In the span of less than three months in 1951 and 1952, three planes crashed within a mile-and-a-half of each other in Elizabeth, New Jersey, near Newark Airport. Author Judy Blume — then Judy Sussman — was 14, and Elizabeth was her hometown.
Now, after 50 years of writing some of the most beloved literature for kids and young adults — works such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Tiger Eyes; Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing; and Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself — she’s finally telling the story in what she says is her last novel. Blume will discuss In the Unlikely Event (Knopf, $27.95) Monday at Temple Judea in Coral Gables.
This is an edited transcript of Blume’s conversation with WLRN’s Alicia Zuckerman. It’s from The Judy Blume Radio Hour, which you can listen to at WLRN.org.
Q. In the book, two of the three flights are bound for Miami. Is that true?
Oh, yeah, everything about the flights is true. You can read every report from the Civil Aeronautics Board. I have every report from them. … December, January, February. Fifty-eight days, three planes fall out of the sky. One a block from our junior high. One almost came through the window of the only girls’ public high school. And the third fell into the playing fields of the only orphanage in town.
I don’t mean for the book to be a downer, and I guess you have to get through it to see that indeed life does go on, and one can find happiness and love and move on after something like this. … I was just 14 [when the plane crashes happened]. I was in eighth grade. Miri, one of my protagonists, is in ninth grade. I wanted them to be as old as they could be, but I needed somebody at that junior high school because I needed somebody to report about the boys. Maybe it was because we were all terrified, but we needed to come up with explanations, and the boys were into outer space and the communists and the aliens.
Q. Throughout the book, [there’s] a series of excerpts from newspaper stories, many of which are written by Miri’s uncle Henry Ammerman. Are those real stories?
During the four months that I did only research before I started writing, I printed out and collected all the newspaper stories. George (Blume’s husband) got me an old machine, a microfiche machine. I was intent on using the language of the reporters of the ’50s because today, I don’t think any reporter would describe a fallen plane as: “It broke apart like a swollen creampuff” or “it fell to the ground like a huge wounded bird.”
Q. Are any of the characters’ stories true?
Yes, these stories are true. My father was a dentist. This is the most autobiographical character, Dr. Osner. (Natalie Osner is Miri’s best friend, and Dr. Osner is Natalie’s father ) … My father was called in as a dentist to identify the remains of the victims by dental records. But he never talked about it. … I do know that when I was a senior in high school, my father took me to a college interview in Boston. And this is my second flight. And on the way home, it was snowing very hard, and my father said to me, “You can never tell Mommy that I took you on a non-sked.” That was what we call the non-scheduled airlines. The first plane that crashed in Elizabeth was a non-sked. And all I knew was that I was with my father, and he loved me more than anything, and my father would never let anything bad happen to me.
Why I’ve never written about this [before] is beyond me. It never occurred to me until I was sitting at the Literary Seminar in January 2009 in Key West, and Rachel Kushner had a novel that I liked very much, Telex from Cuba, and she was on stage talking about the inspiration for this book, which was her mother who grew up in Cuba in the early ’50s. And suddenly it was like the light bulb went off, like you see in a cartoon — boing! And this book came to me in a way that no other book has ever come to me. It came with characters, it came with plot. By the time I left that auditorium, I knew what I was going to do.
Q. Why did you write this as an adult novel?
It’s a novel published for an adult audience because we understand more. It’s traumatizing, and yet life goes on, as the wise grandma says in the book. People fall in love. People keep going to school. They get haircuts. They want to look like Elizabeth Taylor. They celebrate birthdays.
My father was the youngest of seven, and nobody lived to be 60. And so we were always sitting shiva in my house, and my father would say, “Life goes on.” It may go on differently, but it keeps going. Uncle Henry Ammerman takes Miri in his arms and says, “I’m so sorry, Miri. Terrible things happen in life.” And Miri’s wondering if it’s worth it. And Uncle Henry assures her that it’s worth it.
Meet the author
Who: Judy Blume in conversation with Alicia Zuckerman.
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Where: Temple Judea, 5500 Granada Blvd., Coral Gables.
Tickets: Vouchers required; buy a copy of ‘In the Unlikely Event’ at Books & Books locations in Coral Gables, Bal Harbour or Miami Beach and get two vouchers.
Info: Call 305-442-4408 or visit booksandbooks.com.