Jennifer Weiner began her interview with Judy Blume, one of the most anticipated events of this weekend’s BookCon, by telling the children’s author and national sex-explaining treasure, “In big huge letters at the top of my notes it says DON’T CRY. And I’m gonna cry.” But by the end of the talk it was Judy Blume who cried, telling a story that she’d actually left out of her new novel, In the Unlikely Event (her first for adults in 16 years).
The novel, out Tuesday, revolves around three plane crashes that occurred within less than two months in Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from Newark Airport, when Blume was a 14-year-old local. Weiner asked her what she was like in high school. “I was very active,” she said (intending no innuendo). Indeed, she was in the “advanced glee club.” But she noticed at the time that no African-American girls ever seemed to make the cut. At Blume’s 40-year high-school reunion, she decided to stand up and unburden herself of a secret guilt: She remembered seeing the glee-club teacher’s list of applicants, with a big C written beside the names of all the black girls. “I felt so terribly guilty,” she said, eyes welling up. “Why didn’t anyone say something? Afterward, a couple of girls came up to me and said, ‘We never knew that you knew.’ And that was very heavy and wonderful — a cathartic moment.”
As for what did make it into the book, Blume was cagey for fear of spoiling too much (and shushed Weiner when she went into too much detail). She insisted it wasn’t even close to the most autobiographical thing she’d ever written. The one character closest to her real life was the 15-year-old protagonist’s father, a dentist who, like Blume’s own father, must identify victims of the crashes using dental records. “I like to make dentists heroes in my books,” she said.
Weiner, famously outspoken in her novels and on Twitter, didn’t waste much time getting down to business. “Let’s talk about sex,” she said. “Okay, I think sex is good,” said Blume. Weiner scoffed at the notion that parents could keep girls away from sex by keeping them away from Blume’s books — “Like we ever need instruction manuals or permission slips” — and complimented her for still having a knack for sex scenes.
“I know it’s a sexy scene,” said Blume, “I know it’s good if it turns me on.” Blume lamented the dark turn sex has taken in a post–Fifty Shades world. “Why not have healthy sex,” she asked. Weiner eventually came around to prodding her about her own sex life at 77. “I’ll get together with you later and tell you all about sex in your 70s,” said Blume. “You miss the estrogen, honey, but it’s good. It’s still okay.” Weiner pushed a little more, but Blume demurred. “You will get there,” Blume said, “and you will tell them.” “But I want you to,” Weiner said. Blume’s husband (who calls her Goddess) told her she’d have to write about it eventually, but she isn’t so sure.
Weiner asked for some advice on being a frank and popular writer — like what to do when your own 12-year-old daughter starts asking about your racy books. “Mommy made it all up,” Blume advised her to say. “That’s good,” said Weiner, “because when my book is called Good in Bed, I’m gonna get some questions!”
Blume said that when her own daughter was 12, she wanted to read Portnoy’s Complaint. “I just want to say,” she added, “that I’m really thankful to Philip Roth that he didn’t write the book that I just wrote, because he grew up in Newark,” and the topic would have been right up his alley. “If he had written this book, it would have been an excellent, wonderful book,” and we wouldn’t have In the Unlikely Event.
Finally, Blume took questions from five lucky members of the audience. She advised one young woman on how to avoid writer’s block. The next woman, who’d been raised ultra-Orthodox, said “my only sex-ed was from your books,” and then asked where Blume got her information in a Blume-less world. “Well, we didn’t have YA growing up,” said Blume, “so I went right to my parents’ bookshelves. I found a lot of satisfaction in adult books.” It was a savvy answer for a writer pitching her first adult book in a while. But BookCon fans didn’t need persuading. A petite blue-haired girl, after getting her question answered, seemed to speak for everyone: “Oh my God, Judy Blume just talked to me!’