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Judy Blume Knows All Your Secrets

The New York Times – By Susan Dominus – May 18, 2015

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Photo: Judy Blume

Judy Blume is an American writer. Her novels for children and young adults have exceeded sales of 80 million and have been translated into 32 languages. In 1996 she won the Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association for her contribution to writing for teens. from Wikipedia.com

I read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” when I was around 10, hidden, as usual, in a big upholstered chair in a back corner of the house. In one of my favorite scenes, a sixth grader named Nancy is mad at her friend Gretchen, who has just gotten her period for the first time. Nancy thinks Gretchen is not sharing enough of the details, despite a predetermined pact that whoever got hers first would tell the others “absolutely everything.”

“I’m telling you, aren’t I?” Gretchen asked.

“Not enough,” Nancy said. “What’s it feel like?”

What’s it feel like? With that question, Judy Blume, the book’s author, was reflecting back her readers’ impatient curiosity about the world ahead, and promising, implicitly, that she, at least, would try to fill them in. When I opened one of Blume’s books — “Blubber,” “Deenie,” “Forever .?.?. ” — I felt confident that she understood the pact: Blume had gotten there first, and she would tell us absolutely everything. Blume wrote about playground bullying and unnerving body changes and teenage sex and she wrote about parents’ failings. If her characters differed from my friends and me, it was that they could utter out loud their thoughts about subjects that were, to us, indescribably uncomfortable. Her books did not resolve with tidy, happy endings, at least not the kind I had come to expect, so that I read them with the same mixture of overheated expectation and anxiety that I felt about adolescence itself. Occasionally, I was exasperated — could these girls stop obsessing about their “bust” size already? — but often, as I read, I felt a shock of recognition: Wait, she knew that too? “I could never meet Judy Blume,” a 45-year-old friend told me recently. “She would just look at me and know all my secrets.”

For those of us who were teenagers in the early ’80s and in the decade before — “Are You There God?” was published in 1970 — there was no Sassy magazine, there was no Internet; there was just Judy Blume, planting the radical idea, for generations of women, that their bodies would be, should be, a source of pleasure and not of shame. Her credibility was total, a young person’s raw perspective, filtered — subtly — through the common sense of a frank, funny woman.

The connection to that woman felt strangely personal. Although we knew nothing about her beyond her smiling face on the backs of the books, she knew us intimately, certainly better than we knew ourselves. When adult women meet Blume now, they are sometimes giddy; often, they burst into tears, as if reuniting with someone they had not known they missed. Blume, who is 77, has encountered enough overwrought fans that she spent a lot of time trying to figure out what, exactly, they are feeling in those moments. “It’s because of what I represent,” she tells them. “I’m your childhood.”

On a recent evening in Key West, where Judy Blume now lives much of the year, she was enjoying some music at a piano bar at a beachside restaurant near her home. She had joined some friends from a tap-dancing class, all of them there to see the singer at the piano, another friend from the class, who was performing that night and was, at that moment, singing “Mountain Greenery.” “I just think he’s amazing,” she said. Then suddenly, Blume, in sandals and a T-shirt with a faint glittery pattern, was tap-dancing, beaming, loose-limbed and quick: double time step, triple time step, triple time step. Other people seated at the bar stared, maybe because she was Judy Blume, or maybe just because she was dancing.

Key West — uninhibited, lush, with a strong literary history — suits Blume well. A writer friend of Blume’s, the poet John Malcolm Brinnin, once said that living in Key West was like being back in childhood. “You ride your bike,” Blume told me the next morning, recalling his description. “You hang out with your friends. You take a nap.” In Florida, Blume is never far from her own youth: She spent two school years, starting at age 8, living in Miami Beach, the setting for her most autobiographical novel, “Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself.”

That morning, Blume, in a pink baseball cap and sneakers, was taking her daily two-mile walk on a path that snakes along the beach. At 8 a.m., the sun was already strong, but the more Blume talked, the faster she walked, and everything sped up whenever the conversation turned to her new book, “In the Unlikely Event,” which will be published next month. It is set mainly in 1952, when Blume was 14.

Blume never intended to write a book about the ’50s. She has always mined the details of her youth, but never set her novels during the period when she hit adolescence, because that era bored her. “The ’50s were all about being happy,” she said. “Parents’ expectations were, Don’t rock the boat, and be happy, for God’s sake. There was a lot of pretending going on.” As we walked, the blue ocean on our right gleamed; chickens, the beneficiary of some obscure legal protection in Key West, strutted by, but Blume hardly looked around. She was thinking about her book, or maybe about her childhood, or both.

Blume also never intended to write another adult novel. She published her third, “Summer Sisters,” a 1998 best seller, when she was 60. “After that,” Blume told me, “I said, ‘I’m never doing this again.’?” She had written some 20 drafts of “Summer Sisters,” and then pushed herself through a multi-city book tour. Blume, who finds flying hard on her sinuses and is phobic about thunder and nervous about germs, wrote a blog while she was promoting the book called, “Judy’s Anxiety Diary.” The prepublication jitters, all those questions about the “themes of your book” — it was not that she did not care, after all these years, but that she cared too much.

When the book was behind her, Blume decided that rather than go through all that again, she would enjoy her life in Key West — her funny, calm husband, George Cooper; her crossword puzzles by the pool in their backyard; her work on the board of the Key West Literary Seminar. From her relaxed vantage point on a tropical island, Blume also continued to exert a rather strong will, working actively to support the National Coalition Against Censorship; her books, especially “Deenie,” “Blubber” and “Forever .?.?. ,” are among those most frequently banned from school libraries.

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Photo: Blume with her husband, George Cooper. Credit Elinor Carucci for The New York Times

Blume clearly had plenty to keep her busy, and she decided she had written plenty of books. “Are You There God?” still sold around 100,000 copies a year, and some of her books for younger readers — “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Double Fudge” — sell at least as well.

But then one day in 2009, Blume was attending a literary event in Key West, listening to Rachel Kushner onstage talking about her own book, “Telex from Cuba.” Kushner mentioned that the novel had been inspired by her mother’s stories from the ’50s. And suddenly, Blume says, a story swooped down on her.

Over the course of two terrible months, three planes crashed in Blume’s hometown, Elizabeth, N.J. The first, in December 1951, plummeted into a river, on a Sunday, less than two blocks from the junior high school that Blume was attending at the time, its parts landing on a tree-lined suburban street nearby. The second plowed into a building just feet from the all-girls public high school Blume would later attend. A third nearly missed an orphanage on its way to smashing into a playing field. All told, 116 people died. Blume had built a career on the basis of her pristine recollections of childhood emotions, yet she had almost no memory of how she felt about a national news story that happened practically in her own backyard. “Was I scared?” Blume said. “I could not remember. It must have been buried.”

Blume started writing in what she calls her “security notebook,” which she uses to jot down impressionistic thoughts before facing a blank computer screen. At first, she imagined the story primarily through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl, Miri, a character who, unlike Blume’s childhood self, knew many people directly affected by the crashes. But she also wanted to give fully developed voices to other characters: a beloved dentist like her father; an older couple, who fall in love; a young woman, a dancer, who died in one of the planes. For the first time, she approached a book by heavily researching sources other than her own psyche: She spent hours at the Key West library, going through Microfilm in a room so dusty she wore a surgical mask, until her husband bought her a Microfilm machine on eBay to use at home. As she started writing, she lavishly layered in the historical details that define the small, specific universe of the book: the names of the department stores in Elizabeth where each person would have shopped, the songs and jingles that ran through their minds, the way young women stored their angora sweaters in the freezer to keep them from shedding. Her characters’ lives, and how the crashes changed them, started to take shape in her mind.

“I’m a storyteller — you know what I mean — an inventor of people,” Blume said. “And their relationships. It’s not that I love the words — that’s not the kind of writer I am. So I’m not” — she made a furious scribbling motion with her right hand — “I’m not a great writer. But maybe I’m a really good storyteller.”

As a girl, Blume had terrible eczema, and as a young mother in the ’60s, then living in Scotch Plains, N.J., she was bedridden with a mysterious illness that left her feverish and splotchy for many months, weak for almost a year. When that marriage ended after 16 years, she quickly threw herself into another one, coming down with a wedding-day allergy attack so severe her eyes were swollen shut. “I knew it was a mistake,” she said. That marriage lasted four years.

In so many of Blume’s books, her main characters’ bodies insist on their inherent, primal messiness; they crave, they ooze, break out in rashes as strange and humiliating as desire itself. The body is reckless, but telling. In “Wifey,” her first adult novel, published in 1978, Sandy, a miserably stifled housewife in search of sexual adventure, comes down with hives and fever. On the first page of “Are You There God?” the young narrator says that she knew what the weather was like from the second she woke up, “because I caught my mother sniffing under her arms.” Growing up in Elizabeth in the 1950s, Blume was that kind of girl: observant, curious, forever noting the mysterious ways of adults. She fantasized about being a detective with a gun, a cowgirl on a horse, a famous movie star with a Latin lover. She spent hours throwing a ball against the wall and concocting private melodramas. “I loved keeping my stories secret,” Blume said. “Because everybody was keeping so many secrets from me. You just knew. Adults. You would walk into a room and they would just stop. And it was like: “What? What? What?”

We were sitting in her home a few blocks from the beach: a graciously proportioned ’50s-era house renovated so that it was all sliding glass doors and sunlight, with potted orchids, rather than clutter, on every surface. When she gave me a tour, she pointed out the art, which was made by local artists she admired, and then led me to a bathroom. There, inside, was her greatest luxury: an electronic bidet toilet seat…

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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