Judy Blume On Writing, Twitter, And Vaginas
"People need stories, they want stories. They always will."
Words I never thought I'd type as a teenager: Judy Blume and I both have novels coming out the same day. Judy Blume, whose seminal young adult novels I grew up on, who everyone grew up on, all the girls and lots of the boys too, across America, around the world. Even today my 10-year-old niece is impressed that I know Judy Blume, even if it's only on Twitter. Because Blume has captured a way to write that transcends time.
And now I have an excuse to talk to her, email with her, because we share something in common, even if it is just one day in our lives. Her new adult novel, In the Unlikely Event, is irresistible, inspired by real life events in the early 1950s when a succession of airplanes crashed over a year period in Judy's hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey. It's a witty, wise, hooky book, about life and death and love, spilling from a multitude of voices. But what Judy and I talked about over email was business. (And, oddly enough, vaginas.)
Jami Attenberg: BuzzFeed asked us to talk about publishing in 2015. And we're having this conversation one month before our mutual books are published on the same day, June 2. At this exact moment, I am feeling a lot of ups and downs. Every other day I am either filled with ecstasy that my book, Saint Mazie, is going to be out in the world, or am ready to jump off a cliff because why bother if no one is going to read my book, goodbye cruel world, etc. I was surprised to hear that you still had pre-pub anxiety, are you telling me that it never goes away?
Judy Blume: Not for me. It's much worse than when I was starting out and didn't know anything.
JA: Is publishing in 2015 any different though?
JB: I guess all the social media stuff makes it different. Last novel for adults I wrote was Summer Sisters and that was before every little thing was tweeted and retweeted. You could hide your hurts more easily. This time, I realize it will all be out there for everyone to see.
I worry about my readers. Will they like it? Will they hate it? Will they have the patience to get to know all the characters?
JA: It definitely makes me extra neurotic. Sometimes people tweet at me that they've given me a bad review somewhere! There is this awareness of audience that I think has infiltrated my writing, even if it is subtle, it is there.
JA: Do you enjoy social media at all? You seem like you have fun on Twitter.
JB: I do like Twitter though right now I'm so busy and too tired at night to tweet. Still, trying to keep in touch. Can't believe someone has the guts to tweet that he/she's given you a bad review. There's something sick about that. I've had my share of less than glowing reviews over the years, so I get what you're saying.
I used to blog and enjoyed that but I wasn't part of a community. Where do you post? Tumblr?
JA: I'm on Tumblr. I like it a lot. There's a big books community on there, they have their own book club, people pass around quotes that they like. Also I like Tumblrs like Cover Spy, where they document what people are reading in public spaces. It's really thoughtful and sweet. Or Last Night's Reading, which is created by a woman who goes to literary events in NYC and sketches different writers and finds their best quote of the night. There's a lot of interesting voices out there.
JB: Wow -- I've been missing a lot! Still, that's more time out my day, right?
JA: Ha, yes I bet you have plenty to do already!
JB: One more thing about Twitter. It embarrasses me to flaunt anything good written about me, or my books. I don't know what we're supposed to do about that. Any ideas?
JA: There have been lots of conversations about whether or not you should retweet your praise. I agree – no one wants to look like they're bragging. But I do think you can find a balance. I try to link to significant reviews where I think there is an interesting conversation going on about the book, and also I link to visually compelling things, like a cool illustration related to the book, or, recently, there was some entertaining German TV coverage of my last book, and I could not resist. So generally things that stand out from the crowd. But if you retweeted every nice thing that people said about you -- especially you, Judy! -- then you would crash everyone's Twitter feed.
JB: My only goal now is to survive this upcoming book tour. I know, I know -- I should be grateful, and I am -- it's just that, well, it's tough. I'm glad this is my last long novel and my last book tour. Of course I said that after Summer Sisters but that was 16 years ago and this time I mean it. (I think.) It's so hard for most novelists today. I know that. I'm a relic so I'm getting attention. Maybe too much.
JA: You're getting the perfect amount of attention, I think. Writing is one of the few professions where you actually get more respect the older you get. I think people are only starting to take me seriously now that I'm in my 40s, and still people tell me I'm a baby.
JB: I'd rather promote your book. I'd rather be reading.
JA: I'll promote yours if you promote mine.
JA: One of the other things I was thinking about today is how many times in the past -- twice this year already -- I have been asked to appear on Women Fiction Writers panels. So basically the only thing that links the participants is that they write fiction and they have vaginas. Now I love my vagina and everything but I think I responded to one request, "Be a part of the change." And I wondered if you had ever felt put in a box because of your gender, and if you feel like publishing is getting better or worse or is the same with this problem.
JB: I don't get the Women's writer thing. In the UK my publicity person was in charge of Crime and Women's Fiction. Huh?! Crime with vaginas. Or vaginas in trouble.
JA: I feel like I could talk to you about vaginas all day, Judy.
Is there anything you wish you could change about publishing? Is there anything where you think, god they've been doing this forever, why can't they just figure it out already?
JB: Wait...can't we just talk about vaginas?
Okay -- I'm having a good publishing experience so far. But…I hate literary categories. I hate categories in general. I don't want to be categorized.
JA: You're a writer, simple as that. And so am I.
JB: They say writers never retire. Do you believe that? Philip Roth retired.
JA: I don't even think he really retired. He's still...thinking. I'm sure that pen is still moving.
JB: I still feel the creative energy but no more 5-year projects.
JA: It's hard for me to imagine not doing this anymore. Although I dream of just taking a year off and reading. But I feel like I'm just starting to figure out what I'm doing. You can't waste that, when your brain is still sharp. There's a pure joy that comes from creating. It is singular.
JB: Yes, there is that joy that comes from creating. That's what keeps us going, right?
When I started I went from one book to another to another because I thought I was going to die young like my father and his siblings. Now I'm way too old to die young.
JA: I wrote as fast as I could when I first started out because I thought I had to take advantage of people actually noticing my existence. Now I appreciate taking my time, slowing things down a bit, letting the words and ideas ferment.
JB: I love having so many characters in my head at once -- it's reassuring. I tell my kids not to worry when I can't find my keys or make introductions, because I can still remember all the characters in this book. I feel pretty proud of that.
JA: This is not something that would ever happen to you, but I hate it when I tell people I'm a writer and they say, "Oh would I have ever heard of you?" What I wouldn't give to be like, "Yes I'm Judy Blume, and you have heard of me."
JB: Believe me, I still get the, "Oh, have you written anything I might have read?"
JA: Judy, I do not believe it! Those people do not read books then.
So let's conclude this discussion with any thoughts you might have on the future of publishing. Do you think there's hope? Do you think as long as kids are still reading children books, they'll grow into adult books? Do you care about print versus digital? I honestly don't care how people consume my books as long as they're reading them!
JB: I'm an optimist. I tell parents not to be judgmental of what their kids are reading. Reading is a good thing! It should be celebrated. And if kids find satisfaction in books I do think they'll go on to be readers. At least I hope they will. I don't care how they read either, though I've heard that lately kids are getting back into "real" books. The kind you can smell and touch and flip back through.
People need stories, they want stories. They always will.