Judy Blume On Her New Novel 'In The Unlikley Event', Being A Feminist, And Why She Might Be Done Writing For Good
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.
"Every morning, there was something so exciting waiting for me," she says, reminiscing on her most busy years as an author. "I just loved that it so changed my life."
"But sometimes," she continues, "you just have to take breaks."
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.
"It’s very weird, because I tell everybody everything," Blume says. "One would think that since I’ve been a writer for 40-something years and this incredibly dramatic story happened while I was growing up [I would]... but I don’t feel that it’s my childhood, the way that Sally Freeman is my childhood."
And, she says, the think-of-how-it'll-look-to-the-neighbors attitude of the '50s didn't exactly encourage reactions, even to the most dramatic of events.
"Nobody ever talked about it when I was growing up," she says. "And I don’t think we talked to each other about anything much. It was all, 'you keep it quiet.'"
"There was a lot of protecting of the kids," she continues. "Our childhoods were very free-range and that was great, but emotionally, nobody ever talked to us about anything."
So Blume took it upon herself to fill in the blanks, creating explanations — often "very dramatic ones," she says wryly — for the strange and tragic events that colored her town, as well as the less sensational mysteries she encountered in everyday life: parent relationships, classroom romances, first fights and stolen kisses. She became a storyteller, first creating the worlds in her imagination and then, later, recording them with pen and paper. Some of her works were based largely on her own life — she's said that Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is her most autobiographical novel by far — while others, like Blubber and the Fudge series, were inspired more by the people and places around her. In the Unlikely Event is a mix; the place in history is her own, but the characters, the fears, the reactions — they are, Blume says, the property of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
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.
"I saw a lot of inequality as a young married woman living in the suburbs," she says, "things that really galled me."
Blume married young, and had her two kids, Randy and Lawrence, fairly quickly afterwards. The union didn't last — she married her current husband, George Cooper, in 1987 — but it partly inspire Wifey, the author's first novel for adult readers, and it helped inform her feminism.
"People don’t know what that means anymore, and that's really disturbing to me," Blume says, speaking of the term. "I mean, the idea that feminism would frighten anybody!"
She laughs, but it's clearly a matter she takes seriously. And why wouldn't she? The author sums it up bluntly: "my life is about feminism." The very fact that she is a bestselling author, a former single mother, a woman constantly chastised for discussing sex and masturbation as if they were, God forbid, normal — purposeful or not, it's all part of a movement, albeit one, as she admits with sadness, still far from completion, or even acceptance. There is still so much to be done, and while her novels may have helped start the conversation — Forever is still near the top of many years' banned books lists 40 years after its release, an inclusion Blume sarcastically calls "amazing" — there is only so much they and their author can do.
Thankfully, Blume is not alone. Over the past few years, she has used Twitter and talks to befriend feminist authors like Curtis Sittenfeld and Tavi Gevinson, taking on a role somewhere in-between mentor and fairy godmother. Some of these ties have been made public — a 2013 talk between Blume and Lena Dunham ("we bonded over all of our mishegoss," Blume says elatedly, using the Yiddish word for the pair's shared neurosis) was turned into a book. Others are less known; the author says that she's helping cultivate the careers of several writers in her life, championing each author's latest achievement. She's happy to give advice, even if she's not exactly confident in her ability as a teacher — "it's the J.B. school of not knowing what she's doing," she jokes — but mostly, she just watches their careers grow with obvious pride.
"They’re all successful now," Blume says, "but I’ve been there since their first book."
In recent years, her protégés' successes have become even more meaningful for the author, as she faces uncertainty about the future of her own writing career. Blume has repeated often that the five years In the Unlikely Event took to write was an enormous struggle, and she highly doubts that she will ever again attempt a project so grand. Whether she'll write another book again, of any form, is less certain; she says that while nothing is definite, she doesn't know if she has another novel in her.
"I know that I should be really grateful," Blume says, but "I said whatever I needed to say."
She worries about the freshness of any new work, and the time commitment ("I don’t want to sit there for five years again," she says firmly), and she seems to be having more fun working in other forms, like Twitter ("I don’t know why I like it, or why I’ve taken to it," she says, before proudly quoting a funny Mad Men -related post she wrote that morning). And maybe she's right, maybe all the wisdom Judy Blume can offer about romance and periods and the fragility of friendships has been dispersed, maybe the world already has all the books it needs by its most beloved author. And if that's the case, it'll be enough — there are far worse exits than In the Unlikely Event, a lovely, contemplative novel that ranks with Blume's finest works.
But if she finds, one day, that she's not done, and another story comes flying at her begging to be told, thousands of readers will wait eagerly for the first printed word. It won't matter if it comes two years from now or ten; she's Judy Blume, generations of girls' collective teacher and legendary leader. She knows the ins and outs of womanhood, has guided us through every secret fear and desperate urge; she's been our closest friend, and our most valuable guide. Her name elicits squeals upon mention and her books traverse continents, but there's nothing lofty or elitist about her; this author, we say, she's one of us.
Images: Knopf; Getty Images (3)