Lip balm for extra moisturizing? Check. Lactaid to help digest the occasional sweet? Check. Pocket mirror to ensure the pearly whites remain food-free? Check. Smartphone because you never know when an inspirational tweet will pop up? Check.
Judy Blume has logged a tremendous number of miles in the last two years in her quest to see her 1981 novel, "Tiger Eyes," turned into a feature film, and the petite yet peppy grandmother is now powering through the final leg of her journey with the well-stocked purse of a road warrior. Though Blume has sold more than 80 million books since her first was published nearly 45 years ago, she knows the $2-million movie "Tiger Eyes," about grief told through the eyes of a teenager from the cliffs of New Mexico, needs all the help it can get.
With no big studio behind the movie, it's up to Blume and her son, Lawrence, who directed the film, to get the word out to her legion of followers. They must reach both the "nostalgia readers," who found adolescence a little less painful with Blume and her characters by their side, and a new crop of fans who are connecting to tales like "Superfudge" and "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" with equal enthusiasm — though many weren't even born when the books were written.
On this trip in late May, Blume has already donned a set of floral pajamas for an afternoon taping of Chelsea Handler's talk show (the comedian titled her second book, "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea," in a twisted homage to the author).
After a midday interview at Shutters in Santa Monica, Blume will head to CineFamily's Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, where devotees including writer-actress Nia Vardalos, singer Michelle Branch, "The Office's" Kate Flannery and others will be on hand for a screening of "Tiger Eyes" and a celebration for the author.
"It's been tough. There's no studio. No money. No budget for marketing," admitted Blume, who co-produced and co-wrote the movie with her son. "Do I want to go on TV? Not really. It doesn't look so bad, I guess. I think it's good to tell people about the movie. Maybe the story [audiences] love is that I'm 75 and I still walk and talk."
Blume does a lot more than that. She's writing her 29th book. She continues to mentor writers including Rachel Vail, Carolyn Mackler and Kristen-Paige Madonia. And she is an avid social media user (@judyblume), tweeting daily musings often to her more than 90,000 followers, including Patton Oswalt, Judd Apatow and Zooey Deschanel. (Sample tweet from her recent trip to LA: "What!? They have Magnolia bakery in L.A.? Who knew? Even though I gave up cupcakes a year ago I had to stop in for old time's sake.")
Despite the march of time and technology, Blume's novels remain invaluable blueprints to surviving the trials of teenagedom: everything from understanding bullying ("Blubber") to menstruation ("Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret") to healthful, consensual sex ("Forever").
"We had a wonderful screening in New York recently," said Blume. "Afterwards, Larry and I do our dog-and-pony show, and one woman after another stood up. 'I'm 34.' 'I'm 44.' Then one young lady stood up and said, 'I'm 13, and this is my favorite book.'"
In an era when Hollywood is optioning children's novels for adaptation at a record pace, though, perhaps the most frequent query Blume gets on the publicity trail is: "What took you so long to finally make a movie?"
Open to adaptations
Eating lunch with Judy Blume is like ordering a meal with Meg Ryan's character from "When Harry Met Sally," minus the fake orgasm.
The author, whose narrow frame belies her great capacity for emotion and empathy, settles on a chicken Caesar salad "her way," which once dissected means no garlic croutons, no dressing, just lettuce, Parmesan cheese, olive oil and lemon. She sniffs the oil to make sure no canola has slipped in. (She's allergic.)
Blume, who saw her 1975 book "Forever" turned into a TV movie and previously partnered with her son on an ABC adaptation of "Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great," insisted that she has a cavalier attitude toward her work and would eagerly allow another of her books to be adapted into a film, even without her involvement, should the opportunity come her way. She's particularly keen to see "Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself" — a story about an imaginative fifth-grader living in Miami Beach in 1947 — on the big screen and onstage.
"I'm open," said Blume. "I think 'Wifey' should be a movie. I don't need to write it. I don't need to be involved in it. And I'm on a big 'Sally Freedman' kick right now because what I want really deep inside is a musical — a Broadway-type musical based on 'Sally Freedman.' And I know just how to do it."
But the fastidiousness that Blume displays over lunch clearly carried over to the making of "Tiger Eyes." Even though she said she's proud of the finished product, she has some criticisms of the PG-13 drama, filmed over just 22 days in Los Alamos, N.M., in fall 2010: Her favorite scene in the book, she says, doesn't resonate nearly as well on the screen: She wishes her heroine, Davey, was dressed in a different color tone for a climactic moment in the film, and even though she insisted on appearing in a cameo, it's a decision she regrets, concerned that her presence takes the audience out of the movie.
"[My scene] leads up to a really important moment in the movie, so I'm kind of sorry," she said. "If people know me, it really ruins the screening. I think I shouldn't have done it."
Blume and her son, Lawrence, were both resolute that "Tiger Eyes" would be the first adaptation when Amber Entertainment came to them with financing from British retailer Tesco. It may not be the most well known of Blume's novels, but to her it's the most cinematic — and one of the most personal to both her and her son. Lawrence experienced a similar fish-out-of-water feeling as Davey when Blume moved him and his older sister to Los Alamos with her second husband, a physicist. The film also captures much of the grief Blume felt at age 21, when her father died just weeks before her wedding to her first husband, John Blume.
"It was such a terrible time and such an awful way to start out: feeling guilty, leaving my mother," she said of her father's death. "But if I had not had to get married then I think what would have happened to me. My mother was needy."
Blume loved her time filming in New Mexico; even revisiting the epicenter of her brief, unhappy second marriage couldn't quell her enthusiasm for the moviemaking. "It made me think, 'If only I were younger, I would do this again,'" she said.
The one bad day, she said, , came when her son was letting the film's lead actors, Willa Holland and Tatanka Means, improvise a quiet scene. It wasn't going well, and Blume was frustrated.
She said she got angry, and "I marched down the hall. I told Larry, 'Just have them say it the way I wrote it,'" she recalled with a laugh. "And they do. Otherwise we were really, really nice to each other."
After the CineFamily screening, Blume mused about whether it's her own attachment to her books that has prevented her work from hitting the big screen. "I'm not like that about letting go, am I?" she asked her son in front of the audience. "No," Lawrence quickly responded, then followed it up with a laugh.
Blume continued, "A book is a book. A movie is a movie. They are made to be different."
To her son, Blume was never an author who sought out Hollywood.
"She did not aggressively market herself as someone who wanted her books turned into movies as soon as possible," he said later by phone. "But also, the producers and studio executives who would come and be interested in doing something didn't come with a specific idea — exactly which book, or how they wanted to treat it. There were a series of near misses over the years. I always thought it was peculiar myself."
A puzzling talent
Blume started writing when she was 25, married with two young children, and wishing for a less scripted life.
"What I longed for was that time of life when everything is ahead of you," she said. "When you are on the brink and it's new and exciting and anything is possible."
The early books, like "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," just poured out of her — "It was easier when I didn't know what I was doing," she said — while the latter ones became much more challenging to complete. She spent three years writing 20 drafts of 1998's "Summer Sisters," for instance, and vowed to never write again after it was finished.
Despite her success, Blume struggles to explain why her stories have affected such a wide swath of readers. "I don't know what I do," she said. "I don't know how I did it, and I don't understand it."
Many others have articulated for Blume what makes her literature stand out. In a New Yorker essay on the author in 2012, Anna Holmes wrote, "What Blume is celebrating is that brief yet exhilarating time in a young girl's life in which internal narratives take precedence over external attributes."
Blume grew up in the 1950s in Elizabeth, N.J., with an older brother during a time when parents hid the world's scary truths from their children. Her mother was a homemaker. Her father a dentist. And the degree she was earning at NYU in education was, in her mother's words, a fallback, in case, "God forbid, you ever had to work." Her real job at the university was to find a husband, which she did her junior year. The writing came after she had her two children, daughter Randy and Lawrence.
"I wanted to write honestly about kids because I didn't feel that the adults in my life were ever open and honest with me," she said. "The war had just ended, and we wanted to know what happened. Every story I made up in my head about what really happened was worse than what anybody could have told me."
Today, Blume contemplates the final chapter in her career. Happily married for 33 years to George Cooper, a retired law professor and an executive producer on "Tiger Eyes," Blume splits her time between New York City and Key West, Fla. She joked that Cooper ruined her career: "I got happy, and to write you need a lot of angst."
A recent breast cancer survivor, Blume said that when she dies she wants a headstone that reads, "Are You There God? It's Me, Judy."
But she's not willing to go yet. She's contemplating relocating to Santa Monica for a few months this summer to continue working on her novel. She doesn't have a deadline for the book but hopes to finish the story — set in her hometown in the 1950s — "in her lifetime."
"My mother used to knit, and when she finished a sweater she always had the wool for the next sweater because she made bargains with God. God would not take her when she was in the middle of a sweater," she said. "I used to make a lot of bargains. I don't make a lot of bargains anymore."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun