Interview: Children’s Author Judy Blume

Judy Blume is the author of numerous books for readers of all ages, from picture books to middle grade and teen novels, to fiction for adults. Her titles include: ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARARET (Atheneum, 2001)(reprint edition); BLUBBER (Bradbury, 1974); the FUDGE series; FOREVER (Atheneum, 2002)(reprint edition); and SUMMER SISTERS (Delacorte, 1998). This interview was conducted via email in August-September 2002.

Everyone is eager to learn about your new book, DOUBLE FUDGE. Can you give us a hint as to what it’s about?

Double Fudge by Judy BlumeIn this book, five year old Fudge Hatcher becomes obsessed by money – he’s drawing dollar signs at breakfast, thumbing through catalogs at bedtime, and making enough “Fudge Bucks” to buy the whole world (or, at least, Toys “R” Us) — an embarrassment to his entire family, especially his older brother, Peter, who is just starting seventh grade.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the Hatchers meet up with their long lost (and eccentric) relatives, the Howie Hatchers of Honolulu, Hawaii, who happen to have twin daughters exactly Peter’s age (who burst into song at the drop of a hat) plus a weird little boy.

When Fudge discovers he’s not the only Farley Drexel Hatcher in the world — well, you can imagine!

Your ten-year-old grandson Elliot was the inspiration for your new title. Does being a grandma give you a different perspective on childhood or children’s literature? If so, how?

Being a grandparent is wonderful! I love it. But I don’t think it gives me a different perspective on childhood or children’s literature. It does help keep me in close touch with today’s children. But I think most of us who write for children find ways of keeping in touch with the current generation. We’re all observers. We all listen carefully. We’re genuinely interested in kids. Otherwise we wouldn’t write for and about them.

I often interview my characters, ask them to write letters to one another, do background reading, and read through my entire manuscript again after I write each scene. I’m increasingly looking for ways to trick myself into letting a story cool off between drafts. What is your writing process like?

I keep a notebook for months before I actually sit down to begin a new book. Before I start the notebook I have a vague idea of the characters and their story, usually something that’s been brewing inside my head, sometimes for months, sometimes for years. I jot down anything that comes to mind during this period — details about characters, bits of dialogue, chapter ideas, descriptions – sometimes even scenes. This way, when I actually begin, I have my “security blanket.”

I find that when I’m doing a first draft it’s important for me to keep going. Otherwise I get into revising each scene a million times and never move ahead. What works best for me is to get a first draft down as spontaneously as possible. It’s very rough and I always think, if I die now this will never be published. No one will have a clue what it’s about. I don’t need to cool off between first and second drafts. A first draft for me is getting the pieces to the puzzle, the second draft is trying to make sense of the pieces, the third draft is painting a picture using the pieces, and all drafts after that are improving the picture.

I like a cooling off period between the second and third drafts and again, before I send it to my editor. It’s amazing how much you see when you’ve put the manuscript away for a couple of weeks, even a month. Then — and this is so important, I’ll read the manuscript out loud. I guarantee, by reading and listening, you’ll want to make so many changes. A young novelist (two books published) was telling me recently that next time, he wants to record his book before it’s copy edited. Me, too!

Many writers describe themselves as “character” or “plot” writers. Which are you? What do you find to be the hardest part of writing?

I’m a character writer but there wouldn’t be a book if that character didn’t have a story to tell. I tend to get ideas about a character in a situation. I don’t like to think about “plot.” I don’t know everything that’s going to happen when I begin. I know where I’m starting and where I’m hoping to wind up (though that sometimes changes along the way). The hardest part of writing for me is getting that first draft. I find it pure torture.

In a recent interview, An Na (who won this year’s Printz award for A STEP FROM HEAVEN) wrote, “Thank God for Judy Blume or else I would have no clue about sex or my body. None of that got discussed at home, which I think is the case for so many other teenagers.” Adults lie to children or omit information all the time, yet you are forthright and honest through fiction. At first, was that a scary thing to do? Did you close your eyes and worry about irate grown-ups?

I didn’t worry at all. I didn’t even think about it. I was young and naive and nobody told me what I could or couldn’t write. I was writing about what I knew to be true because I remembered it so clearly.

Did your editor ever question your content? This may seem like a strange question, but with so many grown-up gatekeepers, how did you manage to put young readers first?

When I started writing in the late sixties (“Margaret” was published in ’71) the gatekeepers were in their dormant period. I’ve often said the seventies were a very good time for children’s books and those of us who wrote them. So many of us started out at the same time — Richard Peck, Rosemary Wells, Norma Klein, Harry and Norma Fox Mazer, E.L. Konigsberg, Robert Cormier (and those are just a few of us).

It’s not that you put young readers first when you’re writing – not consciously, anyway. You get into that place where you’re writing from deep inside. You just want to tell the best stories you can. With me, I wanted to be honest – maybe because I felt grownups hadn’t been honest with me when I was a kid.

My editor questioned content only once, during the height of the 80’s book banning craze. It involved a line or two in TIGER EYES in which Davey, the protagonist, allows herself to feel again, after her father’s death. I’ve written about this incident in the intro to PLACES I NEVER MEANT TO BE.

A question that I get asked: You have written for many different age levels, from picture books to young adults (and adults, too!). Do you find it challenging to shift from, say, the middle grade audience to an adult one? Or is it a natural process? Is there one age group you most enjoy as readers? If so, why?

I like creative challenges and I enjoy switching age groups and viewpoints. I think it may even help to keep my writing fresh. Yes, it was hard to find the voice when I wrote WIFEY, my first novel for an adult audience, in 1978. It took about three months (which seems like nothing now!). But I guess if I were forced to choose an audience and write only for them it would be kids on the brink — those 11 and 12 year olds I wrote about when I was getting started.

A lot of writers — at various career points — struggle with rejection, unsupportive friends or family members, mixed reviews, and their own insecurities. Our first instinct may be to think that writers like you are strangers to these sorts of feelings.

Ha! I’ve never met a writer at any stage of his/her career who doesn’t deal with insecurities. Just before SUMMER SISTERS was published I begged my husband to help me buy it back from the publisher. I convinced myself it was going to be a disaster, the end of a wonderful career, and I didn’t want to go out that way. He suggested I leave the country instead. I didn’t. But I did keep an “anxiety diary” during my promotional tour. You can find it on line at my Web site under “Summer Sisters”. I reread it from time to time to remind me — not that I need reminding. The happy ending to that story was that SUMMER SISTERS became my most successful book. So, you see — I’m no stranger to such feelings. I’m a stranger to feeling secure.

As for reviews, what can I say? Negative ones hurt. But you get over them. I have one “friend” who always calls after a negative review is printed in the New York Times or some other publication she finds at the doctor’s office or the hair salon and says, in a funereal tone, “I saw your review.” Maybe she thinks this helps me feel better. It doesn’t. Good reviews, on the other hand…

What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?

Stop thinking about it. Your job is to focus on the book you’re writing. You have to chase those demons away or you’ll never do it. Not that I don’t go through it myself these days. But when I began I didn’t know enough to scare myself. So I wrote, and I wrote, and then I wrote again. These days, after every book, I say, “Well, I’m never doing that again.” And my husband humors me, saying, “Okay, no problem. If you don’t want to you don’t have to.” But eventually we both know I’ll soon get itchy. (At least that’s how it’s been so far.) Creative work is essential to my well being.

When you look back on your enormously successful career, is there anything you would’ve done differently? If so, what and why? If not, how do you manage to move forward without regrets?

My grown son tells me I’m the least analytical person he knows. Maybe that’s not all bad. Maybe it’s worked for me. I don’t analyze my writing or my career. My first and longtime agent (sadly, she died several years ago) told me I was an intuitive writer. For better or worse, I think she was saying I just go with it, go where my characters take me. I tend not to get bogged down in the regrets department. I do the best I can. Not every book is for every reader. There’s no way I’m ever going to satisfy everyone. (This is interesting because in my family I often feel I’m always trying to please everyone.)

You have a colorful and extensive website about yourself and your work, which I’m sure encourages ever more young readers to write you with their thoughts. You have published a book of letters before, but I wonder… Do the kids still write about the same kinds of things? Are there new issues on their minds today? Do they express themselves differently via email than they did when the only means was paper and pen?

The website has grown with the number of requests for info from students (from elementary school through grad school) doing papers on either censorship or my books. I joke that it’s become an encyclopedia, that it’s taken on a life of its own — but it sure beats trying to answer all those questions individually (which had become impossible anyway). George, my husband, designed it, built it, and helps me maintain it, but it still requires more time than either of us has and I’m always fretting, thinking I really have to make more time for it. It’s the best way of keeping in touch with my readers!

I love e-mail! I love the immediacy of it. But I do think it tends to be less personal. It doesn’t feel as private as sitting down with paper and pencil and baring your soul. I’ve had many fewer e-mails about really serious issues in kids’ lives than when they were writing via snail mail. I still get snail mail letters (I’m not talking about the letters kids in class write as exercises, but deeply personal letters) and I’ve had some very seriously troubled kids contact me via e-mail.

You have been a staunch free speech advocate over the years, even editing PLACES I NEVER MEANT TO BE: ORIGINAL STORIES BY CENSORED WRITERS. You also wrote an op-ed piece titled “Is Harry Potter Evil?” for The New York Times. What can I do, what can any member of the children’s book community do to combat censorship? Why is this so important?

Take a Stand! For a start, join the National Coalition Against Censorship: 275 7th Ave. NY, NY 10001. For $30 you’ll become a member and receive one of the best newsletters around. They can also help if your work comes under fire or if you’re challenged as a teacher or librarian. They’re the little organization that could – and does! They’ll guide you if there’s a problem in your school or community. Other organizations will also help…I list them in the intro to “Places…” on my Web site. A recently published book on the subject (fascinating and all too true): AT THE SCHOOLHOUSE GATE: LESSONS IN INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM by Gloria Pipkin and ReLeah Rent.

Could you tell us a bit more about the anthology, PLACES I NEVER MEANT TO BE: ORIGINAL STORIES BY CENSORED WRITERS?

David Gale (editor at S&S) came up with the idea as a tribute to Leanne Katz, first director of NCAC. She was very sick at the time but still thinking about fund raising, always thinking about fund raising. She had no choice. Running an organization like NCAC requires getting out there and reaching people. Every dollar makes a difference. And what a difference NCAC makes! Leanne was pleased by the idea of the book and, of course, it’s dedicated to her.

You have given so much over the course of your career. What are your goals for the future? Do you have another story on the boiling pot?

All I know is that I have to be involved in some kind of creative project. Between books is a dangerous time for me. I begin to fantasize about all the things I could do to get out of starting another book. But what usually happens is, after a few months I can’t stand it anymore and I start scribbling in my notebook. I keep a lot of ideas on the back burner — some have been there for years. I may never write those books but I like the security of knowing they’re there.