LitDish: Lisa Bunker, Author and American Politician
Lisa Bunker has written stories all her life. Before setting up shop as a full-time author, she had a thiry-year career in non-commercial broadcasting, most recently as Program Director of the community radio station in Portland, ME. Besides Maine, she has made homes in New Mexico, southern California, Seattle, and the Florida panhandle. She now lives in Exeter, NH, with her wife, a child psychologist and an author in her own right. Between them, they have three grown children. In 2018, Lisa was elected to represent her town in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Her middle grade science fiction novel, Felix Yz (Puffin 2017) is about a boy fused with an alien and the risky procedure to separate them. Her second middle grade novel, Zenobia July (Viking 2019) is about a young trans girl finally living as herself, determined to solve a cyber mystery. When not writing or representing the State of New Hampshire, Bunker plays piano and chess, practices yoga, and studies languages.
- You are the inventor of the pronoun set vo/ven/veir/veirs/veirself, which is formulated to overcome common grammatical problems with singular gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed in the past. Why was it important to you to include vo/ven/veir pronouns and explanations about them in your books?
I am a word and grammar geek. As such, I find myself less than thrilled with the current options for gender-neutral singular pronouns in English. Xe and hir just don’t cut it for me, and even singular they and them bother me a little. I wanted an elegant solution: a set of five words that worked together and could not be taken by accident for any other words.
So, I put a lot of word-geeky thought into my new pronoun set. I gave them the unique and to-date unused (in English) “V” sound to start, and unique concluding sound-sets, for those times when the V gets elided or dropped. I road-tested them and did a couple of revisions before calling them done. I am proud of my five V words, and I hope that they catch on and become common usage.
My child may feel distant at times, off figuring out who they are as they move through their twenties, but we share one crucial facet: we both land outside the standard binary categories.
- You’ve mentioned that one of your children is agender and uses they pronouns. How has parenting a gender nonconforming child as a trans woman affected your writing life?
That’s an interesting way to phrase the question, bringing both our identities into it like that. My child may feel distant at times, off figuring out who they are as they move through their twenties, but we share one crucial facet: we both land outside the standard binary categories. I feel them out there, challenging accepted assumptions by their mere existence, just as I do by mine. This sense of a bond helps motivate me to tell my stories, because I know there are other souls like mine that might really benefit from having those stories in the world.
- How does giving your trans characters positive or successful endings to their stories subvert the dominant narrative about trans people in our society?
The dominant narrative has grown in nuance and sophistication in the last ten years, but it still often depends, it seems to me, on the unspoken assumption that people like me are in some way odd. So, when I write trans characters, I strive to give them such piquant humanity—quite apart from their gender identities—that readers, regardless of their own gender situations, might forget for a little while about gender altogether and just *be* the main character. That radical melding of reader and character is, in my opinion, one of the highest rewards of reading, and I strive to create stories that encourage readers to experience it.
And then maybe later, I want them to remember again about gender, and perhaps realize that assumptions they have unthinkingly relied upon their whole lives might need some adjusting.
I believe that it is fiction’s job to show what actually happens in the world.
- You’ve mentioned that if you were to write a sequel to Zenobia July, Zenobia would be outed. How would you avoid damaging tropes—such as a public, humiliating, body-focused outing—that could come along with this storyline?
I’m not sure I agree with you that such plot points would be “damaging,” or that they need to be avoided. I believe that it is fiction’s job to show what actually happens in the world. If you don’t narrate the tough stuff, that leaves only the haters and the ignorant telling those stories, and that’s no good. If I get to write Zen book two, she will be outed, and some people around her will say and do unpleasant things, but her family and friends will support her, and she will struggle for a bit but survive and thrive in the end.
If you don’t narrate the tough stuff, that leaves only the haters and the ignorant telling those stories, and that’s no good.
- How has your experience as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives affected your writing?
My political work brings me into close contact with folks I would not otherwise know, and I find that useful in my writing work. Like most people, I suspect, I tend to surround myself with other people who think and feel as I do about most things; but when you’re trying to tell stories that take place in the whole world, not just your own cozy corner of it, that can be isolating. Working with my conservative colleagues in the House helps me stay in touch with the crucial fact that everyone is human, and as such deserving of respect. It also helps me remember that we have way more in common than what divides us. In both my politics and my writing, I try my best to practice radical kindness.
- Do you have a daily writing routine?
When I’ve committed to completing a rough draft, yes. Deadlines motivate me, so when I decide it’s time for a story to come into being, I set a deadline, and then aim to write a set number of words every day. I drafted my first book, Felix Yz, during the thirty days of National Novel Writing Month, and in doing so, I finally learned the value of just blurting out a rough draft. Don’t look back, don’t tinker: just make your daily counts and finish. Then let it rest and go back and start reworking.
Leading up to the decision that it’s time for a story to come into the world, first I go through an open-ended time of mulling, sketching, voice tests, thinking of plot points in the shower, etc. This process can last weeks, months, or years, and there’s no regular routine to it.
- What is your worldbuilding process like?
I have a novel out on submission right now that takes place in an imaginary pre-industrial south-eastern European country, with two invented languages in it. As a lifelong Tolkien fan, I started with the languages, though I didn’t actually create whole languages, the way J.R.R. did—I am not in his linguistic league. Instead, I found a tool online that converts languages into other languages, and I used it to engineer two new tongues. Since they are metamorphoses of existing languages, they feel unique and correct. They feel real.
Besides that, I make choices about level of technology, cultural features, etc., and then let a sense of place coalesce in my mind. Once I have that in place, I simply wander around and report what I experience.
- Do you have anything in mind for your next middle grade book?
Yes. I’m mulling a gentle plot for younger readers. My two published books have been designated as “middle grade” by the industry, but I thought of them as YA when I was writing them, and I’m curious to try writing what I would think of as a middle grade book. This new story idea would focus in on the summer between elementary school and junior high, and follow three friends as they enjoy a last idyll together before new social forces disperse them, each to their own path and fate.
- Would you ever write for a different age range, such as a picture book or an adult book?
Absolutely. I have ideas for both. It’s a matter of deciding what to do next. It can be challenging, when one has so many ideas, to focus on one and hold off on all the others long enough to actually finish something.
- What is the most important thing you’d like transgender and/or queer kids and teens to know about living and thriving in the world as a trans and/or LGBTQ+ person?
When I’m signing books and I meet a young reader who tells me they are a Rainbow Person, or I pick up the vibe that they are, I write: Always remember, you are a beautiful human, worthy to love and be loved, exactly as you are. And if it’s a copy of Zenobia July, with its lovely Lesbian aunties, sometimes I sign “Auntie Lisa.”
Adrien Kade Sdao is a bookseller and a graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. They are a reader for Lunch Ticket and PANK, and their work has appeared in Lady/Liberty/Lit, Drunk Monkeys, The Writer’s Magazine, K’in, and more. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly. Find out more at aksdao.com.