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Lena Dunham vs Judy Blume

The creator of Girls talks to the prolific teen author about feminism, books and sex in this exclusive extract from The Believer

To celebrate the new Girls Rule issue, Dazed is running a month-long online series of girl-centric interviews, thinkpieces and features. This week, we kick off the theme with exclusive head-to-head interviews with some of our favourite females – beginning with Girls creator Lena Dunham and YA author Judy Blume. Keep checking our Girls Rule page for more content all month. 

Illicit teen lit hero Judy Blume is a seemingly unstoppable force in the literary world. The last word in coming-of-age tales kept hidden from disapproving parents, her books rocked the boat for girls everywhere. She was one of the first teen authors to talk masturbation, menstruation and sex with frankness, and her work often shocked.

Lena Dunham practically predicted the future when she had her Girls character, Hannah Horvath, declare that she was the voice of her generation. It may have been tongue-in-cheek but Dunham, who also writes, produces and directs the show, wasn't far off. Her crew of 20-something miscreants, created with a startlingly uncompromising complexity, have sparked debate and hilarity across the world.

Here the pair come together as part of an exclusive extract from an 80-page mini-book on sex, writing, feminism and censorship available through San Francisco culture magazine The Believer.

Lena Dunham: It’s kind of impossible to overstate how much what you do has made it possible for me and so many women I admire to make their work. It’s informed our perspective, and I wanted to tell you a brief anecdote, which is that I, like a lot of children, had a babysitter who was reading Forever. She was staying with us for the summer and reading it in her room. And I had read a lot of your other books, the ones that my parents deemed age-appropriate, and my parents are pretty liberal but they were just trying to look out for my innocence or whatever. But my babysitter had Forever and I said, 'Well, I’ve read Judy Blume books, can I borrow that?' And she said, 'No, this one’s not appropriate for you,' which obviously got me really worked up, so I took it from her.

Judy Blume: How old were you?

Lena Dunham: I was eight. But I was a very precocious reader; I read a lot of things I didn’t understand. Like I read Lolita when I was nine.

Judy Blume: But it didn’t matter, because it went right over your head. That’s why I tell parents not to worry.

Lena Dunham: Exactly. I had no clue what anybody was talking about. I don’t think any of the depictions of sex were more to me than just, like, an image of two people’s arms rubbing together; I just had no clue. But I took Forever to the bathroom to read and then I heard my mom coming – we were at our country house – and so I stuck it under the toilet and went running out. I went back later to check for it and it was gone. I was freaked out. My babysitter came up to me and she said, 'Did you take my copy of Forever? I saw it in the bathroom, under the toilet.' And I told her that my cat had put it there, which at the time seemed like a really great excuse.

“I was a very precocious reader; I read a lot of things I didn’t understand. Like I read Lolita when I was nine” - Lena Dunham

Judy Blume: The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger. Did you read that?

Lena Dunham: Totally! It’s funny, I’ve generated and written down all these questions for you, but I’m so curious about everything you have to say that the conversation could take up anywhere.

Judy Blume: Anywhere. That’s okay.

Lena Dunham: So you’ve written for a range of ages, you’ve written for adults, it sounds like the novel you’re writing now is an adult novel.

Judy Blume: Maybe.

Lena Dunham: You’ve written for children and you’ve written for that crazy in-between place and I think your work for teenagers is the stuff that’s resonated the most with me, even though I’m very attached to the younger characters you’ve created. I just want to know –

Judy Blume: When you say 'teenagers', what books do you mean? Because I think the books you’re talking about are read by preteens.

Lena Dunham: I think of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Judy Blume: Right. Preteen, or what’s called 'tween' now.

Lena Dunham: Because I guess it’s about the preteen experience.

Judy Blume: It is, and they’re all read by kids so young now.

Lena Dunham: Do you consider any of your novels specifically for teens... Maybe Tiger Eyes?

Judy Blume: Certainly Forever would be published today as YA. There was no YA category then. They didn’t know what to do with the book. And maybe Tiger Eyes would be a very young YA, but the others, the ones that I think meant something to you, they’re what we call 'middle-grade' books now.

Lena Dunham: I think I read them probably when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I considered myself to be above – whether this was true or not – I considered myself to be well in advance of my classmates, so I was reading elicit teenage property.

Judy Blume: Good.

Lena Dunham: Which maybe was just satisfying for me. And I know, like, Iggie’s House, for example, I read when I was in third grade, which was earlier on. And Iggie’s House was your first book, right?

Judy Blume: My first for middle-graders, she said, rolling her eyes.

Lena Dunham: Is it hard for you to read your old work? Do you ever do it?

Judy Blume: I do, not all of it, but the ones I like. Every now and then if I’m cleaning things out, I’ll pull a book off a shelf, open it up, and say, “How did I know that? I don’t know that anymore.” Because when you’re writing, you know, you’re in that other place, you don’t even know what you know.

Lena Dunham: So I wanted to ask you what made you want to start writing for younger readers. What was the thing that first inspired you to speak to that audience?

Judy Blume: It’s what I knew. It’s what I remembered. I was in my twenties, but my experiences as an adult were limited. I identified more with kids than with the adults in my life. And I was desperate for a creative outlet. I wasn’t happy following my mother’s prescription for me. The 50s-mother prescription for the daughter is: you go to college to meet a husband, because if you don’t find him in college, you’re never going to find him.

Lena Dunham: And then you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than of getting married. All of that.

Judy Blume: And so I married really young, although not as young as some. I was 21.

Lena Dunham: Which to me sounds like a baby.

Judy Blume: Yes, it’s very young. What did I know? I knew nothing. I had finished my junior year at NYU and there I was, married. And then the next step is you have a baby, and you have another baby, and I liked babies, but I was missing something, that creative something.

“When you ask, Did writing change my life? It totally changed my life. It gave me my life” - Judy Blume

Lena Dunham: Had you always written? Had you always been a storyteller?

Judy Blume: A secret storyteller. I never shared; I never wrote them down; they were always rolling around inside my head. I remember being nine and having stories, great stories, very melodramatic stories.

Lena Dunham: Did they take the form of characters for you? When you had these stories, were they people you created with sagas and char- acters whom you’d birthed?

Judy Blume: I think they were fed by what I was seeing at the movies, because in those days I went to the movies every week with my parents. Movies weren’t rated then, so I went to see everything. There was nothing they had to worry about me seeing. They were character-driven stories, and I would come home and act out every part. So when I played and when my stories ran around in my head, they were melodramas and they did not feature kids.

Lena Dunham: They featured adults in crazy, passionate, disastrous situations?

Judy Blume: Oh, yeah. I was a surgeon amputating the legs and arms of my paper dolls, and I had a little board with little tacks and I would tack them down to do this.

Lena Dunham: So they would be restrained while you cut their legs off?

Judy Blume: Yes, and then they were very grateful because I would re-attach their limbs.

Lena Dunham: You’d save their lives, basically.

Judy Blume: I would, yes.

Lena Dunham: I was always really encouraged to write stories, which was a kind of part of the education that I had.

Judy Blume: You were lucky.

Lena Dunham: I was really lucky. But looking back on the kinds of things I chose to write about, it was all families who gave up their daughter for adoption, then she became a pauper, then she came back to kill them all. It was all so heavy, so deeply heavy, and I called them all novels no matter how short they were. Always.

Judy Blume: That was great for you that you were encouraged. I mean, it wasn’t that we were discouraged, but there was no creative writing in school at all. I don’t remember any of that.

Lena Dunham: So then when you felt it was finally time to write something down, what was the impetus for you making the leap from secret storyteller to public storyteller?

Judy Blume: I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. I was reading my little children rhyming picture books at bedtime, so at night, when I was washing the after-dinner dishes, I’d make up rhyming stories. Imitation Dr. Seuss stories. They were really bad. I have some in a box right down there.

Lena Dunham: Really?

Judy Blume: Yes, and it says on the box – it’s a note to my kids – it says, 'When I die, if you ever publish these I will come back and haunt you.' They cannot be seen.

Lena Dunham: It’s really hard to rhyme. It’s very special and particular; some of the most talented people in the world can’t do it.

Judy Blume: Can you do it?

Lena Dunham: No. I can’t rhyme at all. My mom is an incredibly good rhymer.

Judy Blume: My father was a great rhymer.

Lena Dunham: Really? It’s a real skill and it’s a different kind of skill than the one I think you’ve been developing in your career.

Judy Blume: I have not been developing rhyming skills.

Lena Dunham: So then after, you wrote Iggie’s House and it had this –

Judy Blume: Well, Iggie’s House was my third published book, I think. Wasn’t it? Maybe it was my second. The first one, you’re going to make me say this, is The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo. It was a picture storybook.

Lena Dunham: Which I’m not familiar with.

Judy Blume: Just as well. That was the first one that was published and then maybe, yes, then I guess it was Iggie’s House and then it was Margaret.

Lena Dunham: Did it suddenly just feel like your life had changed and you were a writer and that was what you would do from now on? Was it hard to make the transition from mother to working woman?

Judy Blume: I didn’t know I was really a writer until I read a review of Margaret in the New York Times, then I thought, Oh my god, maybe I can really do this. Charles Strauss, who wrote the music for Annie and Bye Bye Birdie, said almost the same thing. 'I never know if anything is good until I read that somebody says it is, and then I think, Oh, maybe this is good.'

Lena Dunham: And you related to that?

Judy Blume: I did, because I didn’t know what I was doing. It can be good, when you don’t know what you’re doing and it’s spontaneous and you’re not afraid. You don’t know enough to be afraid. You can be fearless.

Lena Dunham: Well, it’s an exhilarating feeling.

Judy Blume: Like you – I hope you’ll be fearless forever. I was a fearful child and can sometimes be a fearful adult, but I’m still fearless in my writing, so I know there’s that other person inside me.

Lena Dunham: My boyfriend’s a musician, and I think when he’s onstage it’s the only time when he’s not worrying, so that’s the reason he keeps doing it – because it gives him that sort of experience of weightlessness that I only get out of being deep into writing something or really lost in a moment on set. It’s available to me in these select moments through my work.

Judy Blume: And isn’t that great?

Lena Dunham: It’s the most wonderful thing that can happen.

Judy Blume: To me, too. When you ask, Did writing change my life? It totally changed my life. It gave me my life.

Lena Dunham: Everything opened up.

Special thanks to The Believer. Get the full conversation by subscribing here