The women, and even a few men, of so many ages line the hallway of her publisher’s offices, waiting to hold her hand, to claim an autograph, to envelop themselves in her latest work. To them, she is Margaret, absolutely, but also Sally J. Freedman and Rachel Robinson (though not Fudge, never Fudge), but always, inimitably, Judy Blume, beloved author of 29 books, with an astonishing 86 million copies in print.
“In the Unlikely Event,” published Tuesday, is Blume’s fourth novel for adults, her first in 17 years, since “Summer Sisters.” Many of her grown-up readers were once her YA readers, and before that her young readers, but always and forever hers.
As Blume is prone to saying, “I am their childhoods,” partly because she has constantly mined her own. She is simultaneously a creature of her youth (the 1950s, although she had not written specifically of that period until this book) and that of her readers (the ’70s, ’80s and every decade since). That’s in part because she can so easily access her childhood. “I used to think I lived at age 12,” she says. She has never forgotten how awkward and important that time can be.
Blume writes books for young readers about subjects that other writers fiercely avoid — menstrual periods; sex, all sorts of sex; religion. (Readers remember “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. ” for dealing with menstruation, but it’s also about mixed marriages, religious bigotry and lack of faith.) Her books have been frequently banned by school libraries, which only seems to make them sell more and to further endear Blume to her fans for going there, writing in a style that is direct, familiar, conversational and never sensational. What readers tell her so often in the 1,000 letters she receives each month is “I felt like you were talking directly to me.”
Blume helped transform this publishing crowd, here for her first signing of the novel before she launches her promotional tour, into lifelong readers. Around Blume, there’s none of that Manhattan ennui: They’re visibly elated. One young woman exclaims, “I’ve loved your books since I was a kid,” holding Blume’s latest volume like a newborn.
“I don’t take this for granted. Ever,” says Blume, a wren of a woman who inked her looping signature 18,000 times in advance of the book tour, which she absolutely, positively swears will be her last.
“I’m never doing another book tour. I really feel this is it,” Blume says during an interview after the signing. The month of June is devoured by events, many with younger writers who remain ardent fans, including Meg Wolitzer, Jennifer Weiner and Curtis Sittenfeld. She will appear at Sixth & I in Northwest Washington on Thursday. “It’s hard. There’s so much attention being paid. It’s embarrassing.”
Also, she’s an improbable 77.
With her is George Cooper, her adored husband of 35 years (his name salts her conversation; many of the books, like this latest one, are dedicated to him), a nonfiction author and former Columbia law professor. He says of Blume’s “Summer Sisters” tour, the one she thought would be the last: “It was a lovefest. We had to keep boxes of Kleenex on the table because everyone was breaking into tears.”
Including, of course, Blume.
She tends to establish immediate intimacy, sharing health concerns and hugs. Being around Blume and her admirers is like attending a literary slumber party, summer camp with books.
She inspired Chelsea Handler’s woozy 2008 homage, “Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea.” (Appearing on Handler’s television show, Blume said, with quintessential Blumian candor, “I didn’t like you for a little while, but then I loved you.”) Blume is precisely what admirers expect: instant girlfriend.
“In the Unlikely Event” is based on the true story of three fatal airline crashes that occurred over two months in the early 1950s, when Judy Sussman was a young teen, in her childhood home town of Elizabeth, N.J.
It might have been a tough sell, an unlikely summer read, if it weren’t a Blume book and hence being birthed with an initial printing of 210,000 copies, Knopf betting that it will be a big book of the season.
Says her editor, Carole Baron: “I told people, ‘It’s Judy Blume, trust me.’ This will be a story about people.” She adds: “I think anyone can write a good sentence, but to be a good storyteller, that is priceless.”
The novel is Blume’s most heavily researched work, resulting in color-coded binders of drafts. If a babysitter makes 50 cents an hour in the book, that’s because it was the going rate in 1952. Many of the plane passengers are based on actual victims.
The book boasts a sprawling assemblage of characters, Trollope in the Jersey burbs, but the heroine, unsurprisingly, is Miri Ammerman, a smart, perceptive young teen.
There’s a little bit of Blume in almost all her books. (She says that “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself” is her most autobiographical. “When I was nine and 10, I was a lot like Sally — curious, imaginative, a worrier,” she writes on her Web site.) Her father, a dentist who helped identify victims of the crashes from dental records, is the model for this book’s charming Dr. Osner. Cooper can also be found between the covers. He contributed the novel’s Elizabeth newspaper articles by Uncle Henry, who — spoiler alert! — ultimately lands a job at The Washington Post.
“In the Unlikely Event” is written in simple, direct language, a feast of declarative sentences. “There’s no reason why a teenager can’t read this book,” Blume says. “I don’t like categories, that you have to be published in a certain place.”
Blume had forgotten about the crashes. She’s not given to introspection that way. She was never scared to fly, “and I was the most anxious kid. My mother was the most anxious mother, ever.” Blume never told her children about the crashes, either, including her daughter, Randy, who became, of all things, a commercial pilot and later a therapist.
“The ’50s!” Blume gasps. “And that was it. I have a story! I’ve been a writer for 40-something years, and here’s this very dramatic, tragic story, and I never thought about it.” From that point on, she couldn’t let the story go.
Writing was “easier in the beginning” of Blume’s career. “I didn’t have expectations, and no one else had them, either. I had so much inside me. It needed to come out. All this stuff that was in there. I didn’t have an outlet for it. So I went from book to book to book to book,” Blume says, shaking her nest of curls. “I wanted to write the books that I think I would have liked when I was that age.”
During the childhood and adolescence that she has accessed so deftly for stories and those indelible, uncomfortable feelings, no one told her that she was a writer.
“We didn’t have creative writing classes,” she recalls. “I kept them quiet, but I always had stories, very dramatic stories, melodramas, from the time I was 9. I would bounce a pink Spaldeen ball against the side of the house every afternoon and let the stories run around. And then, the next day there would be different stories.”
She studied early childhood education at New York University, married, had two children. (Her son, Larry, directed and co-wrote with Blume the 2012 movie “Tiger Eyes,” based on her YA novel.) She took an NYU continuing education class on writing from tweens to teens. After two years of rejection, she became a published author in 1969. She eventually shed the husband, kept the name. She married briefly, divorced again. And she kept writing book after book after book.
Then, Cooper. It was Cooper’s ex-wife who provided a list of three women he might date in Santa Fe, N.M., where the writer was living and he was on sabbatical. To Cooper’s daughter, Amanda, then 12, the perfect Judy age, the choice was obvious: “Dad, call Judy Blume.”
“Two days after the first date, we moved in together,” Cooper says. “What can I say? It was the ’70s.”
For all Blume’s success, the writing gets no easier. “Summer Sisters,” she recalls, “was rejected by a lot of people, including my long-term publishers. And I was just in a terrible place. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing with it.”
Baron, her editor, came along and worked with her on draft after draft, 20 in all. “And it all came pouring out,” the novelist says, “and she made it right.” The initial printing for that book was 65,000, but her publishers had underestimated the demand. Baron crows, “It sold 600,000 copies net.”
In addition to swearing that this is her final tour, Blume claims that “In the Unlikely Event” will be her last big book.
Really, Judy Blume? Her agent, Suzanne Gluck (her previous two, Claire Smith and Owen Laster, have both died), has been a Blume fan from her days at summer camp. “When I was first working with Judy, she told me, ‘Full disclosure: I’m not sure I’ll write another book,’ ” Gluck recalls. “Fine, but a girl can dream.”
Her editor doesn’t believe her. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Baron says. “She said that about ‘Summer Sisters,’ too.”
So here Blume is, with another book, another story to tell, her fans thrilled to welcome her back. But this, she vows, is it.
“I do want that time to do whatever I want to do. I still have a lot of creative energy. I know I’m going to be involved creatively,” she says. “I think, with this book, I’ve kind of said everything.”