June 2015

Judy Blume

Beloved author weaves a gripping new tale from childhood memories
When Judy Blume was a teenager in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three commercial jets crashed in her town within months of each other, each narrowly avoiding schools and orphanages. In retrospect, it’s shocking that she hasn’t considered telling this dramatic story before. But only now has Blume written about it in a novel, In the Unlikely Event.
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When Judy Blume was a teenager in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three commercial jets crashed in her town within months of each other, each narrowly avoiding schools and orphanages. In retrospect, it’s shocking that she hasn’t considered telling this dramatic story before. But only now has Blume written about it in a novel, In the Unlikely Event.

“I must have buried this story, because if I hadn’t, why did it take me so long to write about it? I mean, it’s a great story,” Blume says over the phone from her home in Key West, Florida. “It was so far buried. My daughter became a commercial airline pilot and she said, ‘Mother, how could you never tell me this story?’ I don’t keep secrets, I will tell almost anyone almost anything.”

Charming, funny and sounding far younger than her 77 years, Blume recalls the moment when she knew she would write this novel. It was 2009, after Blume heard fellow author Rachel Kushner speak about her new book, which was inspired by her mother’s life in 1950s Cuba. 

“It was that phrase, ‘In the ’50s,’” Blume says. “A light bulb went off in my head and it came to me like no book had ever come to me: characters, I knew the plot. Of course, there were surprises along the way, because we would never write if there weren’t surprises.”

Blume started with several months of research, which she calls “the best fun I’ve ever had on a book before. I’ve never done research! I just loved it, I loved the process. People kept saying, ‘Yes, Judy, we know, but then you still have to write the book.’”

Like most of the great Blume books—I could list some of them, but that hardly seems necessary—In the Unlikely Event is a gripping, compulsively readable story of the joys and sorrows of family. But this one is also a study of how communities respond to tragedy.  

Fifteen-year-old Miri Ammerman lives with her single mother, her grandmother and her Uncle Henry, a local newspaper reporter who is about to be married. Like most 1950s American teens, Miri’s biggest worries are friends, homework and boys. At least until a Miami Airlines plane carrying 56 passengers from Newark Airport plunges into the Elizabeth River in December 1951. 

Incredibly, two more planes would crash around Elizabeth in the weeks to come: On January 22, just 37 days after the first crash, an American Airlines flight crashes near a local high school. And on February 11, a National Airlines flight plows into an apartment building. 

Blume brings not just Miri and her family to life, but many of the passengers on those doomed flights, whom she fictionalized but based on historical records.

“I am introducing so many characters in part one,” Blume says. “I told my editor that maybe we need to set up a tree like a Russian novel. She said to me, trust your readers, so I thought, this is not Anna Karenina. Trust your readers. They’ll follow you.” 

While this is a novel, the crashes were all-too-real, and Blume recalls them vividly.

“I remember where I was on the day of the first crash, which was a very nasty Sunday in December.”

“I remember where I was on the day of the first crash, which was a very nasty Sunday in December,” she says. “I was in the car with my parents and my friend Zelda. The radio was on in the car and I remember, ‘We interrupt this program to bring you this news bulletin.’”

She also remembers the distinctly 1950s reactions of her fellow students. 

“The girls thought it was sabotage,” she says. “The boys all thought it was aliens or zombies. It did seem they—whoever ‘they’ were—were after kids. How else could you explain the crashes? One close to the junior high, one almost right through another school. The third one into the playing field by the orphanage in town.”

Blume’s father, a dentist, was called in to identify crash victims by their dental records. The character of Dr. Osner, the father of Miri’s best friend, was pulled from Blume’s recollections of her father, who “was much beloved by all the kids who liked to come to our house because he was warm and friendly and fun. I got ‘Be a good girl, Judy,’ from my mother. My father would have said, ‘You go, girl,’ if that was a phrase then. He always told me to reach for the stars.”

At this point, Blume chokes up. “I’m going to cry,” she says matter-of-factly. “I always do. I’ll recover quickly.

“That’s what I learned from my father,” she continues. “Terrible things happen, and as Henry says to Miri: ‘I’m so sorry, but we go on.’ When she isn’t sure it’s worth it, he reassures her that it is worth it. That’s what I got from my father. I’m a very optimistic person.”

These days, Blume and her husband, the writer George Cooper, make their home most of the year in Key West. It’s a long way from New Jersey.

“You know, it was one of those things where it was winter in New York and I was trying to write Summer Sisters and I said, ‘Oh, I wish I could go someplace warm,’ ” she says. “We knew someone who lived in Key West, and my husband called her. I said, ‘I can’t go to Key West, it’s too hot.’ She said, ‘Tell Judy I’m wearing polar fleece and she should come.’ We rented a house sight unseen and we totally, absolutely fell in love.”

Active members of the community, Blume and her husband started a nonprofit movie theater. On an average day, Blume wakes up and does a two-mile power walk by the ocean before breakfast (“I love my breakfast,” she says). Her office is a guesthouse just steps from the house. “I slide open my glass doors way to the side, and I’m in a garden and it’s so beautiful,” she says. “I work until lunchtime, and if it’s a first draft, I pray for any distraction. I’ll take any phone calls during a first draft.”

She still corresponds with readers, although the nature of that relationship has evolved since she wrote Letters to Judy (1986), which chronicled some of the most personal letters she’d gotten from fans. Rarely does she get snail mail these days.

“I do think that picking up a pencil and writing out what you’re thinking and feeling on a piece of paper and licking an envelope and putting a stamp on it and putting it in a mailbox to someone you don’t know and you feel safe, that’s a whole different thing than sending an email,” she says. “There’s more information for troubled kids out there—they don’t have the same questions they once had. This is good!”

When I mention that my 10-year-old tore through all the Fudge books last year, she laughs.

“It’s a lot of generations [of readers],” she says. “My daughter’s generation was the very first, and to think they are in their 50s now. I love it—how could I not? It’s the best reward for writing anyone could possibly have—to have readers. There’s nothing better than to hear a kid laughing over a book.”

After finishing her research, writing the novel (20 three-ring binders’ worth of drafts) and touring to promote it this summer, Blume says she is ready for a different creative challenge. 

 “I said after Summer Sisters, I’m never doing this again, and I meant it at the time,” Blume says with a laugh. “Then this came along, and this time I do mean it, I’m never doing it again. I’m 77! But I have that creative spirit that lives inside of me. I’m not saying I won’t do something again, but it won’t be a long novel. This is the one that I was meant to write. I feel that.”

 

This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

In the Unlikely Event

In the Unlikely Event

By Judy Blume
Knopf
ISBN 9781101875049

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