"I must have buried this story," says Judy Blume. "I've been a writer for 40-something years, and to have a story like that to tell and never even think of telling it — well!"
The beloved and bestselling author — more than 40 million copies of her books have been sold — is talking about the story at the core of In the Unlikely Event, her latest novel. It's based on real-life events: In the winter of 1951-52, when Blume was a teenager, three airliners crashed in her hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., in less than two months. More than 100 people died, including several on the ground.
Blume, 77, is best known for her fiction for young readers, such as Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Deenie, Forever and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, which have countless avid fans across several generations.
She has also written novels for adults: Wifey, Smart Women and Summer Sisters. In the Unlikely Event is the fourth in that category — even though the author says, "I don't love categories. But with publishers, and with book buyers, there are categories."
Blume, talking by phone from New York City, says that when she gets together with other YA authors, they often talk about which classic novels might be published today as YA books. "Catcher in the Rye? I think probably yes."
In the Unlikely Event ended up with the "adult" label in part because of its complexity: "It's long, it's complicated, it's got a lot of characters. YA usually uses one point of view," but this novel is told from multiple points of view.
"I felt I was writing a book primarily for an adult audience," Blume says, but she thinks young readers would enjoy the book despite its label. "I've put my best teenage characters in my adult novels," she says, and that includes Miri Ammerman, the protagonist of In the Unlikely Event, who is 50 in the book's opening and closing chapters but 15 for all of the rest in between. Miri's coming of age is framed and affected in surprising ways by the plane crashes.
"I never forgot it," Blume says of the crashes. "My father was a dentist, and he was called in to identify bodies."
But it also never occurred to her to write about that time. "I hated the '50s. I thought it was the most boring decade ever."
Her change of heart was sudden. She lives most of the year in Key West and is one of the organizers of the Key West Literary Seminar. In 2009, author Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers) was at the seminar, talking about her first novel, Telex From Cuba.
"She had based it on her mother's stories about growing up in the '50s," Blume says. "That was the magic moment."
Once Blume began fictionalizing the story, "getting inside people's heads, it was much more interesting than I'd thought."
She worked on the novel for five years, which included months of research. She also sent emails to people she had grown up with, asking them about their memories of that time.
"Almost every one gave me one gem of a memory, and each one became something important in the book."
Even though Blume says, "I'm so not Miri, and that's so not my family," she still identifies with her young characters, a quality that has led to so many young fans feeling a connection to them. She has often said in interviews that she "feels closest to the 12-year-old me."
She still does, she says. "But at 77 I'm a lot farther from 12-year-old me than I was when I started writing at 27."
These days, she says, some of the many fans who have told her that their reaction to reading her YA books was "That's me!" have a different point of view.
"Now people say to me, 'I need a book about menopausal me!' "
Blume says she is thinking about another book but not working on it yet — she has been touring for In the Unlikely Event since it was published in June and is looking forward to relaxing once that is done.
In the meantime, she says, she loves meeting her fans. "I'm grateful for their loyalty and generosity all these years. It's been a very sweet tour.
"I'm always like a little girl: 'Will anybody come? Will anybody ask me to dance?' "
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.