Write what you know, novelists are often advised, and Judy Blume knew many things when she wrote the books that proved so influential and iconic that their author eventually became a question on Jeopardy!, and the inspiration for an episode of South Park and a Saturday Night Liveskit, not to mention a hero and sentimental favorite of generations of readers. Among those things is that growing up is a time of powerful, dramatic occurrences. It’s been more than 45 years since Blume’s first book was published, but she is still writing what she knows, and still turning to the early years for that knowledge. Except this time, with In the Unlikely Event, instead of looking inward, examining the emotional upheaval evoked by bodily changes and new physical sensations, Judy Blume is looking outward. Or, more to the point, upward.
In the early 1950s, when Blume was a teenager in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three airplanes crashed in her town within 58 days, creating fear, anxiety, and bewilderment. But though Blume grew up amidst these events, it took her more than half a century to think about turning them into a book. It wasn’t until 2009, while she was listening to the writer Rachel Kushner talk about stories her mother had told of growing up in Cuba in the 1950s, that Blume envisioned her own 1950s novel. It came to her in an instant, with various characters and plots. Blume spent five years on her story, which blends real-life facts with fiction. While the book is multi-generational, it’s not at all surprising that the character at its heart is a 15-year-old girl.
Many of us, having long left behind girlhood and adolescence in a big, Love’s Fresh Lemon-scented puddle of training bras and clogs, still remember with nostalgic pleasure and gratitude Blume’s classic works, which mirrored and illuminated our own experiences. So, with this new book—her first adult novel in 17 years—is Blume, as we might hope, beginning a late-life fiction whirlwind? “I can’t imagine writing another novel,” she says. “Of course I said the same thing after Summer Sisters. I meant it then. But I think I mean it more now. I feel good about that,” she adds. “I feel elated about that. And at 77 I think that’s O.K.”