EXETER — Ever since she was 5 years old, Lisa Bunker has loved writing. Even as she grew up and pursued careers in radio and politics, she was always working on a side writing project.
“I feel like I just happen to have been born with a bubbling spring in my mind, and what bubbles out of the spring is words, images, characters, dialogue... all the elements of the story,” Bunker said.
Bunker has turned her dream into a successful career, recently publishing her second book for pre-teens that intertwines actual life events with more complex issues of gender and sexuality.
Her latest book “Zenobia July” follows the eponymous Zenobia, a genius computer whiz who recently moved to a new city after her gender identity was not accepted by her family. Attending school as a girl for the first time, Zenobia tries to make friends and avoid the mean girls. When the school’s website is vandalized with hateful messages, Zenobia must decide whether to lie low or use her skills to help, even if it brings unwanted attention.
“Zenobia July” follows the publication of Bunker’s first novel “Felix Yz,” which tells the story of a gay 13-year-old boy who is fused with a fourth-dimensional alien. The book was awarded Best Book of 2017 by both NPR and Kirkus Reviews.
While both of her books contain several LGBTQ+ characters and themes, she stressed that is not the focus. “Some people think there are too many LGBTQ+ characters in my books, but other people are very glad to finally see realistic portrayals of LGBTQ+ youth in stories for young readers,” Bunker said.
Bunker herself is a transgender woman, and on June 16 she and her wife celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary. She said her work is for the upcoming generation of LGBTQ+ kids struggling with some aspect of their identity. Having been deprived of these compassionate stories in her own childhood, Bunker sees the opportunity to help others through literature.
“As a trans person myself, I feel called to create stories that represent and advocate for the gender-variant community," she said. "If I had been able to see trans characters in the stories I read when I was small, I might have been able to figure out my gender truth much sooner. As it was, it took me decades to find a name for what had always been troubling me. I want it to be easier for kids coming up today.
"I also want to make stories about LGBTQ+ people that are so good that readers who don't identify with any of the letters will want to read them too, just because they're wicked good stories, and then also maybe start to feel more comfortable than they were before with the rainbow humans in their lives.”
She said she doesn’t want her novels to sound like they are preaching, but to tell important stories that can touch people.
“The best reward is when a kid is moved by your book,” Bunker said. “I was at a rural Pride event where I sold books when some lovely rainbow humans approached me. If I’m never on the New York Bestseller list that’s fine, but if someone finds comfort from my work, that’s what’s really lovely.”
Overall, she said the things middle schoolers, her target audience, can read has evolved. She doesn’t feel the need to “dumb down” the content of her books, even if they are marketed toward a younger demographic. To Bunker, adult and children alike can appreciate the subtle complexity in her work.
“I think it [society] is changing very fast right now, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” Bunker said.
Bunker tries to apply this open-minded attitude to her work as a state representative for the town of Exeter. Currently serving her first term, Bunker is part of the Ways and Means Committee that oversees state revenue. Her focus is on issues surrounding gun violence and closing the opportunity gap.
She said while she feels lucky to have her career as a writer, public service lets her interact more with the people. Before becoming a state representative, Bunker worked at several radio stations, including WMPG in Portland, Maine, as a program director.
In between her work as a state representative and publicity for “Zenobia July,” Bunker is working on rewrites for her third novel. She described it as more of a fantastical story, comparable to “Game of Thrones.”
“I asked myself: what would society look like if children were raised without gender and when they got older got to choose?” Bunker hinted about the plot.
Becoming a published author at an older age, Bunker encourages younger writers to follow their dreams even in the face of rejection.
“People focus too much on whether they’re published,” she said. “If you write, you’re a writer.”
“Zenobia July” and “Felix Yz” are both available wherever books are sold. For more information, visit www.lisabunker.net.