Interview with Judy BlumePosted by Goodreads on June 2, 2015
In the Unlikely Event chronicles how three families deal with one of the most bizarre series of accidents in aviation history—between December 16, 1951, and February 11, 1952, three passenger planes en route to or taking off from Newark airport crashed into the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Blume grew up. I spoke to the gregarious author from her apartment in New York (though she and her husband, George Cooper, spend much of the year at their house in Key West, Florida). We spoke on the Friday before the last episode of Mad Men, a show we both love and couldn't help discussing.
Judy Blume: It's interesting because I have such a great memory for my childhood, and yet when it comes to this, my memory is somewhat buried. I remember exactly where I was when news of the first crash came over the radio. We were in the car on a Sunday afternoon, mid-December, terrible weather, my parents in the front seat, and I was in the backseat with my girlfriend Zelda. We were in the eighth grade, approaching 14. My mother loved going to see early movies on a Sunday, and then we would have supper out. And that's what we were probably doing when news came over the radio that a plane had crashed into the Elizabeth River. Zelda and I looked at each other—it was a block and a half from our junior high school. I don't remember what we said or what we did after that. My father was a dentist, and I know that he was called in on all three crashes to help identify the victims through their dental records.
All of this was buried, and as I started doing research, I started remembering more. In fact, I visited the crash sites yesterday for an interview, and it was unbelievable all over again, how close my school was, right there, across the street.
GR: After the third crash, do you remember thinking, "What the hell is happening to us?"
JB: Everybody wanted an explanation. The boys in my school were into aliens, spaceships, flying saucers; I remember some of the smart girls—and I wanted to be with them—were into sabotage. I liked that word, and so I also said, "It was sabotage." I'm not sure that I had any idea what I was talking about. But even yesterday, as I visited the crash sites, it seemed to me that it can't have been random. How could three planes possibly have crashed in Elizabeth in 58 days? There's that little bell in my head that says, "Something else was going on here." It's my young teenage way of thinking.
GR: You conceived this book as a novel for adults. Did that change your process at all?
JB: First let me say that I hate categories. There's no reason why any teen who wants to read this book cannot read this book. There are disturbing moments in it, but there's nothing wrong with that. As Henry [a character from In the Unlikely Event] says, terrible things happen.
Rachel Kushner onstage, talking about stories that her mother told her about the 1950s, about growing up in Cuba in the '50s. And the words—the '50s, in the '50s—triggered something. And it was like, "Oh, my God, I've been a writer for fortysomething years, and I have never even thought of telling this story." I can't explain it. It just must have been buried so deep inside. Although there was never a time that I didn't remember or know that these things had happened.
And so when the story came to me, it came to me with the three families and, of course, the three crashes. I more or less knew how it was going to end, right in that same moment. And I knew I wanted to go into the minds of the adults as well as the kids.
For this book I had this security notebook that was unlike my other security notebooks, which I make up myself as I go along on a project. I created this security notebook out of all of these news stories, hundreds of pages of news stories, so I never felt the way I sometimes feel, which is alone and scared. That's why I scribble in a security notebook for a long time before I start a book, so I never have to totally face the blank screen or the blank page. I have stuff. I need stuff.
GR: When you got your first book published 1969, you had been married for ten years and had two little kids. What was the road to publishing for you?
JB: I was very isolated. I was in the suburbs of New Jersey. I didn't know anyone who wrote or had ever written. I had no writing group; this was before the SCBWI—the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators—I would have loved to have had that group. But one day an advertisement came in the mail, a brochure from NYU, where I had gone to college. The brochure was from the school of continuing education, which offered a course about writing for children. I thought it was an omen because I had already started, I was trying my hand at rhyming books, because my children were very small and that's what I was reading to them. And I thought, "I must do this," and that was a big thing. I know today it's like nothing. But in my life it was a big thing to say to my husband—I'm going to do this, and I'm going to be gone every Monday from five until ten, or whenever it was, to take the bus into New York and have my supper at the Cookery on 8th Street, where I used to eat when I was in college. (I would have a green salad and what was called chopped steak, which was a glorified hamburger—but it was a good one—and I always finished with a piece of their chocolate layer cake, which was scrumptious. And a glass of milk. And I think the whole thing with a tip came to $2.25.)
GR: Sounds like you enjoyed those evenings.
Iggie's House chapter by chapter while I was taking her course. Every week I handed in a chapter.
GR: Do you remember her name?
JB: Of course I do. Her name was Lee Wyndham, and I believe Iggie's House is dedicated to her.
GR: Publishing has changed a great deal since then.
JB: When I was starting out, I didn't have an agent. And I was discovered in the slush pile. I think that happens less and less if it happens at all today. You pretty much have to have an agent now. What I hear from young friends who are agents is that you have to submit the best possible manuscript you can have even if you have to bring in your own outside editor that you have to pay before that agent will send it around. I guess there is less time for the kind of editing that I had, that kind of nurturing editing.
Summer Sisters the success that it was when other people didn't want it. It was hard to find people who had enough faith in me. I'm a very good rewriter. I'm a much better rewriter than I am a first-time writer. I get better with each draft, and my books go through a lot of drafts. While I didn't show Carol anything on the page until a year ago now—this book was really on the fast track—we had been talking about it for five years. I got to a point where I was either going to burn the manuscript or send, and my husband suggested I take a chance and send it to her instead of burning it.
This book has been a killer. I haven't had a day off from it since Christmas. And now I'm embarking on this long tour—the last tour, I call it, not because I'm planning on dying but because I'm never doing it again. I'm 77, I'm not going to do this again. I'm probably never writing another long, complicated book with a cast of thousands. Someone tweeted that about this book—Fire! Explosions! A cast of thousands!
GR: You seem to have gumption and a good attitude and a work ethic. Obviously one has to work at it, but in a larger sense, is this something you're born with; is it biological?
JB: I do believe I have a dark side and even a dark side in my writing. But yes, I think I was born an optimist. I have a brother, and we grew up in the same house and we're very different. My father was very much like Dr. O; he's really the only autobiographical character in the new book. He was a lively, upbeat, outgoing person. He died at 54, and all of his siblings died before him. No one lived till 60. There was a lot of death, a lot of sitting shivah, when I was growing up. When I first started publishing, I felt I had to hurry because life was going to be very short. So that's why I went from book to book.
GR: When you think about all you've accomplished and how many readers you've affected and how much you've changed the publishing landscape—does it seem surreal at all?
JB: If you start sitting around thinking how great you are, you're in big trouble. It's absolutely surreal. That's the perfect way to describe it. It is so unbelievable. If I allow myself to go back and think about that very naive young woman I was, I can remember feeling I had so much stuff locked up inside of me. I really had to get this stuff out.
GR: I know you're a fan of Mad Men, and I'm a fan as well. It's interesting that Peggy is doing great and Joan is thrown out of the system because she's too sexy for the men running the system.
JB: Well, I don't know. I'd say that if Peggy had Joan's position, she'd be put into the same situation. I don't know if you saw my tweet about Joan; Oh, Joan, I said, you need to go to an employment-discrimination clinic like the one my husband, George Cooper, ran at Columbia Law Schoo,l where he taught. We weren't together then, but I've heard all of these stories about women suing The New York Times and Reader's Digest, so I said, "Joan, this is where you need to go!"
GR: Obviously there is still sexism, and all kinds of sexism, but that kind of sexism is gone.
JB: Yes, that overt sexism, where the guys aren't afraid to do it in the open. That's pretty much gone.
GR: How did you encounter sexism in your career?
JB: Maybe not so much within publishing, but I certainly felt it in the outside world: "Oh, that's so cute. Judy's writing little kiddie books." And, "When you gonna write a real book, Judy?"
The women's movement was just coming; we were very slow getting it in New Jersey. One thing I remember is, I was very shy about asking for a larger advance. I only knew what I had read in a magazine called Writer's Digest, which said you should get $1,000 for your book, and I had gotten $800, and I said, "Isn't it supposed to be $1,000? And they said to me, Yes, but we want someplace to go with your next book. I do remember a time when I was more successful. I think my former husband put me up to it, asking for more money, and I was told, "You have a husband who earns a very good living, and so you don't need to do this. Money will come back to you in royalties if the book sells well, but you don't need to do this." And I believe I had an agent at the time. But other than that, I don't remember sexism in any other way.
Probably most children's book writers then were women. And so I never felt that I was treated any different than anyone else. I felt I was well treated. Do I ever want to go back to that time? No! Because I know what was really underneath it all: Isn't that cute? Women write children's books. That was that sense of it then. Little did they know that children's books and YA books were going to make up all the money for the publishing companies that they're no longer making.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing.
JB: It has to happen in the morning, so I get up and I go for my two-mile walk. Then I have my breakfast and I take my shower and then get dressed, which in Key West is a T-shirt and shorts. I go into my office, which is very pretty. I love writing there. And I stay there until noon. And if it's a first draft, I pray for the phone to ring, and I doodle a lot. Some of my best thinking comes when I have a pencil in hand. I doodle all over every printout. That's where the good stuff happens. And then I'll feel very hungry and keep looking at my watch. Then I'll have lunch. That's for the first draft. But as we go on in time, and we move from draft to draft, I'll work longer hours.
My office is in a garden. Key West is tropical and lush, and you just slide open the glass wall and it's as if you're really working in a garden outside. It's like you're not confined. I feel confined in my apartment in New York now. I don't like to work here anymore, although I have done much work here in the past.
JB: I don't read fiction when I'm writing. I'm easily intimidated. A good book can just ruin it for me because I think, "Well, what am I doing this for?" I often feel I don't know what I'm doing. But I did just read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. You have to read it. Don't read anything about it because it will ruin it for you. Just get the book and read it.
While I was writing this, I occasionally pulled down Nemesis, Philip Roth's novel about polio. I read it when I felt stuck. He is so brilliant. You know he grew up in the Weequahic section of New Jersey, also near Newark airport. Our mothers went to high school together. But we never met. I feel incredibly lucky he didn't write this book! He didn't tell this story. He's probably five years older than I am, so he would have been away at school when this happened. He wasn't around. Because, my God, he would have written a brilliant book. But I got to write mine. It's beshert.
GR: What are you reading now?
JB: Right now I am reading the books of all the people who are going to be interviewing me on this tour. Meg Wolitzer, for instance; I've never missed a Meg Wolitzer book. Her new one, Belzhar, is YA. I'm in the middle of it right now. While I was signing a pile of my books, I listened to two audio books: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. They kept me going.
Interview by Laurie Winer for Goodreads. Winer is a writer living in Los Angeles and an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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