Judy Blume Talks About The Incredible True Story Behind Her New Novel
"From [In the Unlikely Event], I would like people to take away the same idea that my father always said to me: 'Life goes on.'"
For the first time in seven years, Judy Blume has gifted the literary world with a brand-new addition to her already exceptional collection of books. After decades of writing children’s books and coming-of-age stories that shaped the lives of so many of her readers, Blume is using part of her own coming-of-age experience as the inspiration for her new novel — her fourth novel for adults — In the Unlikely Event.
In the early 1950s, Judy Blume was a teenager growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, when the unthinkable happened: A series of three plane crashes hit the small, suburban town within the span of 58 days and shook its residents to their core. This is the foundation of In the Unlikely Event — the characters, events, and emotions motivated by real-life events from a midcentury town, living in fear and transition.
BuzzFeed had the chance to catch up with Blume and discuss her new novel, her own teenage years, and any plans she has for future writing. Here’s what she had to say:
You’ve been working on In the Unlikely Event for five years. What is it like to work on one project for that long?
Judy Blume: While I was working on the novel, a writer friend of mine who was between books said to me, “You’re so lucky, Judy, because you get up every morning and you know exactly what you’re going to do.” At the time, I didn’t have the sense that it was five years. I spent five months doing research, which I adored because I had never done any research before when I wrote my books. It was all I wanted to do, but I realized I eventually had to stop researching and start writing. I also took a two-year break to make the Tiger Eyes movie, which is not a good thing to do, by the way, in the middle of a book.
What took up most of your time during that five-year period?
JB: I spent five months doing research and three years working on writing the novel. It was a complicated story, and I don’t write quickly.
Are there any other books you’ve written that have taken a similar amount of time?
JB: Summer Sisters took me three years to write, and when it ended I said that I would never, ever do this again, and I meant it. If the idea for In the Unlikely Event hadn’t come to me out of nowhere, Summer Sisters would have been my final long, complicated novel.
What made you want to tell the stories of Miri Ammerman [one of the main characters in In the Unlikely Event] and the rest of the characters?
JB: I was sitting in an auditorium in Key West at the Key West Literary Seminar, which we do every January. I was listening to Rachel Kushner, who was on stage talking about her first novel, Telex from Cuba, and how the idea came from her mother telling her stories of her own life in the '50s. I grew up in the ‘50s and, all of a sudden, it clicked. I thought to myself, Oh my god, I have a story to tell. It came to me really all at once; I didn’t know the details of the characters and I didn’t know their names, but I knew the families instantly, and I knew so much right away. I knew this is a story I needed to write.
Why do you think you decided to tell this story now, over 50 years later? Why didn't it come sooner?
JB: Because it must have been buried so deep. I’ve been a writer for 40-something years and I had this great story somewhere in the back of mind. How come I didn’t think about telling it? My daughter became a commercial airline pilot and after she read a draft of the book she said, “Mother, you never talked about this story." Why didn’t I ever tell anybody this story? It happened, I was there in Elizabeth while I was growing up. My father was even a dentist like Dr. O in the book.
How much of the story is based on your own, autobiographical experience?
JB: I would say almost none of it, except for the dentist, Dr. O, who is very much based on my father.
How did all of this history in Elizabeth shape your experience growing up there?
JB: It all happened in 58 days, so it was a very small part of my youth, but it was also a very intense period of time to have three planes crash in your hometown. One crashed just two blocks from the junior high where I was a student, another crashed almost through a window of the girl’s public high school — we had sex-segregated high schools — and the third crashed in the playing field of the only orphanage in town. All of that sent a message to the kids that it was about us. Of course, we were teenagers, so everything was about us, but we really felt that these plane crashes were about us, and "they’re" out to get us; we just didn't know who "they" were. The boys were sure the plane crashes were a result of flying saucers, aliens, or zombies, and the girls talked about sabotage, but those were just our youthful guesses. We still didn't know who was responsible for this. It was Cold War time, so there was also a lot of talk about communism. I remember all of it; I remember being in school and all of these events happening all around me, but we’re talking about 58 days, which was not a very lengthy, extended period of time.
So after the 58 days were over, what kind of a legacy did the plane crashes create in Elizabeth?
JB: Newark Airport was closed for nine months, but I didn’t know that as a kid. News coverage wasn't the same, because the media was so different; the news wasn’t covered on TV, so you didn’t come home from school and turn on the set or look at your computer and find things out everywhere. It wasn’t anywhere; it was up to the reporters and the news photographers to paint this picture for us. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I read the paper when I was 14. Miri is different; she’s a year older, her uncle works on the newspaper and makes his name telling these stories, and so she’s very much in the middle of all of this. My father was identifying victims at the morgue by their dental records because there wasn’t any DNA, so it was all done by dental records. Even though I knew that he was doing that, no one ever talked about it at home. I don’t remember any teacher ever talking about it in school because it was the norm back then: You don’t talk about these things in front of the kids or with the kids — making it worse actually for the kids who ended up making up their own stories about the whole thing based on their own memories. Were we scared? I don’t know, I don’t remember. It was a scary idea, but there was also the drama of it that I think we got off on, too, and I was full of drama as a kid.
When we’re 15, we’re all full of drama. Everything feels like the end of the world.
JB: Well, this actually was.
In your dedication and in your acknowledgments, you talk about your husband George. What role did he play in helping you with In the Unlikely Event?
JB: I did all of this research, and I knew that I wanted to use newspaper stories to help me tell it. First of all, I can’t write descriptive prose. I am hopeless at descriptive prose, and there was going to have to be descriptive prose in this book. I like to make up characters and put them in different situations and have them talk to each other — I’m good at that — but not descriptive prose. So I was depending on these fabulous news stories from the ‘50s, full of kind of what we’d call today "purple prose" — "but then it falls down and it breaks apart like a swollen cream puff" — and I wanted to use that language. I thought I was going to be able to use the real news stories, but they came with bylines, and even though the reporters are sadly not living anymore, and the newspaper are defunct, I wanted to give Henry Ammerman all of these bylines, and I found out you can’t do that. Bylines are already there. So I found out late in the game, last fall actually, that the news stories were all going to have to be redone, I was going to have to rewrite them all, and I wasn’t going to be able to meet my deadline because I was still so involved in revising my story and adding to it.
At that point, my Henry, who is my husband, who’s also a wonderful writer on his own, stepped in and said, "I can be your Henry, and we can do this together." So while I was doing one thing, he was doing news stories and bringing them to me and saying, how about this? And I was really tough! Fortunately he has very good humor, and feels good about himself so that I could say, "No, this has to be better. Let’s make this better." So he took what I had and was able to mix and match and put it together so that it flowed well and told the story. We had a good time working together like that.
How did it feel to fictionalize these stories that were actually based on real facts?
JB: Everybody on the planes and everybody on the ground who was killed or injured, they were real in the story. Some of them I use as characters, like the dancer Ruby, who’s 22. Yes, there was actually a 22-year-old dancer on the plane, and yes, I learned about her life through news stories, but of course I don’t know what really happened on the plane. I don’t know who she was sitting with, and so I’ve changed the names of people who have become characters in the book. But then the families, who the story is really about, show how everyone is somehow connected to someone else. We learn about that as we go along. You have to have patience in the beginning of this book — please do have patience; there are a lot of characters.
You wrote these lines on the first page of the novel: “After enough time it fades and you’re grateful. Not that it’s ever completely gone. It’s still there, buried deep, a part of you.” Is this how you feel too?
JB: No, this isn't true for me. I become Miri when I write about her, I become everybody as I write about them, but no. I went back to Elizabeth all the time; my mother lived in Elizabeth until she died, and my cousin lives right down the street from the house where I grew up, so there was never a time when I didn’t go back to Elizabeth. And I swear to you, I never thought about this. It was buried so deep.
What do you hope readers take away from In the Unlikely Event?
JB: What I think makes a successful novel is when you miss a character after being done with a book. That's what happens to me when I read a book that I really like: If I think about the characters after I finish reading, then I know that book really means something to me. That’s my greatest hope as a writer, that the characters will stay with my readers. From this book, I would like people to take away the same idea that my father always said to me: “Life goes on.” And it does; we manage to get through it. As Henry says to his niece [in the novel], terrible things happen in life, but it’s all eventually worth it.
How is it different for you to write young adult novels versus adult novels? Do you prefer one over the other?
JB: I've never written a YA novel. I didn't write YA, because there wasn't such a thing as YA when I was writing children's books; it wasn't a genre. But I love writing both children's books and books for adults. They're both hard to write, but you write because you can't not write. They're all emotional undertakings because the stories stay with you. Writing YA is hard because life is hard when you're young, but neither one is easier than the other. I don't prefer to write one over the other. They're all stories in me.
Will you write any more books?
JB: I'm not planning on writing any more adult novels. My publisher does not like it when I say that, but that’s the truth. Will I write something else? Probably. But I don’t have any plans. I need time off and time to regroup. There are plenty of other things I would like to be doing that don't involve planning, researching, or writing complicated adult novels, and I haven’t had a day off since Christmas.
In the past, some of your books like Forever or Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. have been banned. What would you say to the people who banned them?
JB: If a parent were in doubt about allowing a child to read a book, I would always say, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” She or he will ask you a question that you might not want to answer, but you better be ready. Kids either read right over something they don't understand — they invent their own idea of what something could be, or they ask questions. I will say this: With everything else that was bad about the '50s and my mother’s anxieties and her desire to protect her children, never, never did my parents think reading wasn’t a good thing. They knew it was a great thing. And never did they worry about what I was reading; I was reading everything on the bookshelves that flanked the fireplace, and these were adult books. I was 12 or 13, but reading was such a good thing and my parents celebrated that I was a reader. They couldn’t have been happier. Let’s go back to that; let’s stop being afraid or feeling like we need to control every single thing that kids read, because we can’t. Don’t be judgmental about what your kids are reading.
There were no YA books then for me, so I was making up book reports. In sixth grade we had to do book reports and I was really reading these books on my parents’ bookshelves and I knew I wasn’t going to report on any of them. That's why I invented a series of horse books. I didn’t actually write the books, but I stood up in front of the class, talked about them, and gave an oral book report. It was called Dobbins or something like that. We had to stand up and say the theme and characters and all that, and I got an A on those. I always tell teachers, just one time during the school year, let the kids do this. Invent a book, an author, and a theme and characters, and have them stand up and give these reports.
If you could go back in time and say something to your younger self, what would you say?
JB: To 18-year-old Judy, I would say: Take your time. Go to college, but not to meet somebody to marry as our mothers told us we were supposed to do, because we were from a generation of women that married really young. Take your time, get to know who you really are. Go to work, live on your own, and if it comes time to marry — if you even want to get married — then do it carefully, because this person is most likely going to be the father or mother of your kids. So be careful.