Are You There Judy?

Writer Judy Blume explained the things adults wouldn’t talk about—racism, menstruation, divorce, sexuality—which is why besides being one of the country’s most beloved authors, she is also one of the most banned.

Born Judy Sussman in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Blume went on to publish more than 20 books and win 90-plus awards for her writing. Her coming-of-age novels, like Deenie, Blubber, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Forever, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (the list is long and delicious), made kids who were overweight, shy, unpopular, scared or jealous feel just a little better about themselves. Blume got us, and she got into our heads. Heeb decided it was time to get into hers. So we hooked her up for a little Q & A with Amy Krouse Rosenthal (author of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and the children’s books Little Pea, Cookies and The OK Book). What they came up with was Judy Blume: Q & A-Z.

*Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret*
I was young and naive when I wrote Margaret—though, at 27, I was already a wife and mother of two. I had so much creative energy bottled up. _Margaret_ was my third published book but the first one that came from deep inside. I just let go and her story poured out. It was the book that brought me my most loyal readers. It was the book that changed my life. In many ways, I was Margaret. I’ll always be Margaret.

With this one, I had the title first and then I wrote the book, but it was based on an incident in my daughter Randy’s fifth grade class where the class leader used her power in an evil way, pitting classmate against classmate. Some adults are bothered by the language and the cruelty of the book, but the kids get it.

When I started to write, I had two little kids in pre-school. My writing time was structured around their school schedule and I knew that if I didn’t work while they were at school, it wasn’t going to happen. That worked in my favor. I had to be very disciplined.

My father was the youngest of seven and none of his siblings made it to 60. He came from an orthodox family, so each time there was a death, the house had to be prepared—I remember the mirrors being covered and my father sitting on a small box. Sitting shiva became a way of life. When I was 21, my father’s only surviving sibling died, followed immediately by his 25-year-old daughter, and then two months later, just weeks before I was to be married, my father died suddenly at 54. The wedding went on, as Jewish weddings must, but it was a difficult beginning, to say the least.

I was shaped by death, and for years I was sure I would die early too. I think that’s why I wrote so fast and furiously in the beginning. Just before my daughter’s wedding, I couldn’t sleep. I was sure I’d die and spoil the festivities. My family humored me, saying, ‘Well Judy, it won’t be the same without you, but we’ll do our best to have fun.’

I’m the youngest of all the first cousins on my father’s side and I keep track of their health issues. All the male cousins, including my brother, have had serious heart issues. Still, I’m not in such a hurry anymore. I’m too old to die young and dramatically.

I was eating pancakes at our favorite breakfast restaurant in Key West, Blue Heaven. I was there with my daughter and my grandson Elliot, who must have been about 5. He wanted to buy something from a local artisan. I told him to ask how much it cost and he came back saying $20. My daughter and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s a lot of money. We don’t even have that much money with us.’ And Elliot replied, ‘So go to the cash machine!’ That’s when the idea for _Double Fudge_ came to me. In this book, Fudge would be obsessed with money. He would think all you had to do to get more was go to the cash machine.

I wrote this book for my daughter when she was 14. She asked if there couldn’t be a book about two nice kids who ‘do it’ and no one has to die at the end. I was going through my own late-adolescent rebellion at the time (I don’t recommend rebelling in your 30s). Given the time—the ’70s—I felt I’d missed out on everything. I married after my junior year of college and never had any of the experiences I later longed for. The sexual revolution was in full bloom and I was questioning whether any love, especially first love, could last forever in one’s life. I recently met a lovely young woman from Scandinavia. She said to me, ‘When we were growing up, we didn’t understand the fuss about _Forever_. Americans are so much more puritanical.’

George and I have been together for 27 years. Sometimes you get lucky. Meeting George was the luckiest day in my life. He makes me laugh every day.

Judy grew up in Elizabeth, NJ but spent two years of her childhood in Miami Beach, FL—her brother, David, had been ill and his doctor suggested he spend winters in a warm climate. Judy, David and their mother moved south, leaving their father in New Jersey.

I find that when the body is engaged, the mind can wander. I could be bouncing a ball, walking, taking a shower—physically involved with something—and that’s how I get my best ideas. And doodling. At my desk, it’s all about doodling. The only problem is reading my own writing later. It was when I was in the shower, covered with soap and shampoo, that it finally came to me that I could write another book about Peter and Fudge [stars of _Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing_]. Readers had been asking me for this for years. It was such a simple idea [the concept for the sequel _Superfudge_] that once I had it, it was like, ‘What took me so long?’

I grew up attending a conservative synagogue. I went to Hebrew school for about three minutes; it was a bad experience because of a cruel teacher. For me, religion is very private, very personal, just like in Margaret—God as friend, God as confidant. I never felt God in synagogue, but I often felt close to the idea of God when I was on my own. Today I like to celebrate the holidays, anything that brings the family together. I believe in history, in the personal stories, what happened to people because they were Jews, even if they didn’t practice Judaism. I’m proud to be a Jew, but I worry about fanatics within any organized religious group. My grandson is a half-Jew and I hope that some day he’ll be interested in finding out more about his history. For me, being Jewish is about feeling a part of something… it’s inside of me.

In the summer, I kayak everyday. One afternoon, I was out in my kayak when suddenly there was this loud and frightening noise; it sounded like a gunshot. Next thing I know, I see all these people running down a hill in their very best clothing. Then I could make out that there was a bride and groom. They, along with everyone else, jumped into the pond. When I realized it was a celebration, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to start my book [Summer Sisters] at a wedding.’ I came back and wrote the wedding scene immediately, just as I saw it.

My son Larry says I’m the least analytical person he knows. Other than that, we’re a lot alike.

*Miami Beach*
I became ritualistic in the third and fourth grades. This was when I living in Miami Beach, separated from my beloved father for weeks or months at a time. I invented a series of chants and made bargains with God to keep my father and my family safe, to protect us from fire, from robbers, from sickness, bargains to keep my father’s plane from crashing. I never told anyone I took on this burden. When I left Miami and went back to New Jersey in fifth grade, I let go of the rituals. Looking back, those two years in Miami Beach were the most interesting and important of my childhood. I wrote about it in _Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself_.

Right now I’m working on four chapter books. They’re for ages 6 to 9 and based on characters I created years ago in a picture book, _The Pain and the Great One_. The first book will be out in September. It’s called _Soupy Saturdays_ and it has deliciously funny illustrations by James Stevenson, the _New Yorker_ cartoonist.

The brother and sister in this book are loosely based on my daughter Randy and son Larry when they were young. I’ve always wanted to return to these characters, who are among my favorites. Randy and Larry, who are grown now, still sometimes refer to each other as ‘The Pain’ and ‘The Great One.’ My grandson finds that hilarious.

*Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great*
Sheila has all my childhood fears: dogs, thunderstorms, swimming. But unlike me, Sheila covers her fears with bravado. The book is dedicated to the memory of my father and our special game of hide and seek.

When I’m writing, I go off into my little room. I get in there in the morning and write for two to three hours on my laptop. When it’s going well, I’m off in that other part of the brain. In the zone. two hours go by and I’m thinking, ‘Where was I all this time?’ In the afternoon, I might come back to do e-mail or read over what I’ve written—I’m a big rewriter. My process hasn’t changed that much over the years. Even when my life was falling apart [after my divorce], I could still write. I could go off into this other world. I hope my process never changes.

Judy and her husband, George, spend the summer months on Martha’s Vineyard. There, away from the tumult of the house, she has a tiny cabin by the water where she goes to write in the early mornings.

With _Summer Sisters_, two or three of my long-time publishers said no. They wondered, was it a novel for adult readers or for young adults? They didn’t have faith in me, didn’t think that I could revise it. It was very painful. You know, you don’t expect rejection at this point in your career. Especially since _Wifey_ and Smart Women—my first two novels for adults—were bestsellers. During this time, I ran into [novelist] Bob Stone. I got off my bike and burst in tears, fell into his arms. I think I shocked him. We’re not even best friends. But we stood there and talked about what was happening and how I felt. He was so sweet. And he said to me, ‘Don’t give up, don’t give in, it’s going to work.’

*Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself*
It’s my most autobiographical novel. I was just 7 years old when World War II ended, but the war really colored my early life. Nevermind that Adolf Hitler was supposedly dead. I knew that he’d wanted to kill all the Jews in the world. And I was a Jew. Some of the Yiddish expressions used by Sally’s grandmother in this book are words I learned from my own grandmother.

_Summer Sisters_ was the most wonderful book tour, filled with young women who grew up reading my books. On that tour the bookstores learned that they had to put Kleenex on the table: One woman would start crying, and then I would cry, and then we would all cry. I credit Carole Baron, my editor at Delacorte, for the success of _Summer Sisters_. She said to me, ‘I know how to publish this book.’ I wrote about 20 drafts over three years. It was because of her faith in me that it all came together.

I’m always asked if I’m still writing. Sometimes I say, ‘That’s it, I’m never doing this again!’ But after a few months I find myself longing to get back into my study, longing to get involved with a new set of characters. I guess writers don’t quit, until or unless something happens that makes writing impossible. And even then, I suspect there are still stories going on inside their heads.

I can never be sure where the names of my characters come from. But I knew a Victoria, called Vix, in London. She worked for one of my publishers. So maybe that’s why the name popped into my head when I began to write _Summer Sisters_.

I walk a couple miles every morning, heading out around 7:30 a.m. It’s a good way to start the day.

Judy is, as she herself puts it, ‘one of the most banned writers in America.’ Starting in the ’80s, her books were targeted for censorship and taken out of libraries and stores across the country. She now serves on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Once, Randy was on a plane and the child sitting next to her was reading one of my books. Randy said, ‘Judy Blume is my mother.’ The child didn’t believe her. She tested Randy by asking questions. When kids told Randy and Larry they wished Judy Blume could be their mother, my kids rolled their eyes and explained that Judy was just a regular person at home.

A movie starring Stephanie Zimbalist was made from _Forever_ in 1976. I liked it. I thought it was faithful to the feelings in the book. I would have cast a different Michael though. I heard the director found him working in a shoe store and that he had little acting experience. I had trouble believing the lovely Stephanie Zimbalist would fall for him. Recently, I’ve been working with a screenwriter to get a screenplay for _Deenie_. Will it ever make it to the screen? We’ll see.

What do you think?

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