I am one of those young women – there's an army of us – who grew up on Judy Blume's novels, and I can remember when I was a kid imagining what it would be like to talk to her.
When I finally got my chance last week, to the great chagrin of my younger self, I started off by making Judy Blume cry.
"I'm going to stop you for a moment, thank you," Blume says about two minutes into our phone conversation from her home in New York. I'd opened with how much I loved her book. "I'm getting very emotional at this point, so when someone says something nice to me about the book I burst into tears."
So, not a great start. But I was speaking the truth (as if I'd ever fib to Judy Blume).
Blume's career spans more than 40 years of writing groundbreaking YA novels that delved deep into the minds of women, tackling intimate subjects such as teenage sex, menstruation and masturbation. But with her new novel, In the Unlikely Event, Blume has tackled a new frontier – this is her first crack at historical fiction.
It's about the dark winter of 1951-52 in Blume's hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., where three planes crashed within two months – one on the banks of the Elizabeth River, the next at the end of a residential street just beyond a high school, the third in the playing field of an orphanage. Blume was 14 at the time.
There are more than 20 characters who tell the story from their perspectives, but the thread of the tale is Miri, a bright and curious 15-year-old trying to come to terms with what's happening in her backyard. And she is surrounded by grown-ups who won't tell her anything. ("Ever since she could remember," Blume writes of Miri, "the adults would stop talking when she walked into the room. They'd smile at her, then change the subject.")
It's a frustration that Blume recalls feeling deeply herself then.
"Everything was secrets, secrets, secrets – don't tell this one, don't tell that one. What will the neighbours think?" After the crashes, "nobody really talked to any of us. No teacher at school, nobody. And these planes were crashing right next to the schools. So of course we thought as kids, 'They're out to get us.' Actually, that was as exciting an idea as a scary idea, I have to say, as a kid who liked drama in her life."
Blume's father, a dentist who inspired a central character in the novel, helped to identify the victims by dental record after all three of the crashes. "It must have affected him, how could it not?" she says. But, of course: "He never talked about it."
It took Blume five years to research and write the book, and a great deal of that time was spent at the Monroe County Library in Key West, Fla., where she keeps a home, poring over its old microfilm reader. The room would get so dusty Blume says she had to wear a surgical mask.
"I've never written historical fiction or fiction based on fact, so [the research] was something that I loved and I didn't want to give it up. But I finally understood that I had to start writing this book."
As Blume reached the home stretch, her husband of 28 years, George Cooper, became as much a part of the process as she was. He sped up the effort, too, Blume says, eventually finding her her own microfilm reader on eBay.
Cooper helped her finally finish the project by stepping into the role of Miri's uncle, a reporter who covers the plane crashes. "He said, 'I can be your Henry.'"
He helped Blume comb through countless articles from the now-defunct Elizabeth Daily Journal and The Newark Evening News, and he drew from them to write Henry's newspaper pieces that run throughout the novel, tracking the chaos and fallout of each unlikely event.
Working as a duo wasn't always an easy process, Blume says. "It's a good thing he's easygoing. Because I was so tough. [But] just as an editor learns from working with a writer – you know when a writer can do better, and you know when to stop pushing. I believe good editors know when to do that. And it's something I learned, working with my Henry.
"I'd say 'No, this has to be better, this has to be better,' and he'd say 'Dammit Judy, this is as good as it's getting,'" she says, laughing. "And I'd say, 'Yeah this is really good. I love this. Thank you.'"
Still, the experience was draining. She won't say that she's never going to write again, but she can't imagine another multiyear project as intense and encompassing as this one was for her. She is about to embark on an international book tour, and after that she says she's done. Or rather, she thinks she's done.
"I think I mean it. I'm not trying to be coy. I am 77 and I want to do other things. … I feel it would be a good one to go out on. I feel like I've done it. I feel like I've said it. I don't want to repeat myself."
The idea for In the Unlikely Event came to her in a flash and, despite the deep research it required, she says the details of life in the early 1950s weren't difficult to put together, because they were hers. But she does ask herself why, given her lifelong aversion to secrets, she'd hardly talked to anyone before about that tragic winter in Elizabeth.
"It's so bizarre because I tell everybody everything. I'm not good at keeping secrets. I wonder now if there are other stories buried inside like that one. But I don't think so."
And then, as I'm about to say it sounds like she's trying to convince herself: "I really don't think so."