Growing Up Jersey: Writers

Judy Blume, Junot Diaz, Akhil Sharma and more tell tales about how New Jersey shaped them as writers, and as people.

Gregory Pardlo

Poet, professor
Born: Philadelphia (1968)
Raised: Willingboro

Photo courtesy of Brian Derballa/New York Times

“The library was in the municipal complex on Salem Road, right up the road from us, and my mother had me in the summer reading program there. My family always did put a very high premium on education. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t spend the summer just goofing off and hanging out, so I would ride my bike there as a second grader and third grader. When I was in high school, my best friend worked at the library and I spent a lot of time there. I wasn’t a big reader then, but that’s where I discovered blues music, in the music collection of the library.”—As told to Kevin Coyne, fall 2017

Akhil Sharma

Author, professor
Born: Delhi, India (1971)
Raised: Edison

Photo courtesy of Nicholas Prakas

“There were so few Indians in New Jersey when my family arrived in 1981 that, when one Indian family drove past another Indian family in their car, both cars would pull over and the parents would get out to talk. Other than in Indian movies, I had not seen any place as green as New Jersey when we arrived. I was born in Delhi, where trees were so exotic that we would travel to go look at them. Edison was relatively undeveloped when my family arrived, and when I biked around, I had the sense of being inside a movie, because to be among so much greenery felt unreal.”—As told to Tammy La Gorce, fall 2017

Harlan Coben

Born: Newark (1962)
Raised: Livingston


Photo courtesy of Ulf Andersen/Aurimages

“I used to wander in the woods, and when I was five or six, I still remember it, I saw a completely demolished house. I remember looking through the broken windows to see a grandfather clock, tilted over and smashed. Another time I was sort of wandering, and it had been a number of hours. All of a sudden my parents were freaking out, starting to search for me, but I wasn’t stressed by it. I don’t think I ever felt lost.”—As told to Tina Kelley, fall 2017


Gay Talese

Born: Ocean City (1932)

Photo by Brad Trent

“Beginning as a schoolboy reporter in Ocean City, where I grew up in a small-town environment in which everyone knew—or thought they knew—everyone else, I have always been inclined to write about people and places that reminded me of my unpretentious upbringing. While on The New York Times in the 1950s and ’60s, I specialized in writing about individuals whose presence was generally taken for granted—doormen, charwomen, stray cats, street musicians; and when I was assigned by Esquire to interview a reluctant and aloof Frank Sinatra, I told his story from the viewpoint of those who quietly served him—his hair stylist, his haberdasher, his butler, his bodyguard, and other so-called minor characters that I have always been attracted to and relied upon as important sources of information and insight.” —As told to Tammy La Gorce, fall 2017

Junot Diaz

Author, professor
Born: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (1968)
Raised: Parlin

Photo courtesy of Scott Lituchy/Star Ledger/Corbis

“The geography of my childhood and adolescence and early adulthood was New Jersey, and I keep returning to it as an artist. It’s an endlessly fascinating place. When I think of how I came into personhood, how I became a thinking, feeling, active civic entity, I think of bookstores in Montclair, theater in Red Bank and Monmouth County. I think of being on the beach at Seaside Heights and Sandy Hook, I think of family car trips down to Six Flags, I think of visiting Stokes State Forest. You can’t help but have the geography around you shape the geography within.”—NJM, December 2010, as told to Eric Levin

Judy Blume

Born: Elizabeth (1938)
Given Name: Judy Sussman

Photo courtesy of Elena Seibert

“I had the freedom to be a kid—a lot more freedom than kids today. And the greatest thing my parents gave me was that they were both readers, and I had the freedom to read. I think from books, that allowed me to satisfy my curiosity about the adult world.”—NJM, June 2015, as told to Breanne McCarthy

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