This was the last event in a book tour that started on 1st June but there wasn’t a hint of weariness or boredom in Judy Blume’s demeanour. She was as lively, responsive and interested as though it was the first. Sinéad Gleeson grew up with the classic Judy Blume books, making her an ideal interviewer who asked knowledgeable, clever questions that kept the conversation flowing. JB engaged the audience with looks and smiles and gestures. There was a lot of laughter and spontaneous applause throughout. An overwhelming sense of appreciation was palpable in the audience, many of whom thanked her for her books. One woman said ‘You changed my childhood’.
SG: ‘We all had Judy Blume books when we were growing up – who did you have?’
JB: Maud Hart Lovelace (the Betsy series) – we wanted to jump into those books and live there. By the age of 12 or 13 I was reading books from my parents’ bookshelves. We had to do book reports at school and I knew those books were not suitable so … at 13, nervous and shy, imagine, I gave a full report: title, author, characters, theme – on a made up book. I’d encourage teachers to ask children to do this once a year.
She told us that she always made up stories, from an early age. She’d be bouncing a ball against the side of the house with all these stories in her head. ‘That’s the way creativity works for me. Not at the desk but usually when I’m doing something else, something physical – I never told anyone those stories. I never wrote them down.’
On early rejections of her work, she said: If you don’t have the pain of rejection you won’t be able for the reviews … Look at what’s happening to Harper Lee. She has some drafts of unfinished novels in her attic, things that didn’t work, stored in a box with a letter to her children saying if you ever … I will haunt you. ‘Now I think maybe I’d better get rid of them.’
There was chat about Barry McGovern’s recorded announcement about fire exits etc. ‘In the unlikely event of an emergency,’ he says. JB is here to promote her first adult novel in 17 years: In the Unlikely Event. She tells us that there are good unlikely events in life as well, not just disasters. This is a novel about family and the ordinary things that happen, falling in love etc, against a backdrop of extraordinary events that really happened. (Three planes crashed near her town within a short period of time in the 1950s)
How does a writer have a story like this inside her for 40 years and not write it, she asks herself. She tells us that her daughter, who is a commercial pilot, said ‘How did you never tell me this story?’ She remembers her father (a dentist) being called out to the morgue night after night to help identify the bodies … so she always knew the story. ‘I knew it, but I don’t know where it was – down in my big toe maybe.’ Then she heard Rachel Kushner talk, at an event like this one, about stories she heard about the 1950s. ‘I heard that: in the Fifties and – this has never happened to me before – the whole story came up, the whole of it came to me, the characters, the ending, everything.’
SG: Did you do much research?
JB: ‘Some things were easy – I knew we put angora sweaters in the refrigerator so they wouldn’t shed on boys when we kissed them. I knew where I was when I heard Nat King Cole sing Unforgettable.’
For the rest, she read newspaper reports. She planned to use some of them at the top of each chapter as though they’d been written by one of her characters, a young journalist called Henry Ammerman, but ‘Last Fall, the publishers called and said you can’t do that, you can’t give those stories to Henry Ammerman.’ She panicked. She had a deadline to meet. Her husband (George Cooper, also a writer) said, ‘I’ll be your Henry’. He helped her to get it right.
SG: Often when people write about desire for young people, it’s dismissed as a crush but not when you do it – how do you do that?
JB: I don’t know. It’s not cute, it’s important.
SG: Forever – was passed around my school, everyone read it. A lot of people write first sex as clumsy or awkward or disappointing, but you let Katherine enjoy it.
JB: in many stories women are punished but I didn’t think that was a good message for my daughter … I wanted to present sexuality as positive, with responsibility.
The worst question she was ever asked was by a smart sophisticated radio presenter in Boston. With her daughter and her friends in the audience, he asked: So, Judy, who was your first sex partner? And she said, Myself.
This got laughter and applause in the Pavilion.
The audience in Boston felt the same, she told us, but instead of having the wit to stop he went on and asked who her second partner was. With her family there. Imagine.
SG: Do men respond to your books?
JB: They like Fudge. And about Then Again Maybe I Won’t , they want to know how I knew.
SG: Have you ever gone to a place in writing that you’ve told yourself to stop, you can’t go there?
SG: Is there nothing you won’t write about?
JB: Oh, well, If I don’t want to. Or if there are other people who can do it better. (Later, she says she’s not a fan of dystopian fiction herself but a lot of her friends write it. Let children read what they want, is her advice. If they’re not ready it’ll go over their heads).
SG: 1 draft or 50?
JB: 50! With a typewriter it was always 5
SG: YA didn’t exist as a category in the 80s How do you feel about it?
JB: I hate categories. Forever was marketed as my 1st novel for adults – that wasn’t my intention, ever.
SG: What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
JB: I don’t know
SG: What’s the best you can give?
JB: Don’t let anyone discourage you. I had a lot of discouragement in the beginning. Keep going. And: read, read, read.
In questions from the floor someone referred to tap dancing. JB got up and tapped a few steps for us, high heels and all. Slapping your feet against the floor is very satisfying, she says.
Another questioner remarked that in Fudge, JB outed Santa. The questioner asked where she stands on Santa, the Tooth Fairy etc? JB said she never had a complaint about that until recently. She said, ‘Look, they’ll find out in the school playground if you don’t tell them, do you want that? Do you want your kid to find out on the playground? Or do you want to be a parent your kid can trust?’
In the Unlikely Event is published by Picador.
This event was part of the DLR Libraries’ Voices series, curated by Bert Wright and introduced by Marian Keyes.