With the publication of her latest book, “In the Unlikely Event,” Judy Blume hearkens back to events in her own life.
Things never got very racy for Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. And Encyclopedia Brown? Clueless.
But Judy Blume’s books were like travelogues of the undiscovered places in young adulthood that your parents didn’t want you to find just yet. Sex. Masturbation. Menstruation. The strange stirrings of love.
Blume’s books were like a secret friend. They were passed around swim clubs and classrooms, dog-eared and Dorito-stained. This woman got it. She remembered. She knew.
Judy Blume: In Conversation with Nancy Pearl
7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 11, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $45-$75 (206-652-4255 or ). www.lectures.org
It’s no surprise then, that when you ask Blume about meeting her fans, she tells you about the tissues she keeps on the table.
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“They get choked up, and then so do I,” Blume said of her fans, “because I know what they are trying to tell me.”
“Maybe it’s about ‘Tiger Eyes’ (Blume’s 1981 young-adult novel), maybe it’s about someone they lost. And the little ones are looking at the older ones, saying, ‘Why are they here?’ ”
All of them are there because they grew up with Blume, losing themselves — and finding themselves — in books like “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Blubber” and dog-eared copies of the first-love classic, “Forever.”
And on Thursday, June 11, they will come to Seattle’s Town Hall to hear about Blume’s fourth adult novel, “In the Unlikely Event,” about three actual plane crashes in Elizabeth, N.J., and how each affected a varied group of characters — some related, some strangers. The event is being sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lectures.
Blume, now 77, grew up in Elizabeth, and was there when the planes went down.
But until recently, she shoved them deep down in her memory — as did the people around her who remembered them, too.
Her husband, George Cooper, grew up in Baltimore, and belonged to a club of boys who tracked planes, and the crashes, which killed 116 passengers in a 58-day period in the winter of 1951-52.
People came to refer to Elizabeth as “Plane Crash City.” The mayor at the time referred to the city being caught under “The Umbrella of Death.”
“And yet for 35 years, we never talked about it,” Blume said, speaking from her pied-à-terre in New York City. “I never told anyone. I don’t keep secrets and this wasn’t a secret.
“But I cannot explain why, as a writer, I had an incredible story living inside of me and never thought about it.”
It’s especially odd, considering that Blume’s fictional stock-in-trade is secrets: Those kept by children, those kept by adults, those adults keep from children, and each other.
Her books unapologetically mine the clarity and confusion of childhood and adolescence, from bullying to puppy love. Blume wrote about sexual awakening, death and divorce through a young person’s prism. Readers saw themselves in her, this grown woman who seemed to understand them.
“I have never lost touch with childhood,” Blume explained. “Childhood is right there. It is. But you know, I always had an imagination and I always liked inventing people, making up people and what they were talking about.”
It could have been the soap operas she listened to on the radio when she was a kid. Shows like “Stella Dallas,” focused on the kinds of things the adults in her life never shared.
“It was always ‘Shhh!’ so we never knew what they were talking about,” Blume said of her family. “So I made it up. And what I made up was far worse than anything my parents were talking about … The things we didn’t talk about were death and sex and money.”
Blume, on the other hand, never shielded her own children from the life’s horrors.
In fact, she said, when her daughter, Randy, was 12, she took her to see “The Exorcist” and let her read Stephen King novels.
“She loved those scary books,” Blume said of Randy, now 54.
Randy once got frostbite on her toes during a ski meet, when she sat and read King’s “The Shining” for hours without loosening her boots. Her toes still bother her to this day.
“We have thanked Stephen King,” Blume said with a chuckle. “He knows.”
Publicists are calling “In the Unlikely Event” — Blume’s first adult novel since “Summer Sisters” came out 15 years ago — a “publishing event.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “It’s not as if I haven’t been writing.”
There was “Double Fudge,” and the “The Pain and The Great One” chapter books. And there was the “Blubber” movie.
Blume started doing the research for this new book in 2009, going back to New Jersey to read the Elizabeth Daily Journal and other newspapers on microfilm. In fact, the book contains phrases borrowed from the original stories.
“What I wanted to do was use the language of these … reporters,” she said.
Just the day before, Blume said, she got an email from a woman whose father was one of the journalists who covered the crashes. Blume had thanked him in her author’s note.
Her research included all kinds of details of the period and the place, from fashion tips like putting angora sweaters in the freezer to keep them from shedding, to popular songs and movies, to the names of stores and restaurants in the area.
“I wanted everything to be real and I had to make sure when the songs came out, I wanted to know exactly what was playing at the movies and it wasn’t hard to find that,” she said.
But she didn’t have to look everything up, Blume said. She included a restaurant called Spirito’s, where she once went on a date.
And Blume has strong memories of the time, the people. It explains why she was such a fan of “Mad Men.”
Blume holds a special place in her heart for Sally Draper, the young girl at the center of the drama.
“I think she’s going to be OK,” Blume said, happy to speculate on a fictional character’s life. It’s what she does, after all.
“She’s going to be a strong woman,” Blume said. “And she’s a kind woman. She was very kind to her brothers.”
You believe her because she’s Judy Blume: The author who knows what people are thinking, what people want to tell her — and to keep tissues within arm’s reach.
“Things have changed,” she said. “The way we live has changed. But I don’t think people change much.”