Judy Blume on Margaret, Davey, and coping with death and periods

Judy Blume on Margaret, Davey, and coping with death and periods

Welcome to Random Reads, wherein we talk to authors about the characters and stories that defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand which ones we’ll ask them to talk about.

The author: Judy Blume has given voice to the hopes and fears of pre-teens and teenagers since before many of her readers were even born. And even though some of her characters have now been teens for 30 or 40 years, they remain some of the most enduring in young-adult fiction. Blume speaks frankly to the timeless trials of puberty, raising the ire of many a school board with books like Deenie (masturbation), Forever… (teen sex), and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (periods and breasts), all the while earning her status as one of America’s most beloved authors. Tiger Eyes, the first big-screen adaptation of one of her books, opened in limited release on June 7, and is available on iTunes and Video On Demand.

Davey Wexler, Tiger Eyes (1981)
The A.V. Club: Davey experiences very sudden loss when her father is murdered, and you’ve talked a bit about how you found yourself reflecting on the loss of your own father.

Judy Blume: I could have [been reflecting on that], but I wasn’t when I was writing it, or at least that’s what I think. I can’t believe now that I wasn’t thinking of it, but I would swear to you that I wasn’t. Sometimes that’s how novel-writing works: It’s so deep inside that you don’t know where it’s coming from. And certainly when I saw the movie, I thought, oh my God—it was so cathartic after all these years to see it. 

I didn’t know that I was writing so much about my own experience of loss—not me so much as my experience of loss. To be young, to lose the parent who loves you unconditionally, the parent you identify with, to lose that parent forever—it’s hard. It’s a hard way to start your grown-up life. But [Davey] does this. And I suppose, I wish that there had been a Wolf and a Mr. Ortiz to help me understand that. I think I knew my father’s philosophy, because death played such an important role in his life, and therefore in my life. He was the baby of seven, and nobody lived to be 60. So, somebody was always dying in the family. It was rough. And the summer that my father died, my 25-year-old cousin died and left a baby, and her father died suddenly—and that was all the same time—and then my father died. So I knew what Mr. Ortiz and Wolf helped Davey understand. And that is what that beloved parent wants most of all for you is to live and to go on with your life, and to enjoy your life and to make the most of it. But I swear I didn’t know this when I was writing it.

AVC: You write such strong female characters. Even Davey, who’s so vulnerable after her father’s death, finds strength in Wolf—but it’s really just her own strength. 

JB: It’s her own strength, yes. I don’t send [Wolf] away in the movie. I can’t believe that I ever sent him away in the book. I absolutely cannot believe I sent away such an important character. Of course, they’re older in the movie, but it’s romantic, in a sense, that they have such a strong connection. It’s not a sexual thing. But it is—that kind of connection between two people is so romantic, what can I say? It’s love. It’s a way of loving. It may not last forever. It probably won’t. But they will always have that connection.

Sally J. Freedman, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself (1977)
JB: You know, that’s my most autobiographical book! 

AVC: Sally has this imagination that so many kids can relate to. She wants to save the world, and even though she never puts on a cape or a mask, she has these really grand fantasies. 

JB: Yes, she does, and I had a lot of fantasies. I was a very imaginative child, and if you ask my husband, he would say that I haven’t changed. [Laughs.] 

AVC: So does Sally grow up to be an author as well?

JB: I don’t know what happens to Sally. People always want to know—what happens to Margaret when she grows up? And I say, “She doesn’t grow up! She’s 12. She’s always going to be 12. That’s it.” And Sally is Sally. But I’m lucky that I found an outlet. It’s interesting that you brought up that book because, of course, the reality is that Sally’s father… she worries terribly that he’s going to die because his two brothers died. My father had two brothers who were all in a dental practice together. The two brothers died at 43 or something. So Sally knows that’s how old her father is that year in the book. She takes on the terrible burden of deciding that only she can keep him safe and protect him. I did that. You know, the bargains with God—I’ll do this 20 times if you’ll do that for me. And I really felt it was up to me to keep my father safe. So here we are, two books, and we’re talking about death. [Laughs.] Interesting. 

But I did feel that way during the two school years in Florida. After those two school years, I didn’t feel that way any more. I was back home in New Jersey with my family, and my life with my friends, and life went on without the obsession—that worry that it was all up to me. I kind of lost that, lucky for me, or who knows what I would have turned into. But for that one year of my life [as written in Sally]—which was really two years—I had that burden. And yet, if you asked me, I would tell you that those were the best two years of my childhood, the most interesting, the most exciting, the most dramatic. And I still—I live in Key West most of the year—I still believe that when I look at the night sky in Key West, I’m 10 years old, I’m Sally, and I’m looking at the night sky in Miami Beach. I ride the same kind of bicycle that I rode—because in Key West we ride what we call cruisers. They have no handbrakes. It’s the sense of being 10 years old again. 

AVC: This isn’t strictly related to Sally—though there may be some similarities between the two—but somewhat recently, Maureen Johnson showed up at your place in Key West… to eat pancakes?

JB: Well, I did take them for pancakes. It was Maureen and Robin Wasserman—they came together. They, of course, had no idea that Key West was so far away from Miami. They thought, “Oh, we just got off a ship in Miami. Let’s go say hello to Judy Blume.” And so when they called, I said, “Yes, come down, but you have to stay overnight.” “Oh, no no no, we’re not going to do that, we wouldn’t think of doing that.” But of course they did, and it was wonderful. I loved meeting them. We went to Blue Heaven the next morning for pancakes. 

AVC: One can only imagine what Maureen Johnson is like in person.

JB: Well, with me, she was much more subdued that I would have expected in person. I met her via Twitter—I just followed her, she’s so much fun. I’m sure there’s a very crazy side to her, but she was… careful. [Laughs.] I think that the next time I’d get her to be the MJ I know she is. 

AVC: Well, you informed the lives of many women of this generation. Before this interview, a friend said, “My God, I learned about sex from Judy Blume.” 

JB: She probably would have figured it out eventually. [Laughs.] She learned about puberty from me. Well, and maybe sex, from Forever…

Margaret Simon, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970)
JB: It was my third published book, but it was the first one where I really let go. The first one was a picture storybook [The One In The Middle Is The Green Kangaroo] and then came Iggie’s House, and that was kind of learning how to write a book, to tell a story in writing. I could always tell a story in my head, as you know, but I didn’t write it down until then. But then with Margaret, I just let go. I remembered everything, everything. My son thinks I still do, but I’m not sure. I remember saying to myself, “I’m going to tell the truth about what it was like.” It wasn’t everybody’s truth; it was my truth. And it wasn’t as autobiographical a book as Sally, because it wasn’t my family. The questions, her questions, weren’t my questions about religion so much. But physically, I certainly was Margaret. I was a late developer and desperate to grown and get my period. 

AVC: Re-reading that, it’s still hard to believe that anybody ever wanted her period. 

JB: [Laughs.] You don’t want it anymore?

AVC: No! And Margaret really brought back these memories of being 12 and worrying if you’re going to catch up with everybody.

JB: Everybody was ahead of me. Everybody. But I just want to say this about your period: While you may not enjoy it, embrace it. Because it’s good to have it. Take it from me—it’s good to have it. I had it a really long time, but I don’t have it anymore. And I can’t say that I miss it, but I sure do miss the hormones.

AVC: You mentioned this with Margaret, and this comes up with Sally as well. There’s a lot of bargaining with God. 

JB: Well, I think the kind of bargaining with God really grew out of the Sally Freedman years. It was to keep my father safe—that was the bargain with God. I talked to God that way. He was—or She was, I don’t know, It?—was my confidant. “I really need to grow. I really need you to help me here. I really want to get my period, and I need you to help me with that.” It was a friendship. It was a friendship that I never found in organized religion. It was a two-way street. I do think that I would know what God would want me to do also, so that God would help me.

AVC: Do you still have that kind of friendship with God?

JB: Oh, I’d love to say that I do. But no. We still do all call, “Oh God!” when something—we all do that, don’t we? “Oh God, oh God, please please please please.” But I don’t think that all of us believe in the same way. Religion is a very private thing in my mind, whatever it is.

AVC: Sally is raised Jewish. But Margaret really embarks on this genuine exploration of different religions, which is pretty ballsy for somebody who’s 11 or 12 years old. 

JB: Yeah, maybe so. That’s not a part of my life—my family was all Jewish. I wondered a lot about it. And my brother’s children were half-Jewish and being raised as nothing. I wondered, when I was writing the book, what would it be like for them, and did it matter. I think I would have been more like Margaret. I would have been interested in this. I always wanted to go confession; I was always curious about confession. What was that like? It was all so mysterious. And because I grew up with friends of different religions, I was curious. I was a curious kid, what can I say?

Winnie Barringer, Iggie’s House (1970). 
AVC: You’d said earlier that you were still kind of learning with Iggie’s House.

JB: Oh, yeah. I would like to think that I could write a much better book today than that book. I don’t know—it’s not my favorite of my books. I’m glad I wrote it, because it led me to [my editor] Dick Jackson, who found me in the slush pile and worked with me on many, many, many of my books over the years, and taught me everything. So if not for that book, there’d be none. 

AVC: Both in Iggie’s House and in Sally J. Freedman, there’s a very gentle exposure of tough issues like segregation and racism. 

JB: Well, it’s important. When I wrote that book, I was living in suburban New Jersey. It was the time of the race riots in Detroit and Newark. And people were so afraid. This neighbor of mine—interesting to think about it now in terms of what we know today—he bought a gun. He was going to be ready to protect his family if the riots spilled over into our lily-white street. It bothered me. 

My father was—I’m writing a book now that’s set in the ’50s, and there’s a good man in it who happens to be a dentist. It’s not my father, but there are a lot of things about it that are like my father, who believed that everyone deserved good dental work regardless of the color of their skin. There’s that feeling in this book, but if anybody sees people of color in your office, you could lose patients because of this. I remember this. I remember my father talking to me about the double drinking fountains in Miami Beach. I came from New Jersey, where everybody drank from the same fountain. Of course, my mother wouldn’t let me drink from any fountain, because I would get trench mouth if I drank from the fountain. [Laughs.] But we weren’t segregated in school. My high school was probably one of the most integrated high schools ever. It was all girls, but it was totally integrated. But that time in Florida—that was different. You got to a certain point in the trains going to Florida, and all the people of color had to move out of that car and into a separate car. So my questions came early and they were real. Like: Why? Why? Why? And my father—even though he wasn’t there with me, but we wrote letters back and forth—when he was there with me, he talked to me about it. My mother never could have talked to me about it. She didn’t talk to me about anything. She was a good person, but she couldn’t talk.

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