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Judy Blume says her young fans have her permission to read her grown-up novel 'In the Unlikely Event'

June 15, 2015 


Judy Blume says her current book tour will be her last.

"This is my farewell," the 77-year-old author acknowledged recently over the phone from her part-time home in New York City. "Not in any bad sense of the word. Iíve just decided it really is."

June finds Blume promoting her latest novel, "In the Unlikely Event" (Alfred A. Knopf; 416 pages, $27.95), which is one of only four books she has written for adults. Her name has long been synonymous with young adult fiction, although she doesnít consider herself a YA novelist. She dislikes categories, saying only that there was no such classification when she wrote her most iconic books for teens, including 1970ís "Are You There God? Itís Me, Margaret" and 1975ís "Forever."

Interestingly, "In the Unlikely Event" also features a largely adolescent cast of characters. Blume doesnít know why, although she admits she is most comfortable using teenage voices in fiction. The protagonist of "In the Unlikely Event" is a 15-year-old girl named Miri who lives through a terrifying three-month period during which three passenger planes crash in her hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., each time narrowly avoiding some sort of school or orphanage.

As far-fetched as it may sound, similar events really happened in late 1951 and early 1952. Blume was in eighth grade, and the kids at her school were full of conspiracy theories. Could it be zombies, aliens, even communists?

She remembers where she was when she heard about the first crash. It was a Sunday afternoon, and she was in the car with her mother and her friend Zelda.

"My mother liked to go out to a movie and an early dinner," she says. "We mustíve been listening to the radio because the program was interrupted."

Like a character in the book, Blumeís father was a dentist called on to identify the victims by their dental records.

Blume re-creates this unsettling season of fear by examining the lives of the individuals and families affected by the accidents. Many characters are based on real people who died either in the planes or on the ground as well as on those who mourned their loss. The early 1950s milieu is as lush as the cashmere sweaters her anxious teen heroes wear. The Korean War looms, kids hang around burger joints and soda fountains, and scandalous unions take place in the back seats of roomy cars.

"I love to say to my kids, ĎDonít tell me anything about my memory if I donít know where my keys are, because I wrote a 400-page book and I kept all of those characters straight,í" Blume laughs.

Writing the book took five years that the author recalls as "painful." She spent countless hours poring over microfiche news accounts. She also talked with as many old friends as she could about what they remembered. All those recollections made it into the book.

For Blume, the approach to writing a book for adults is the same as that for kids.

"The process isnít any different; itís horrible whatever you are doing," she says. "The first chapter is always torture."

Sheís remarkably chipper when she talks about the difficulties of writing, because with every book as complicated as "In the Unlikely Event," she swears sheíll never write another one. The truth, though, is that sheíll most likely find herself back at her desk eventually.

"The creative juices donít just go away," she says.

This has been particularly true for Blume.

Over a career spanning nearly half a century, she has written 29 books that have sold more than 85 million copies in 32 languages. Women of a certain age ó particularly those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s ó have imprinted on Blume the way baby birds might their mothers. Many first learned vital details about sex and menstruation from Blumeís books. She is their childhood best friend and favorite confidant.

Such readers will recognize key Blume-isms in this new book, including her uncanny ability to conjure the feeling of a first kiss, a longed for slow dance at the school gym and the strange collision of emotions that can accompany the loss of oneís virginity. Blume writes about such things with a clear-eyed precision that is neither precious nor graphic.

"She had to stop herself from talking, from asking questions the way she did when she was nervous, because she sensed this boy didnít want to talk," she writes about Miriís first dance with her future boyfriend. "She prayed the palms of her hands wouldnít sweat, that her deodorant was working, that the faint scent of her motherís Arpege would reach his nostrils. His breath was near her ear, making her tingle."

If this sounds an awful lot like the Blume legions of readers have loved over the years, thatís because the concerns are very much the same. The main difference between her adult fiction and her fiction for younger readers is that the former has many more characters than the latter.

"Young adults can read this book," she says. "They have my permission if they want to slog through all those characters."

In the meantime, Blume says, "Letís hug and cry, but Iím not going anywhere. Iíll be around. Iíll be tweeting."

Appropriately, in the "about me" section of her Twitter account, which has 124,000 followers, she has written, "Are You There, Twitter? Itís Me, Judy."

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services