Monday, February 7, 2011

An Inspiration for Over 30 Years (yeah, I'm that old)

There is one author I read growing up that I still read. Not because she continues to write (she died over 20 years ago). Or because she wrote books that were critically acclaimed (although she is ranked at #76 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books for 1990-1999). Most of the time when I mention her name the person I'm talking to asks, "Who's that?"

This author didn't simply shape me as a reader or a writer. I truly believe she shaped me as a person. Which is why I ordered a bunch of her out-of-print books on Amazon so I can still crack their spines and read her amazing stories of girls that I totally related to. I also bought those books so I can give them to my daughter one day and she hopefully will love them as much as I do. My inspiration as a teen girl growing up, and as a writer today, is Norma Klein.

I had no idea that Norma Klein's books were controversial (although I did know that they had single parents, parents living with lovers, mothers who revealed they were lesbians, teenaged sex, abortions, inappropriate relationships and characters who smoked pot and drank - she wrote in the late 70s and 80s so the drinking age was only 18 back then).

They also had teenaged girls who were high achievers making honor roll, applying to the Ivy League and getting summer internships at research labs because they loved science. I devoured Norma's books, and her characters, because they felt so real. Nothing was sugar coated. Girls had boyfriends who were great, nice guys, and they cheated on those nice boys. Her characters were smart. They made dumb mistakes. Their parents were adults who were also just people. Actions had consequences and life always didn't end up like they expected.

I want my books to be just like Norma's - a reflection of real life. That means sometimes teenaged girls have sex (and it doesn't mean they're sluts). Sometimes they drink (my editor questioned my decision to have my characters in RICH BOYS drinking a six pack on the beach - they were underage - and I insisted the scene stay in exactly as it was). Parents sometimes make mistakes and sometimes even with the best intentions things go wrong. I recently read a review of my book THE BOOK OF LUKE and the reviewer (a mother) titled the review DO NOT BUY: PARENTS BE WARNED!!!! She thought the content was inappropriate for teens because the character has sex. She wanted to protect her child from harmful "vices" (her exact words). While that's her right as a parent, I can't imagine not recognizing that teenagers are people, too. They don't all act the same way, but that's the fun of writing. Creating a character who thinks and acts for herself.

A few years ago I was visiting with Judy Blume at her home on Martha's Vineyard (my book, the anthology EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A GIRL I LEARNED FROM JUDY BLUME, had just come out). We were talking about a bunch of stuff and I happened to mention that I loved and devoured Norma Klein's books growing up. I said that I wish I'd had a chance to meet Norma and tell her how much she affected me. Judy responded by telling me that she was very good friends with Norma Klein, and I sat there while she told me all about Norma, the woman and the writer. It was wonderful.

Recently I was re-reading (for the hundredth time) Norma's book IT'S OKAY IF YOU DON'T LOVE ME (one of my favs). It was sitting on the desk in our kitchen and my husband picked it up and opened to a chapter. He read a few pages and turned to me. "Oh my god," he said, "Now I know why you like these books - they're about you, you're the character in this book, you're exactly like her!"

And that's exactly how I felt growing up. As a writer and a person, she was able to capture exactly what real life is like. It's not always pretty, but it's always honest. And that's why Norma Klein remains such an inspiration to me.

6 comments:

  1. Everyone is entitled to parent as they see fit, but I am SUCH a REALIST about what is happening. I am completely about talking about things and not pretending they don't exist or happen. Underage boys drink. Period. They swear. They even have sex. I'm not saying I condone it. I wish it didn't have to happen so young but it does. I don't pretend to my child that he won't be faced with drugs or hard choices, and I write from a realistic place in my heart.

    I never read Norma Klein as a teen (yeah, I'm that old too) but I wish I had. I am definitely going to check out her books now!!

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  2. I love this post--you're so right about what makes a reader connect with a book...It's seeing yourself in the pages. (...And the 14-year-old that still lives inside me felt the hair on her arms stand up when you said, "I was visiting with Judy Blume...")

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  3. Norma Klein and her awesome body of work are always in the forefront of my mind as I strive toward becoming a better writer. I still have all of her books and I've lost count of how many times I've read them. I saw myself and my friends reflected in her characters. I would read her books and think, "I want to write like this."

    All these years later, I still identify with them. I'm so glad that someone else feels that way. And how long did you have to pinch yourself before you believed you were actually meeting Judy Blume? :)

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  4. Actually, it's a funny story. I was speaking at the Martha's Vineyard Book Festival about the EVERYTHING book and was answering questions from the audience (we were outside under a large white tent). A woman toward the back, in a baseball hat and sunglasses, raises her hand and stands up. She takes off her hat, removes her sunglasses, and I'm like, "Everyone, that's Judy Blume." I knew she had a house on the island but didn't know she was going to show up. So, sort of weird to think I'd been talking about her and the book for 30 minutes while she listened and didn't even know it. And thank god I knew what she looked like.

    We chatted for a bit and her husband ended up calling me and asking me and my family over to their home for an afternoon. It was very wonderful, and that woman is freaking whip smart. Very interesting. My kids still talk about kayaking at Judy's house.

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  5. Even funnier, when I recalled how I saw the events unfold - the drama of the hat and sunglasses - Judy insisted there was no dramatic reveal, just her taking off her hat because she was hot, and her glasses so she could see me.

    But in my mind, it will always be a dramatic reveal.

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