Last time Judy Blume came to Long Island, she recalls, she signed books for six hours. She had to be lifted out of the chair and rushed to a diner to be revived with scrambled eggs. "Some of my most loyal fans are on Long Island," she says.
She'll be back to visit them June 21, when she comes to the Barnes & Noble in Carle Place.
Blume's latest is called "In the Unlikely Event" (Knopf, $27.95), a novel based on true experiences from her youth in Elizabeth, New Jersey. "It's something totally new for me, something I've never done before," she says. Though it's being published as an adult novel, early reviews have noted that it will be enjoyed by the author's younger fans as well.
"It's something you couldn't make up," says Blume, "or at least I never would." Within three months in the winter of 1951-52, three planes bound to or from Newark Airport crashed into the city of Elizabeth, taking 116 lives. The novel mingles facts about the crashes and their victims with the stories of several families of fictional characters -- dramas created by love, lust, teenage troubles and family secrets, set in a vintage America evoked through its mores, its music, its lunch counters and girdle shops.
Here are the highlights of a recent conversation with the author.
Obviously this is something that's been on your mind for nearly 60 years. What brought you to write about this experience from your youth now?
I have to tell you, I must have buried it somewhere because it wasn't on my mind at all! In January 2009, I was listening to a young novelist speak about how she'd been inspired by her mother's recollections of growing up in the 1950s. The '50s! Suddenly, it all started coming back to me. I knew instantly: I've got a book.
I guess you weren't the only one that buried it. I grew up in New Jersey, too, and never heard a thing about it. I'm surprised it wasn't written about before.
I know. I'm grateful that Philip Roth, who grew up right around the corner and is about five years older than me, must have been away at college when this was happening, because if he'd been around he surely would have written it before I did.
As you explain in your Author's Note, your book mixes fact and fiction. How did that work?
Every character on the plane or injured on the ground, with one exception, is real, including the pilots and flight attendants, who were then called stewardesses. I was able to get hold of the now-defunct daily newspapers, The Elizabeth Daily Journal and the Newark Evening News. Both of them covered the crashes extensively, with stories about the victims and survivors on the ground.
Is this your first research-based book?
It really is! I never knew what fun it was. The five months I spent researching were the best time I ever had in my life.
I always have a notebook by my side when I write -- I call it my security notebook, because it saves me from having to face a blank page empty-handed. This time it was filled not with my notes of things I made up but with pages and pages of copied articles about the events of the period.
The only character other than the victims who come from reality is the dentist, Dr. O. He's based on my father, who was called in to identify bodies using dental records. I knew that -- this was one of those things that came rushing back to me. There was more.
I knew there were boys from the orphanage, Janet Memorial, who came rushing out into the burning plane and rescued survivors. I remembered how we stood around in school inventing stories. The boys blamed it on spaceships and aliens and zombies; clusters of smart girls were talking about "sabotage." I liked that word a lot. One thing we could all see for sure is that, whoever they were, they were out to get the kids of Elizabeth. Three planes crashing in 58 days, each one right near a school or on the grounds of an orphanage?
Though the book rotates among many different points of view, the central character is 15-year-old Miri, and it feels to me like younger readers are a natural audience for this book. At what point did you decide to make it an adult book?
Oh, I hate categories. The reality of the marketplace today is that you have to be in one department or another, but I never think of it that way when I'm writing. What I'd love to see is a 15-year-old and her grandmother reading the book together. I think readers my age, people who remember the early '50s the way I do, who lived it, will enjoy this book as much as anyone.
Judy Blume signs "In the Unlikely Event"
WHEN | WHERE June 21 at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, Country Glen Center, 91 Old Country Rd., Carle Place.
INFO Free, 516-741-9850