In the Unlikely Event

Judy Blume at BookPeople Saturday

Judy Blume has just published her 28th book, and she’s visiting Austin for the first time this weekend. Since 1969, she’s covered topics other authors wouldn’t dare include in children’s lit: sex, racism, bullying, periods, divorce, and more.

It’s her gentle, witty, honest way of telling us secrets about our world that has earned Blume a place in the hearts of millions of readers of all ages, all walks of life, all around the world. She’s a national treasure, and everyone has a different favorite Judy Blume book - Superfudge, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Forever, Iggie’s House, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Summer Sisters, etc. With her new novel, In the Unlikely Event (Knopf, $27.95), Blume is still weaving her masterful tales, but this time she gives us a fictional glimpse into part of her early life by using real events as the backdrop for her new story.

When Blume was a girl, three planes crashed within weeks in her hometown of Elizabeth, N.J. From communist plots to aliens and zombies, everyone had a different story to explain the tragedies, but life eventually kept going. Much like Mad Men was a visual testament to the 1960s, In the Unlikely Event gives a vivid picture of what life was like for a girl like Blume in the 1950s, but it’s definitely fiction. She incorporates real news clips - several written by one of Austin’s own newspaper men from that era - and uses multiple, rolling vignettes from a large cast of characters to tell this gripping, emotional, wonderful story geared for adults. And true to form, there are teens in love, as well as a dentist charged with identification of victims and inspired by Blume’s own father, mothers, friends, journalists, and a slew of other fascinating new characters.

Judy Blume will be speaking and signing at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar, on Saturday June 13, 4pm. We caught up with the author via phone, while she was in San Francisco for last week’s Bay Area Book Festival, to chat about this new book … and whether it’s really going to be her last.

Austin Chronicle: I’m so excited and a little nervous to talk to you today.

Judy Blume: Oh pleeease please please. You should've asked my husband about that. He'd tell you the truth.

AC: Well, right off the bat: I just want to say thank you. You taught so many of us so much that our parents wouldn't or couldn’t or just didn’t tell us as kids.

JB: Well, I didn't mean to teach you anything when I started to write. It never occurred to me that I was teaching anybody anything. I just wanted to tell real and honest stories. Because that's what I wanted.

AC: You definitely did that. I like the scene in the new book when Natalie is talking to Nurse K, who says, "Keeping secrets locked up inside isn't healthy. It can make you sick."

JB: Yes, well, I think that's certainly true. I mean, I kept a lot of my feelings inside, especially when I was a young mother, with the expectations of being a wife and mother. That was what I was raised to be by my mother. Not my father. My father had dreams for me that I could be anything, become anything. Somehow in adolescence - when I look back, I think I really didn't like the Fifties adolescent that I was - I went over to my mother's dreams for me. Which was, I don’t know, more realistic: Marry, have children. That's what I was supposed to do. That's what she wanted me to do. And forget about those other things I wanted to do before I was an adolescent.

When I look back, the most interesting years in my life growing up were the years up to age 12, when anything was possible and all the fantasies rolled around in my head. Then I went to junior high. We were all conformists back then in the Fifties. If we weren't, we kept in inside, and that's not good for you. I wasn't happy in my 20s until I started to write. I think I kept that all bottled up inside because to admit that you weren't happy or that you weren't grateful for what you had, that was frowned upon then. And, you know, I had lovely little children and the kind of husband my mother wanted for me - a good provider, a perfectly decent man - we are very good friends now, family members. I'm so glad to come to that after all these years.

AC: Absolutely. That's pretty powerful to be able to realize your dreams and still have those connections you built early on. I read this New York Times blog the other day about a mother worried about her daughter reading the YA Divergent series, and I couldn’t help laughing thinking about sneaking books from my mom’s shelves, and what my son will soon be reading. Tell me how reading adult books as a child inspired you, and why it’s so important to let kids explore the literary world.

JB: I was reading off my parents' shelves from the time I was 12. There were no YA books. I was most curious about "What is this adult world like? What are these grownup people really like?" so I found great satisfaction in reading those books. Whatever I got out of it, I got out if it. Of course I didn't understand everything. I certainly didn't understand Ayn Rand, you know, and today she wouldn’t even be on my parents’ bookshelves. [Laughs] To me, she just wrote good stories, but I didn't get any of the rest of it. I was just interested in the characters. And Saul Bellow and John O'Hara. At 12 or 13, I don’t know what I was understanding, but I loved to read so I read widely, which we'd love to encourage kids to do. But to that mother that was worried, I would say: Please don't worry, and please don't be judgmental. Just be happy that your daughter is reading. Reading is to be celebrated. The hope is that if you love to read one book or one series you'll go on and you'll become a reader. And it won't just be dystopian fiction - or whatever Divergent is. And you know what, those fashions - not fashions, but …

AC: Trends?

JB: Trends, thank you. Trends in what's being published is cyclical. I have some librarian friends that say it's going back to realistic. That's good, too. The more we have, the more we have to choose from and that's great. If kids read something and it makes them uncomfortable, they put it down. If it goes over their head, fine. If they invent what it's really about when it's not really about that, fine. Their imaginations soar. If they come to you and ask you a question, great. Then you get a chance to answer their question.

AC: Kids can handle more than we think sometimes and I think your books are a testament to that. Kids want to know about their world.

JB: They do want to know. Some parents think that means they have to sit down and tell their kids everything all at once about their entire world. Of course they don't. That's not what they're looking for. It's a continual truth-telling relationship between parents and kids, and sometimes you don't have the answer. You just don't have the answer. It's okay to say, "I just don't know."

AC: That’s so true. So, back to your new book. It’s fiction, but based on some real events from your childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Until this book, though, you hadn’t spoken about the plane crashes to anyone since they happened, even your daughter who was a commercial airline pilot at one point.

JB: I know! It's so, so weird. I can't figure it out. It's not that I ever forgot the story, but to have been a writer for 40-something - someone told me 46 years, but I can’t count that high - and never to have thought once about telling this story… I just really don't get it. I don't know whether I buried it, or… I always knew where I was the day that we heard about the first crash, and I never forgot how we stood around in Junior High talking about it. In fact, I launched this book in Elizabeth, N.J., on Monday night [June 1]. I said to my publisher, I know this isn’t a big place, and it's not where you want to launch a book, but I have to go to Elizabeth, N.J., and talk about it there first, and we had a wonderful event. There was a boy - ha, well, now he’s a man, sitting right behind my husband - who was in my junior high class. I have a good memory, but not so much for names, and it took me a little while for the face to go back all those years. Then I knew just who he was! He remembered it so well, and he kept nodding when I said [in the book] how the boys stood around and talked about flying saucers and aliens and zombies.

As kids, you try to make sense of something and there was just no way to make sense of this. It was just crazy. I went there with a television crew not that long ago, and we went around from crash site to crash site. Of course, it’s all different now, except the Elizabeth River is still there, and I thought to myself, “This is crazy. If someone told me this story and took me around to the sites I would say, ‘Nah,’ it had to have been something else because I’m imaginative and I was as a kid, too. But, just, no! It can't have been coincidental, but I have all the CAB [Civil Aeronautics Board] reports about what it really was."

I’ve heard from so many people. In fact, in Austin - where I’ve never been - lives the grown daughter of one of the journalists who reported the story. She said her father liked to call himself a “newspaper man,” and she said, “Did you ever hear of him?” And I said, “Did I ever hear of him!? I thanked him in my author’s notes!” I told her his stories were so, so important to the writing of this book, so she’s going to come to the event and I’ll be able to thank her father by thanking her.

AC: That’s pretty powerful.

JB: It is so powerful. So many people have come out of the woodwork to say, you know, "That was my father’s first family on that plane." They just all have personal stories. Or "Oh, my grandma saved all of this from that time." And this is the strangest one: Sitting in the office at Knopf Publishers, the office right next to my editor, is an editor whose father was on the third plane. And survived! He was a young man, not yet married to her mother, but they were going together, and he doesn’t remember anything except coming to and finding himself outside of the burning and exploding plane. A lot of people survived the third crash, which was amazing. She brought me all the news stories that they have saved all these years.

AC: Whoa. I’m so excited for people to read this book. I know you said it was your last one -

JB: Well,… well … well ... I say things. I say different things. It depends on what time of day you get me.

AC: I’m so glad to hear that!

JB: I don’t really know, and I can’t say. Will it be a 400-page, five-year project? I would doubt that simply because, you know, there are other things and other ways. My creative energy has not abated, and I will want to do projects, but I can't tell you what they'll be.

AC: We know you love reading - and you’ve been very active in speaking out against banning books - and we know you love writing - but what else makes you happy? What makes Judy Blume happy?

JB: What makes me happy? Well, being with my husband - 35 wonderful years of never being bored; my family - I have wonderful children and a grandchild; my friends. I love my old friends from way, way back who knew me before I was “that” Judy Blume. It’s really important to have friends who remember back with you. I love to spend time with new writers and mentor them. I don't take their manuscripts, I’m not an editor, but I love to find them and be supportive. I like that. There’s so much to love.

I just want to say one more thing: This book is not about planes crashing. It’s about friendship and falling in love and falling out of love. It’s about how life does go on. It’s important to me, because I’m a character writer, not a writer about events, although the events are incredibly important and they’re the backdrop for this story and why the characters behave as they do and what the crashes mean to their lives. But I don’t want people to think it’s a scary book or a gory book because it’s still a people story. That’s important to me.

AC: Reading them, telling them - Stories change lives.

JB: Yep. And that’s what I love to do. Even though I loved doing the research for this book, what I really like to do is invent the characters. Also, I have read in some interviews, and even some reviews, that this is a memoir. And I will tell you right off that this is not a memoir. I am none of these characters and the only one that resembles a real character is Dr. O, the dentist, who is very much inspired by my father.

AC: Your father who inspired you to live your dreams.

JB: Yes! Like Dr. O, my father was called in to identify victims by their dental records three times, although it was never spoken of at home, but I knew. Probably I didn’t want to know, and my guess is I didn’t ask him what that was like because at 14 - I was a year younger than Miri [the main character in the book] - there’s only so much you want to know.

AC: Or that you even know how to ask about.

JB:: Exactly. Just like in Sally J. Freedman, it’s the same daddy, the same dentist. He’s the only character from my life, and even then, without going into any spoilers, he’s inspired by my father. But Dr. O’s got his own fictional story.

AC: Do you think your father would think you’ve lived your dreams?

JB: Oh, my father. My father died young: I was 21, he was 54. He would have just adored this. I believe he knows. [She chuckles warmly.] He lives inside of me, and I think he’s so happy. He’s like, “You go, girl.”

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