The Family That Wasn't is a humorous fable of how our families live inside us and how easily they can be lost. Though geared for middle grade readers (ages 8-12), it will also appeal to readers of all ages. The 13-year-old narrator, John Boggle (whose real name is John Bazukas-O'Reilly-Geronimo-Giovanni-Li Choy-Echeverria), finds his family so impossibly crazy that he cannot stand living with them another moment. He invents a new perfect family so convincing that he suddenly finds himself living inside this imaginary world.
But John soon finds that he too has changed. He sees his too perfect image in the mirror and begins to wonder if it is all some kind of mistake. Only trouble is, now he can't remember who he is. He only knows that he must leave this family at once. His sole clue is the name, John Boggle.
To find his true family he embarks on a cross country quest. Along the way he encounters other characters who have also lost touch with their families. Together they must find a way to reconstruct the connections to bring back the family that one was.
Despite its absurd premise, The Family That Wasn't conveys both the strength and fragility of our families. It also poses questions about the power of words and the imagination, and the very nature of reality.
What inspired you to write The Family That Wasn’t? Did you ever dream of creating the perfect family to replace your own when you were John’s age?
I was inspired chiefly by James Thurber, especially his semi-autobiographical book, My Life and Hard Times, in which he wrote about family members who were so wacky that you knew he had to be making some of it up. I began thinking about my own family (which, for the most part, was perfectly normal and stable) and wondered what it would be like to grow up in a truly crazy family. A story began to form in my head about a boy whose family is so impossibly crazy that he can’t stand to live with them another moment. So what does he do? He escapes into a fantasy of his own creation – his new and improved family.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Can you tell us a little about your journey on the road to writing The Family that Wasn’t?
No, it wasn’t until my early 20’s that I began to dream about being a writer, but it took me another ten years before I actually started getting serious about writing and trying to get published. I wrote the first draft for The Family That Wasn’t in 1990, when I still lived in Providence, RI. Over the next 20 years, it went through several major revisions and numerous tweaking s while I submitted it to dozens of traditional publishers. Finally, when I realized it was as good as I could make it and worried that I might edit the very life out of it, I decided to publish it with IUniverse.
Did you always know this was going to be a funny story? Did you ever have a day while you were writing when you struggled to write a humorous scene? What did you do to overcome the writer’s block?
Yes, by nature I tend to see the humorous in most situations. When I read a book or a story, the first thing I ask from a writer is humor. If the writer is so deadly serious about everything that he or she can’t see at least a sliver of humor somewhere, I immediately stop reading. So it was natural for me to write a funny story. Humor is where I live. It’s thoroughly ingrained in me to write that way. It’s weird, but sometimes when I consciously start to write something humorous, I end up writing stuff that’s overly serious or sentimental and just plain crap. Go figure!
John has quite the full name (John Bazukas-O'Reilly-Geronimo-Giovanni-Li Choy-Echeverria). What inspired you to give your main character this name?
I wanted to give John not only a cool name but one that would reflect his multi-ethnic and multi-racial origins. I’ve always liked the word “boggle,” and John Boggle had a nice ring to it. So I decided to use it as an acronym for the hyphenated hodgepodge of his real name, and set about matching up names that would spell out B.O.G.G.L.E. My only regret is that, early in the story, I had to kill off the lovely character, Luanda Lobito, because I couldn’t get her name to fit.
What were you like at John’s age? Are any of the characters in The Family That Wasn’t based on your younger self?
Though I hadn’t yet started thinking about being a writer, I was a frequent flyer of the imagination, always inventing new worlds to inhabit. Often I would learn about some exotic place or culture at school and that same afternoon I would be outside acting out the part of an Eskimo or Kalahari Bushman. I was also constantly dreaming about “the Great Faraway West” and traveling the countryside. So I guess John is somewhat of an alter ego.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
I think it was getting all the characters in place and showing how such a family could ever come together in the first place. This is why I devote considerable time in the beginning to tracing the family’s genealogy to make it seem more convincing.
Why do you think middle grade and young adult stories still appeal to adults well past their teen years?
I really do think that we all carry our families inside us, and such stories help us to tap into this deep well of memories. They also help us to open ourselves up again to some of the life dreams and ambitions we may have forgotten in our haste to become responsible adults.
What book have you re-read the most? How many times have you read it? What is it about this story that keeps bringing you back for more?
That’s easy – Lord of the Rings. I’ve probably read it at least 6 or 7 times, especially during brief periods of depression or anxiety. Tolkien created such a convincing world that you just don’t want to leave it.
What is a random fact readers probably don’t know about you?
I’m a rock ‘n roll and blues kind of guy, so there’s quite a bit of me in the character, Bruno (and like him, I’m also drawn to the weird at times).
What message do you hope readers take away from The Family that Wasn’t?
Our families live inside us like a story that can be retold, replayed and even revised till the end of our days.
Thanks to Gene for taking the time to answer my questions!
For more about this author, please visit:
Gene's short stories have been published by Highlights for Children, Read, Heinemann, and Fast Forward Press. The Family That Wasn't is his first novel. Gene is currently working on a sequel. He lives in Chino Valley, AZ.