Newsmaker: Judy Blume

Posted Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 09:50
Famed author discusses censorship, procrastination, and her love of tweeting
Author Judy Blume. (Photo: Sigrid Estrada)

Judy Blume’s books have been favorites of children and teenagers for three decades. Her 25-plus titles include classics like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and the Fudge series, featuring put-upon 4th-grader Peter Hatcher and his irrepressible younger brother. Blume is also an outspoken opponent of censorship, a result of attempts through the years to ban her own books, which sometimes explore complicated themes such as grief and sexuality. She is the 2014 spokeswoman for National Library Week in April.

I know you’re not supposed to ask this of writers, but how’s the current book going?

Slowly! It’s never good for me to stop and start, and with this book I’ve had to do that several times. Two years off to write and produce the Tiger Eyes movie. Months away from it for other reasons. But now—now!—this is the year. I’m determined. Actually, I’m close to having a draft I can share with an editor. Well, to be honest, parts two and three are working well. Part one is giving me trouble. But I’m excited about it, so I hope that means something. You’d think it would be easier after all these years, but it’s not.

Where is it set? You've written before that you only like to use locations in your books that you know well. Why is that?

It’s set in Elizabeth, New Jersey, my hometown, in 1951–1952. It’s based on real events that happened when I was a young teenager. In some cases locations are as important as characters. That was true in Summer Sisters, in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, in Fudge-a-Mania, and it’s certainly true in this book. Knowing a location really well, even if it isn’t an essential part of the story, helps me make it real for my readers. Can’t tell you how many readers I’ve heard from who have tried to visit Peter Hatcher’s apartment house in New York. (Sorry, the real apartment house is on a different street.)

You tweeted recently that “tweeting is more fun and less anxiety producing” than writing. What is it about writing that makes you anxious when you’ve done it for so many years to such great success?

I was less anxious at the beginning of my career when I didn’t know anything. One book after another poured out spontaneously. I had nothing to lose. It’s that spontaneity that I hope for every time: to get lost in the story, lost in the lives of my characters. It’s harder when you’ve met with success. The stakes are higher, though I never think of that when I’m writing—only after I’ve written and a book is about to come out.

Do you have a favorite way to procrastinate when you’re working on a book?

I’m very good at procrastinating, then complaining I don’t have the blocks of time I need to write. But now that I’m in my determined mode.…

What are you currently reading?

Robert Stone’s The Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I have to be very careful when I’m trying to write fiction not to allow myself to get so caught up in other characters in other books that I lose all confidence. That happened to me once many years ago when I was writing Smart Women. I read William Wharton’s Dad and thought it was so much better than anything I could write that I stopped writing for three months. I’ll finish reading the Stone novel this weekend before I get back to work on mine. The time for inspirational reading is before I begin to write, not during.

What role do you think libraries should play in combating censorship?

I think of libraries as safe havens for intellectual freedom. I think of how many times I’ve been told about a librarian who saved a life by offering the right book at the right time. Yet librarians often have to be fearless. They have to be ready to explain to an angry person or group why they aren’t going to remove a book just because someone says they should. They stand up for their readers’ rights. Don’t try to threaten them because they won’t back down. They are my heroes.

Have you ever changed the mind of someone who wanted to ban a book? What did you say?

I’ve tried with parents who are freaking out over a chapter in Superfudge called “Santa Who?” This is something new. For 25 years almost no one complained about that chapter. No one wrote to say I was ruining Christmas, which was the last thing on my mind when I wrote that chapter. Suddenly, challenges are everywhere. The children involved are often able to read themselves. Some parents say [the children] are 9 or 10 years old. I try to tell parents it’s much better if their children find out the truth from them than it is to hear it on the playground or on the school bus (which doesn’t mean a family can’t enjoy the idea of Santa). But isn’t that always the case? Better to learn about sex at home than on the playground, too. If kids know they can ask questions and get honest answers, they’re more likely to come to their parents with their questions. If they find out they can’t trust their parents, they’ll go somewhere else for information. And when it comes to the truth about Santa and the truth about how babies are made, they’ll be angry.

Your work is iconic for a generation of readers. Is it strange to you when readers talk intimately about your characters, or are you used to it by now, like knowing a friend in common?

I’m grateful to my readers and am always happy to talk with them about my characters. Yes, it is like having friends in common. I feel the same way about parents and kids reading the same books and talking about the characters. It’s a good way to communicate. "What would Margaret do?"

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