completely.
JULIA: I forgot he existed at all!
JOE: More like BLAHjeny
JULIA: Yeah, terrible name. I don’t think it even has a derivation??
JOHANNAH: I hope this causes a fight in the comments.
JOE: Oh my god, I’ll just leave this here. How did people read these books before Wikipedia?
JOHANNAH: I’m a little mad you guys keep telling me informed things about this book.
JOE: I’m sorry. It’s true, context is a downer.
JULIA: Not in this case!! I’m glad to learn that.
JOE: I hated this book and now I love it, just like Meg and Mr. Jenkins.
JOHANNAH: Joe, did we convert you?? (Say yes.)
JULIA: So say we all.