The Hippo


May 24, 2020








Judy Blume. Elena Seibert photo.

Judy Blume visits Portsmouth

Where: The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth
When: Thursday, July 14, at 7 p.m.
Admission: Tickets are $29 and include a copy of her book, In the Unlikely Event

Judy Blume stops in Portsmouth
The author on researching, writing and running a bookstore

By Kelly Sennott

 If you don’t know Judy Blume for her adult bestsellers like Summer Sisters and Wifey, you probably do for her children’s and young adult books like Blubber, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

The author, now 78, visits The Music Hall in Portsmouth July 14 to talk about her latest project, In the Unlikely Event, based on a real series of plane crashes that occurred in 1951 and 1952 in her hometown, Elizabeth, New Jersey. Blume observed the events as a teenager, but she tells the story from a sea of newspaper articles and characters who, throughout the crashes, experience love, loss, growth and betrayal. 
She talked with the Hippo from her Key West home a few weeks before the trip about how this is really her last novel (probably) and about researching, writing and her latest endeavor of running a bookstore with her writer husband George Cooper.
After you finished writing Summer Sisters in 1998, you said it would be your last novel. 
That wasn’t a serious, ‘I’m not doing this again.’ Now I’m more serious. This was a story I had to tell. … I knew at the moment it came to me. I was in an auditorium [at the Key West Literary Seminar] where a writer [Rachel Kushner] was talking about her ideas — she was inspired by stories her mother told her about growing up in the ’50s. It was like, boing! It came to me all at once. … By the time I left that auditorium. … I knew I was going to start immediately. I couldn’t wait until Monday morning when this conference was over. I had characters. I had structure. … I didn’t know everything because I never do. But I knew more probably than with any other book.
Why do you think you never thought to tell the story before then?
[Growing up] we didn’t come home from school and turn on the television. We weren’t bombarded by stories about it. I don’t think I really read the newspaper then. … I didn’t see anything firsthand. … I did know that my father, who was a dentist … after his office hours ended, he went to the morgue, and he was identifying victims by their dental records. But no adult ever spoke to any kid I know about it, and certainly not to me, not at home, not at school. … I was an anxious kid, and you would think I would have been really worried about it as it happened again and again. … But we just went on. As Irene, the grandmother, says in the book, life goes on. 
What did you do first?
I didn’t go back to Elizabeth right then and there, but of course I did go back many times. The first step was to read everything I could get my hands on. … I was able to digitize a lot of newspaper stories, and that made it all easier, and I guess for three months I just read, read, read. … In every newspaper story, I found scenes for the fictional story I was telling. That was the best fun I’ve ever had writing. I said, ‘I’m never writing another book without research again. This is cool!’ My husband said, ‘But once you have all the research, you still have to write the book,’ which is true. … I had a lot of my own memories, but I learned so much, and what I learned was so essential to … making a novel out of something that really happened. 
What else did you do for research?
I also talked to everyone I’m still in touch with from that period in my life. I still have a lot of friends from growing up in Elizabeth. … Everyone had a memory that found its way into the book. [Someone said], ‘We were watching The Kate Smith Show on television when the show was interrupted.’ … A major character, Mrs. Barnes, came from the memory from one of my friends whose little sister had a babysitter who was the mother of the pilot of the second plane. I wouldn’t have thought to do that. It was like everything was meant to be.
Your husband George helped with writing some of the book. 
Close to deadline, the lawyer at the publishing company asked us to stop in, and she said, here’s what you can do. You can use the real stories as they’re written as long as you use the bylines of the real reporters. … or I could change the stories a bit. A very important part of my book was the young reporter, Henry Ammerman, who made his name covering these stories, and I needed him to have the bylines. And so the stories had to be changed in some ways. … I said, ‘I can’t do it. I don’t have enough time.’ That’s when George came up and said, ‘I can be your Henry Ammerman.’
What was that process like?
We were in New York, and it was fall. We set up a newsroom in our apartment. … I was the managing editor, and I would throw them back at him, and say, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t good enough.’… And he had a very good sense of humor about all that, because he’s a very good writer. … We still used the language of the ‘50s reporters. … ‘The plane came down like a wounded bird,’ and, ‘The plane had broken apart like a swollen cream puff.’
It’s been a year since the book’s come out. What’s been the response?
Very encouraging. As I went around the country last summer, I was in 32 cities, and I met people in every city who were somehow connected to this. … In one city I actually got a warning from [a woman’s] daughter, who sent me an email beforehand, saying, ‘My mother is going to go and be there at your chat, and she was one of the characters who was on the plane.’ … I introduced her to the audience. We had a big hug. I felt like I knew her. … [In the book], I used her name, because her name was in the paper. She was interviewed by a reporter who said, ‘Well, do you think you’ll ever fly again?’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to have my vacation in Miami.’ I asked her if she did that, and she said that two weeks later, she flew to Miami.
You and George also recently cofounded a bookstore.
We’ve done a lot of projects together. It’s usually been his project or mine, and then the other is the cheerleader, but with this one, we’re working together. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work,’ but it’s working fine.
Why’d you get in the bookstore business?
Key West lost its bookstore five years ago. … We’re a community of artists and writers and readers, and we host literary seminars every year. It was just crazy there was no bookstore. For years, I’ve been badgering everyone I know — we have to have a bookstore! And we wanted Mitch Kaplan from Books & Books [of Miami] to open a bookstore in Key West. But it wasn’t possible. He couldn’t do it three and a half or four hours from the mainland. … But he said, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you and George can be there, I’ll be there to partner with you.’ … We call it Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West. We are a nonprofit bookstore, but you know, being partnered with Books & Books in Miami is incredible. I call them the mothership. They taught us everything. 
So you’re done writing for real?
I think! I always reserve the right to change my mind. I don’t have any plans to write any more long novels. … I am, at the moment, extremely satisfied creatively. I’m very happy getting up every day and going to the bookstore. 

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