Discovering Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, under the covers, with a torch, aged nine, was one of those rare moments in life when reading a book feels like a form of telepathy. As if the writer has wormed their way into my brain, swept up my innermost thoughts and transplanted them on to the page in front of me. Americanisms and anachronisms aside ("belted sanitary napkins", anyone?) here were 149 pages which precisely captured how it felt to be me, at that exact moment. Spoiler alert: confusing and not that fun.
Drop Judy Blume into a conversation with almost any woman of a certain age and I guarantee that you will be rewarded with a similar soliloquy, whether their particular doppelgänger happens to be Deenie ("Scoliosis! Masturbation!") Blubber ("the smelly whale of Class 206") or Katherine in Forever ("her boyfriend has a penis called Ralph!").
Blume has sold more than 85 million books, in 32 different languages, and is also, somewhat incongruously, one of the most banned authors of the 21st century. So cult-like are her fans that they hold an alternative "Blumesday" every year. Musician and author Amanda Palmer has written a song about her and Lena Dunham has said that "it's impossible to overstate" the author's influence on her. It has also been 16 years since Blume published a book for adults, 1998's tale of friendship and lesbianism-lite, Summer Sisters, which explains why the news that she will publish a new novel in June has triggered a flurry of rapture, nostalgia and "I thought she was dead" tweets.
Blume, who is still alive and now 76, made the announcement about In the Unlikely Event on Twitter this week, to her 118,000 followers. Her Twitter biog, by the way, reads "Are You There Twitter? It's Me Judy".
When I interviewed Blume last year, she was as friendly, smiley and wise as I'd always imagined her, and incredibly gracious when I droned on about how I was Margaret, a variation of a story she's no doubt heard more times than it should be humanly possible for one person to hear the same story from a stranger without self-combusting. She was in the middle of writing In the Unlikely Event, which she had been researching since 2009, ("I'm really, seriously trying to finish it") and gave me the impression that no one was more taken by surprise by this new book than she was. In the Unlikely Event was, itself, a pretty unlikely event.
"I thought Summer Sisters was the last book I'd ever write," she said. "I thought it would absolutely do me in. I wanted to burn it so many times, I don't know how I kept going. It was three very intense years of trying to get it right and then just before it came out I would say to George, my husband, 'We have to buy that book back from the publisher – we can't let that book be published, it's going to the end of a wonderful career' and instead it was my best, bestseller. George says I'm like that every time and I'm sure with the new book, should I ever finish it, I'll be feeling the same way. No, don't let it come out. No! No! Help! It's just pure anxiety."
In the Unlikely Event is based on Blume's experience of several plane crashes that happened in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1950s. "It's a decade I thought I never, ever wanted to return to, because it was a decade during which I was a teenager. But I'm finding that writing about it is very different to when I was living through it. It was a decade of secrets and a lack of honesty and nobody ever told kids anything. And the stuff that we were inventing because no one was telling us the truth was probably worse than whatever the truth was."
Tackling "the truth" is what makes Blume's books so beloved – periods, bullying, sex, racism, death – nothing is off limits. And it's fitting that the woman who gave a voice to so many people's teenage experiences is finally revisiting her own. Expectations will be high for In the Unlikely Event – Summer Sisters sold more than three million copies and spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. But if it even comes close to recreating the magic of Margaret begging god for boobs, my inner nine-year-old is pre-ordering a copy already.
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