We met Lisa Bunker last fall at a Kid Lit Universe event and are pleased to welcome her today as a guest blogger. Lisa’s debut young adult novel FELIX Yz about a 13-year-old boy fused with an alien will be released by Viking Books for Young Readers on June 6th. Before setting up shop as a full-time author and trans activist, Lisa had a 30-year career in non-commercial broadcasting, most recently as Program Director of the community radio station in Portland, Maine. Besides Maine, she has made homes in New Mexico, southern California, Seattle, and the Florida panhandle. She currently lives in Exeter, New Hampshire with her partner and her cat. She has two grown children. When not writing she reads, plays piano, knits, takes long walks, does yoga, and studies languages.
Lisa: One of the things I loved most about being a parent of smart snarky independent-minded children was the way that our deep supply of invented vocabulary and running jokes, combined with a shared impulse toward collaborative improv, turned our family life into an ongoing private comedy routine. I remember being out with my kids at a restaurant and suddenly realizing that if someone at the next table was wondering what we were all laughing about and started eavesdropping, that person would have no idea what we were talking about. That gave me geeky joy.
So, when I set out to write a story about a smart snarky independent-minded kid with an alien fused inside him, I looked forward to giving him his own version of a quirky family to have this particular kind of connection with.
At the word level, Felix Yz includes all sorts of neologism, including (to name a few random examples) the concepts of the zomboid blippian philosophy and an idea Felix develops about the threeness of things. There are also new gender-neutral pronouns invented by Felix’s genderfluid grandparent, Grandy: vo, ven, veir. And, Felix has his own unique interjections he uses: gah, Nelson, and Mother Hubbard. (The interjections I outright stole from my son Sam. They were his favorites at the time. Thank you Sam, again, for words.)
There are also many incidents of shared humor in the story. For example, there’s an episode early on in which, around the dinner table, Felix and his family improvise a song together. This is a version of a game my children and I played, writing new words to old songs.
Later, there’s a scene I particularly love where Felix and his sister Bea are talking in his room. I can’t tell you what the conversation is about without getting into spoiler territory, but I can quote a snippet. Bea speaks first:
“Like when we were little, Mom was so overprotective sometimes. She would get freaky about the stupidest things—”
“Juggling chainsaws . . . eating fire in the living room . . .”
A little smile. “Running chainsaws, yeah. ‘You take the gas out of that, young lady, this instant!’”
“‘But not near the fire-eater torch lighting . . . thing! Far away from the fire!’”
This scene, as they say, wrote itself. I just had to transcribe it. And it’s a good example of the collaborative imaginative scenario-humor play that went on routinely in my family of the time.
And then there’s another scene near the end of the book in which the Yz family are riding together in a train, and for no particular reason (except, to be candid, his author wanting it to happen), Felix decides to record on his laptop what everyone is saying. This scene also just wrote itself, and appears in the final version much as it did in the first draft.
Bea: You know what would be cool, in a sick sort of way? If you saw a murder happening in a backyard as you went by. Good setup for a detective novel.
Grandy: I feel certain that it has been used, though I cannot immediately cite a reference.
Bea: Like, just as the train goes by, you see one person pointing a gun, and then the flash of the gun going off, and the other person starts to crumple to the ground, and then, zoop!, you’re past it.
Me: And you’re the only one who saw it—
Bea: Yeah, and maybe the person with the gun was disguised somehow . . . something odd—
Mom: A mask, perhaps—
Me: Yeah, a clown mask!
Grandy: Overused, I fear.
Me: OK, how about a full-head monster mask? Something green and yellow with lots of bumps and teeth on it?
Grandy: Less used.
Bea: And then you search online and you can’t find any mention of it anywhere, but you become obsessed and start investigating yourself. You figure out which two stations you were between and you start snooping around—
Me: And . . . hey, are there cookies in there? [Grandy has pulled out the tote bag of snacks vo has brought.]
Grandy: Indeed there are. [hands me a couple of ginger snaps]
Mom: And what’s in that thermos? [top sticking out of bag] Coffee?
Grandy: No, dearheart, it’s tea.
Grandy: Anagram of “tock.”
Bea: Say again?
Grandy: Anagram of “tock.” [Grandy has this thing about making up word puzzles. We’re all used to it, so we all know that that’s what this is, and all three of us start thinking aloud—This one’s hard, I don’t get it, stuff like that.]
Grandy: [handing the filled cup lid to Mom] Tea. See? OK?
[all three of us groaning and complaining, Grandy smiling that cat-smile of veirs.]
Felix and his family are not perfect. It’s important to me as a writer that all my characters be human, that is to say, each with veir own edges and shortcomings. Felix, for instance, is not above being mean sometimes, to his sister in particular. But it is a close family, a loving family. That comes out way less in actual expressions of love than in sweet shared verbal goofing around like the above.
My children were skittish about direct expressions of affection and praise, but, oh, did they love to make me laugh. When they really got me, they just beamed with pride. Luckily, I’m pretty easy to get. And, hmm, that particular aspect of the family humor vibe didn’t quite make it into Felix. Definitely going to think about incorporating it into the next project, which, no surprise, is also going to feature smart snarky independent-minded young protagonists.