How should a novelist be? Radiant and relieved from having finally delivered a massive, long-in-the-works novel.
My friend and I attended last night’s public tête-à-tête at New York’s 92nd Street Y between Judy Blume and Samantha Bee, on the occasion of the former’s new novel, In The Unlikely Event, out earlier that day from Knopf.
The gender imbalance of the attendees was palpable—indeed, it appeared we were the only two men in the room not in the company of women. Our row-mates quizzed us on what Blume books we’d read. I said, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. (I sort of wanted to say Wifey—her steamy book about an extramarital affair—because it was formative, but I didn’t want to seem creepy.)
Blume and Bee sat on the stage in two cozy armchairs, a few feet from each other. The conversation turned quickly, wonderfully blue. “Do you consider yourself to be a political writer?” said Bee, putting a singsong emphasis on the last two words. “Because some people would argue that writing about things that are taboo, or unspoken, is itself a political act. And you’ve written about so many hot button issues. Masturbation—”
“Ooooo,” said Blume.
“Three minutes in, I knew I was going to say masturbation,” said Bee.
Blume reminisced about her early days of writing, which she said was a solitary effort. “We didn’t have groups then. I would’ve loved to have a group of writers,” she said. “I wrote the truth, what I knew to be the truth.” To this day, a lot of young people think she was absolutely right.
Blume continued. “I knew that I would’ve been very satisfied if I could’ve read a book that said it was okay to”—here she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper—“have an orgasm.”
“Did you ever think it would be possible that we would still be arguing about teaching sex education to children in the year 2015?” Bee asked. “It feels like a dystopian nightmare or something.” Everyone laughed, but Blume looked a little pained. “I don’t know,” she replied. “Other countries think we’re out of our minds.”
The talk turned to In The Unlikely Event, Blume’s first adult novel in 17 years and, apparently, her last. She’d reluctantly shown the manuscript to her editor, Blume said, filing a completed draft after four years of work. “It’s either send it or burn it,” she’d told her husband, George, who was in the audience. (He looks like an actor hired to play the role of Judy Blume’s Handsome, Bearded Husband.) As a writer, Blume has the luxury of working at her own pace, and doesn’t seem to suffer much editorial interference. “I’m very lucky in that my agent and my editors know better. They don’t push me. Because I don’t take that well.” Everyone laughed, but it probably wasn’t quite a joke.
Bee read off questions, submitted via index card, from the audience. “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” a woman wanted to know.
“Of course!” she said, and was greeted with a roar of approval. “I was the First Wave. You know, I’d’ve been marching if I hadn’t lived in the suburban neighborhood with two children,” she continued. “In my heart, I was out there marching. Yes! And you know, I hate it that we’ve gone through all these years of ‘feminist’ being a dirty word. Oh, it’s a terrible word. You’re this or you’re that. And now being a feminist has some other meaning that I don’t even understand.” She paused. “My husband is a feminist!”
Then there was a question about censorship, a topic with which Blume is keenly familiar. She said that “any book that kids really like” would be a target. “Right now, it’s really, really bad against…” She looked out at the audience. “George, help me! The Absolutely True…”
“Sherman Alexie!” shouted George.
“Sherman Alexie’s wonderful, wonderful book is just being given an awful time,” she said. “Here’s the thing: If you don’t want your kids to read a book, fine. You can tell them not to read a book, and maybe they will and maybe they won’t. But you can’t say what other kids can read.”
Bee asked if Blume had ever left a project unfinished. Yes, Blume replied. She had some “awful” manuscripts written before she became a big-time published author. Attached to them, she said, was a note addressed to her children written in big letters: “If you publish these after I die, I will haunt you.” There are, I think, worse ways to be haunted.
“If you wrote another young adult novel, would you incorporate present-day social issues into the storyline?” said Bee, mentioning gender identity struggles.
“That’s issue writing,” said Blume. “I don’t do issue writing. I do character writing.”
“But if it was an organic experience?” said Bee.
“Yeah, but I’m probably not going to write that book. But there are a lot of young YA writers who might, and will write that book,” said Blume.
After a few more questions, the Q&A wrapped up. We filed out of the auditorium, got in line for the book signing, and were again immediately questioned about our favorite Judy Blume novels. I said Margaret because I, unlike Blume, am not always comfortable telling people what I know to be the truth.