Judy Blume says her current American book tour will be her last.
“This is my farewell,” the 77-year-old author acknowledged recently over the phone from her part-time home in New York City. “Not in any bad sense of the word. I’ve just decided it really is.”
Blume is promoting her latest novel, In The Unlikely Event, which is one of only four books she has written for adults. Her name has long been synonymous with young adult fiction, although she doesn’t consider herself a YA novelist.
She dislikes categories, saying only that there was no such classification when she wrote her most iconic books for teens, including 1970’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and 1975’s Forever.
Interestingly, In The Unlikely Event also features a largely adolescent cast of characters. Blume doesn’t know why, although she admits she is most comfortable using teenage voices in fiction.
The protagonist of In The Unlikely Event is a 15-year-old girl named Miri who lives through a terrifying three-month period during which three passenger planes crash in her hometown of Elizabeth, each time narrowly avoiding some sort of school or orphanage.
As far-fetched as it may sound, similar events really happened in late 1951 and early 1952. Blume was in eighth grade, and the kids at her school were full of conspiracy theories. Could it be zombies, aliens, even communists?
She remembers where she was when she heard about the first crash. It was a Sunday afternoon, and she was in the car with her mother and her friend Zelda.
“My mother liked to go out to a movie and an early dinner,” she says. “We must’ve been listening to the radio because the programme was interrupted.”
Like a character in the book, Blume’s father was a dentist called on to identify the victims by their dental records.
Season of fear
Blume re-creates this unsettling season of fear by examining the lives of the individuals and families affected by the accidents. Many characters are based on real people who died either in the planes or on the ground, as well as on those who mourned their loss.
The early 1950s milieu is as lush as the cashmere sweaters her anxious teen heroes wear. The Korean War looms, kids hang around burger joints and soda fountains, and scandalous unions take place in the back seats of roomy cars.
“I love to say to my kids, ‘Don’t tell me anything about my memory if I don’t know where my keys are, because I wrote a 400-page book and I kept all of those characters straight,’” Blume laughs.
Writing the book took five years that the author recalls as “painful”. She spent countless hours poring over microfiche news accounts. She also talked with as many old friends as she could about what they remembered. All those recollections made it into the book.
For Blume, the approach to writing a book for adults is the same as that for kids.
“The process isn’t any different; it’s horrible whatever you are doing,” she says. “The first chapter is always torture.”
She’s remarkably chipper when she talks about the difficulties of writing, because with every book as complicated as In The Unlikely Event, she swears she’ll never write another one. The truth, though, is that she’ll most likely find herself back at her desk eventually.
“The creative juices don’t just go away,” she says.
This has been particularly true for Blume.
Over a career spanning nearly half a century, she has written 29 books that have sold more than 85 million copies in 32 languages. Women of a certain age – particularly those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s – have imprinted on Blume the way baby birds might their mothers. Many first learned vital details about sex and menstruation from Blume’s books. She is their childhood best friend and favourite confidant.
Such readers will recognise key Blume-isms in this new book, including her uncanny ability to conjure the feeling of a first kiss, a longed for slow dance at the school gym, and the strange collision of emotions that can accompany the loss of one’s virginity. Blume writes about such things with a clear-eyed precision that is neither precious nor graphic.
“She had to stop herself from talking, from asking questions the way she did when she was nervous, because she sensed this boy didn’t want to talk,” she writes about Miri’s first dance with her future boyfriend. “She prayed the palms of her hands wouldn’t sweat, that her deodorant was working, that the faint scent of her mother’s Arpege would reach his nostrils. His breath was near her ear, making her tingle.”
If this sounds an awful lot like the Blume legions of readers have loved over the years, that’s because the concerns are very much the same. The main difference between her adult fiction and her fiction for younger readers is that the former has many more characters than the latter.
“Young adults can read this book,” she says. “They have my permission if they want to slog through all those characters.”
In the meantime, Blume says, “Let’s hug and cry, but I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be around. I’ll be tweeting.”
Appropriately, in the “about me” section of her Twitter account, which has 124,000 followers, she has written, “Are You There, Twitter? It’s Me, Judy.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Jessica Gelt
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