Judy Blume is tiny, lovely, and perennially smiling, and when I first laid eyes on her, I thought I might cry. All my long-dormant feelings about Margaret and Sheila the Great and Forever… swirled up, and it was almost too much to actually see her in the flesh.
But I held it together. We talked about writing, her lifelong taste for invention, and In the Unlikely Event, Blume’s first adult book since 1999’s Summer Sisters. Set in the 1950s Elizabeth, New Jersey, of her childhood, it traces the terrifying months in which three planes en route from Newark Airport crashed into the town, killing dozens and sending Elizabeth’s residents into a state of paranoid siege. Because it’s Blume, the book’s historical aspects are embedded in a sprawling, warmhearted story of three families, centering especially on Miri Ammerman, daughter of single mother Rusty and niece to journalist Henry, whose memories of the crashes will always be entangled with those of her first love.
B&N: When you started writing In the Unlikely Event, where did you begin?
Judy Blume: Unlike any other book I’ve ever written, it came to me in a flash, all at once. I was sitting in an auditorium at the Key West Literary Seminar, and Rachel Kushner was onstage—this was for her first novel, Telex from Cuba—and our theme that year was New Voices. And she was telling how she got the idea for the book from her mother; her mother told her stories of growing up in the ’50s in Cuba. But all I heard was growing up in the ’50s, and it was like, “Boing! I have a story! What’s wrong with me? I’ve been writing fortysomething years. I’ve got a story.” And it came with plot, with structure, with the three families. It just came. I mean, the only reason to write is for the fun, for the surprise of writing, and there was plenty of that. But I knew what was going to happen; I knew where it was going to end. Just…magic. Never happened before, will never happen again.
I love how in the book Steve turns to Holden Caulfield, and receives “Bananafish” and Vonnegut right when he needs them. Have you ever had the experience where you came across the perfect book at the perfect time in your life?
My favorite books when I was young were the Maude Hart Lovelace Betsy-Tacy series. But if you’re a reader, you read whatever there is. And there was no YA as I became a teenager; at 12, 13, I was in my parents’ bookshelves.
I was lucky because my parents let me read anything I found on the shelves. The same with you, they weren’t censoring you?
My parents? No. It’s interesting, because my mother was anxious, my mother was…some people might say overprotective. If she could have been, she would have liked to have protected her children. And yet I say now, looking back, my parents gave me the greatest gift, because they gave the gift of being free to read. And the one time that the library told me—I think I was 17, a senior in high school, and O’Hara came up on my reading list, and there was a book that my mother had had when I was about 9, and it was the only time she ever said to me, “Don’t look in this book.” So I went right to the public library and I was very upset and angry when the librarian said, “You need a note from your parents to read that book.”
Which one was it?
A Rage to Live
Well, now I’m going to read it.
She’s a nymphomaniac. And I told my family and that night my aunt brought me her copy with pretend marked pages—she put paperclips at random everywhere. And I stayed up and I read the book and I was satisfied. But they loved to read and they were thrilled that I was a reader. And also movies—they took me to movies every week when I was young. There were no ratings. And I was curious about the grownup world; I loved those stories. I listened to soaps on the radios. My husband and I still talk about that, “Remember how great it was to stay at home when you were sick, and stay in bed? You got to listen to soaps all day?” Totally inappropriate, but no problem.
Speaking of an adult world, I love how you tap into that feeling kids have where adults tell them nothing, so their imagination has to fill in the blanks. Do you remember moments like that from your own childhood, where you invented?
Every moment. I mean, I invented everything because nobody ever really told me anything. You know, adults didn’t really talk to kids in those days. I lived in a neighborhood like the neighborhood in the book, named for the English poets. I lived on Shelley Avenue and there was Byron and Browning and Keats. I went all through elementary school on Shelley Avenue, at the school on Shelley Avenue, and no teacher ever said, “Guess what the streets are named for?” Never knew until I went to college. Never knew that. I mean, there was so much. But because adults basically didn’t talk to kids in those days, if you were a kid like I was, you made it up. So I made up a lot of stories.
Did you write them down as a kid?
No. Never shared them. But in this book the kids talk openly about things because nobody’s talking to them.
You said in a previous interview I read that writing saved your life. And I’m curious, after you’d started a very different life as a housewife—
Nobody talks about housewives anymore! This is what we were supposed to do in the ’50s. Not everybody, but in my milieu. My crowd. You went to college and you got a degree in case, God forbid, you ever had to work. And you better find somebody to marry while you’re there, because otherwise, what’s going to become of you? So girls sat around in class with their diamonds on, but we didn’t know the reality of being married and having adult responsibilities and having children. We just didn’t know. And I had two kids by the time I was 25.
What was the impetus that made you finally sit down and start to write?
Oh, I was desperate—creatively desperate. I longed to have the creative outlet I had had when I was in school. So I made felt pictures and I glued them all together and I sold them, actually, to Bloomingdales. It was very exciting; they paid me nine dollars for each one. It was fabulous. So writing was my next career, when I had had it with the Elmer’s glue.
Did you keep a diary as a kid, like Margaret?
I had diaries my father would give me. They were the books the insurance company sent for the new year, little diaries or journals. But they were very boring, I think. Looking back at them, it was all little code words for boys and what we did. And rubber bands, I had rubber bands arranged so I would know if my mother looked. And I knew that she had, though she never mentioned it to me. But they were ’50s, bland teenaged diaries.
When you made the leap from kids to adult books with Wifey, do you remember what the response was from your fandom?
You know, they were okay. Other people said, “That’s going to ruin your career. You can’t do that. You need to use a pseudonym.” And people who were angry said, “Why didn’t you use a pseudonym?” But I didn’t think that was honest. And it wasn’t any different than writing about another age group. The process was the same. It was very hard; it took me three months—
No, no, no. Three months to find a voice. Then it came pretty quickly. Not like (In the Unlikely Event). This is five years. This is the same amount of time as Summer Sisters, because I took two years off to make a movie in the middle of it. Something you should never do—you should never leave a book without a finished first draft. I think if you have a finished first draft, you can put it in a drawer and then come back to it. I was still in the middle of the first draft. But I got the chance to do this and work with my son, and it was like, “I’m not giving this up for anything. “ And it was wonderful.
Some of the detail in this is so fantastic, especially the Rabbit test—which I immediately Googled and was astonished by.
But see, we all knew about that. I didn’t have to look that up.
So that wasn’t research for you? This was drawn from your memory?
JB: Well, there was a lot of research, but the research wasn’t about girls putting angora sweaters in the refrigerator or what we wore or what scents we liked or what life was like for us. The research was about the nitty-gritty of the events themselves, and from them I got so much. I got so many scenes and characters and things I didn’t know. Because I don’t think I read the newspapers then, to tell you the truth, and there was no TV coverage. And nobody was talking. There were things I remembered, but not as much as when I went back in there. And now that I’m not a kid, looking at the horrific stuff that happened.
Have you had anybody that was part of it reach out to you?
I have heard from so many people. You cannot believe. I don’t know—they haven’t read the book, but they’ve read about it and now they’re seeing interviews about it, they’re reading about it, and I’m hearing from so many of them. I’m going to meet a woman in Austin, I just have to tell you this. She didn’t know this, but she said my father was a local reporter. Not a journalist, a newspaper man, that’s what he called himself, like Henry. And she said, “I wonder if you ever came across his stories.” And I wrote back and said, “He’s the first one I thank!” So we’re going to meet in Austin. And there are a lot of other people, too. One of the boys who lived in the orphanage is coming Monday night to Elizabeth. He tells me he didn’t really rescue anyone, but I don’t believe him.
In the Unlikely Event is on shelves today.