For decades, the name Judy Blume has been tied to young-adult novels and coming-of-age stories. Books such as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” have long been the subject of debate. Her works are treasured as classic literature for adolescents, but often criticized for their openness on subjects such as sexuality, menstruation, religion, and divorce.
Now, more than 45 years after Margaret began changing the lives of young readers, Judy Blume is back in the spotlight, having recently published what is likely to be her last novel.
“In the Unlikely Event,” Blume’s first book for adults in 17 years, is set against the backdrop of very real events. The novel follows a dynamic cast of characters in Blume’s real-life hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., through a series of deadly plane crashes that occur in the winter of 1951-’52.
This Thursday, July 14, Blume will be at The Music Hall in Portsmouth to discuss her latest work as a guest in the Writers on a New England Stage series.
“What was different about writing this book was the months of research before the writing of the actual story began,” Blume said in an interview on Saturday. “For five months, I was just involved in all this research, and I loved it. I had never had that experience before and, at the time, I said to my husband, ‘I am never writing another book without research.’”
The author spent a considerable amount of time sifting through microfilm, old newspapers, and library records, as well as conducting interviews, collecting as much information as she could about events that had no televised coverage and had taken place when she was only in eighth grade. She mentioned the “security notebooks” that she keeps as she writes, jotting down ideas and information that may or may not make it into the finished novel.
“In this case,” she said, “my security notebooks were filled with newspaper stories, because that’s what we had in those days. Everything was reported in the paper. There was no television news … and you weren’t bombarded with images.”
“It was long and intense,” Blume said of the research and writing process. With a break in the middle to work on the movie adaptation of her novel “Tiger Eyes,” the book took about five years to complete.
“My intention right now is that this is my last long novel. I can’t imagine locking myself up, at age 78, for another five years.” — Judy Blume
But Blume said the original idea for the novel came quickly.
“It all came to me at once,” she said, “unlike any other book I’ve ever written.”
It came to her as she was sitting in the Key West Literary Seminar in 2009, listening to a young author speak about drawing inspiration from stories of her mother’s youth in 1950s Cuba.
“When she said that, ‘The ’50s’ — and I’ve said this before but it’s the truth — it was like, ‘boing!’ It was that ‘Oh my God’ moment. ‘I have a story inside me and I have to tell it,’’’ said Blume.
“To me, the amazing thing is that I’ve been a writer for 40-something years — God knows, I don’t even know how many years, a long time — and what writer has a story like this sitting inside her and never tells it?” she added.
The real-life tragedy experienced in Blume’s hometown takes on new life through the large cast of fictional characters in the novel. There’s a young, up-and-coming journalist who struggles to capture the catastrophe in words; here’s the town’s dentist who is called in to identify the crash victims through dental records; there’s Miri, the ninth-grade protagonist who grapples with the aftermath of the crashes along with the everyday confusion of boys, friendships, and turning 15. The novel weaves a complicated and engaging storyline that is ultimately more about people than events.
“It’s much more about the characters, if you ask me,” Blume said. “I would say it’s about the characters, and the crashes are the background to how they react and how their lives are changed. But a novel is always about characters, not about events.”
“In the Unlikely Event” could end up being one of Blume’s more remembered works, especially since she expects it to be her final novel.
“I think one never knows about that, but my intention right now is that this is my last long novel. I can’t imagine locking myself up, at age 78, for another five years,” she said.
Blume now owns and operates a bookstore in Key West, Fla., with her husband, George Cooper.
“I’m really enjoying being a book seller, running a bookstore, and I think it’s time, she said. Will I ever write anything again? Something smaller, something shorter? I’m not saying that I never will. If it comes, it comes.”