Upon hearing the words "Judy Blume," if your first reaction is "that woman changed changed my life," you wouldn't be alone. (I'd know. I surveyed friends.)
Dramatic? Sure. Warranted? Yes. Because here's the thing about Judy Blume: if you're a woman, or if you even know a woman, you owe something to her. It doesn't matter if you're 60, 30, or barely out of your teens; more likely than not, she was the one who guided you through all your most awkward experiences: your first period, the loss of your virginity, a fight with a parent who just didn't understand. Making the uncomfortable comfortable — even celebrated — has been her job for nearly 50 years, ever since her first book was published in 1969; her 28th (including her several nonfiction works), an adult novel called In the Unlikely Event, is out Tuesday.
And to judge by the ecstasy that followed the book's announcement last year — for a few weeks, you'd be forgiven for thinking the only two works set to be released this summer were In the Unlikely Event and Go Set A Watchman — people are very excited for the author to take on the role she knows best, dispersing advice and obliterating shame, all done with her trademark matter-of fact tone and eerily realistic thoughts. For so many women, Blume transcended the label of "writer" or even "teacher" long ago; now, the most fitting, and most popular, term to describe her is a legend.
But that word implies a person whose vitality is in the past — and, as she's happy to announce, the author couldn't be more present.
"My husband calls this historical fiction," Blume says. She's talking about her latest novel, a work set in the 1950s, but the term could apply to much of her career writing about subjects best remembered by those currently in the throes of middle age. "This is not historical fiction! This is so contemporary!"
"'But you realize, Judy,
that these events happened 60 something years ago,'" she continues, echoing her husband. "Well, I say, I don’t care. I’m
writing it, and it feels to me like yesterday. Everything feels totally contemporary
and real to me."
That gift, that unique ability to be both a wise teacher and an in-the-moment peer, is why Blume's books are loved equally by fourth graders and their 40-something parents; why Summer Sisters, her 1998 adult bestseller, contains the same potency in its decades-old flashbacks and its "current" '90s narrative; why In the Unlikely Event, a novel that takes place in the winter of 1951-52, can enrapture readers born half a century after the book's main events. It's what's made Blume's career so remarkable and long-lasting, even if the author herself, when asked why her books resonate still, can't explain what, exactly, "it" is.
"Oh, if only I could answer that question," she sighs, with a laugh. "I think it's because some things really don’t change. That’s kind of cliché, but it’s true. Some things don’t change, and who we are as people, that doesn’t change the way stuff changes around us."
The lead character of In the Unlikely Event is a smart, curious girl named Miri, a teenager equally concerned with the plane crashes swallowing her town and the mysterious older boy who asked her to dance. In other words, she's the typical Blume heroine — thoughtful, inquisitive, shy and bold in equal measures, as complex and thoroughly relatable a character as Margaret and Deenie and Sally J. Fans of Blume's older works will happily grasp at the similarities; readers just starting out with the writer will undoubtedly have the realization familiar to all of her longtime fans: this girl, she's one of us.
"Some writers will tell you that they love the language, they love the words," Blume says. "But I only care about the characters and making them come to life."
In the Unlikely Event veers between nearly two dozen points-of-view, changing rapidly — often, like Summer Sisters, within the span of a single page — between characters to tell different elements of the story. There are grandmothers and teenage boys, aspiring dancers and tired parents, and for the first time in Blume's history as a writer, they all came to her at once, in "a flash" of characters and structure and events. She says it was a change in how she thought, the way her stories begin, but her actual writing process, a long and draining operation, stayed — unfortunately, she says — exactly the same. She still wrote in her "security notebooks," the journals she has relied on for ideas ever since a writing class she took in the '60s; she still made painstaking edits to her "messy" thoughts with a pencil in her hand; she still worried, time and time again, that she'd end up "a bag lady" if she could never write another word.
"After Summer Sisters, I said, I'm never doing this again," Blume says. That book is one of her most beloved and successful novels, but she says writing it was "very intense," prompting her repeatedly to ask her husband for reminders that even if it marked the end of her career, she'd be fine. For awhile, she truly thought it would — but eventually, like always, she wrote.
"In the beginning, I went from book to book to book," Blume explains. "I was never, ever without a book. I would send one off, and I would start another one the next day."
She partly attributes the prolificacy to her fear of dying young, like her father — "nobody can say she died so young, now!" she jokes — but mostly, it was the fear of a future of a future without books.
Says Blume, "I was afraid not to be involved in one."After many years of non-stop work, though, the pressure to produce a dozen books a decade — plus take part in the exhausting tour that followed each work — grew tiresome. Blume began to publish less frequently, spending more of her time pursuing other interests and mentoring writers because, she says with relief, "it's their turn to do all of this now." When she started In the Unlikely Event in 2009, days after a talk by the writer Rachel Kushner that prompted the idea, the pressure she felt was not to pop out the book as quickly as possible, but to slow down and remind herself what she loved about writing.
So with her newest novel, Blume spent years cultivating information and fleshing out her stories, even pausing for a long while to co-write the movie adaptation of her book Tiger Eyes. Each day of the work's five-year creation was spent in a haze of edits and research, the author painstakingly filling in the blanks of her memories. The events of the book are based off her own childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey, when a series of planes crashed into her town over the course of two months, and while she remembers some, she says she didn't know "anywhere near enough" of the crashes and their aftermath. Her husband, who grew up in Baltimore, recalled more of the events than she; her daughter, a former airline pilot, was shocked she never discussed the crashes with the family.
Still, it's easy to see her life's influence in much of the novel: the conspiracy theories shared by the teenagers, frustrated with their parents' zipped lips; the dangerous non-sched plane ride both Blume and a character took with their fathers; and more broadly, the staunchly feminist, wonderfully complex mother-daughter relationships shared between several of the book's female pairs. Blume, who's considered herself a feminist since "the first wave" of "Gloria and the others," has created some of the strongest examples of feminism in modern literature. There was Katherine in Forever, a girl whose sexuality isn't shamed, but explored; Vix and Caitlin of Summer Sisters, whose intense friendship makes up the core of the novel; the pre-teen girls of Blubber, as flawed and complicated — not to mention violent — a group as the boys of Lord of the Flies. Blume is synonymous with the real, un-sugar-coated woman, and it's no secret why.
"They’re all successful now," Blume says, "but I’ve been there since their first book."