If you’d asked me a year ago about my favorite of the characters I’ve written, I’d have said it was 16-year-old Kat Monroe, the funny, hurting narrator and protagonist of my debut YA DESSERT FIRST. She’s what is known in literature as a naïve narrator—she’s achingly honest and definitely opinionated. She never lies to readers, but she’s sometimes desperately wrong. We readers sometimes see more in her descriptions that she sees herself, as she gets in her own way.
Kat was incredibly fun to write, because—especially when things were toughest—she was funny.
And all her striking out—well, that was Kat hiding how afraid she was. Afraid her younger brother would die of his cancer relapse, afraid her bone marrow transplant wouldn’t save him, afraid her broken friendships would never heal. Afraid of the size of her own fear, so she couldn’t sit with it, and instead repackaged it as anger and humor she shoved out into the world. By the end, though, she figured some of that out. She learned to forgive others and even herself.
Surprisingly though, Kat isn’t my favorite character to write anymore. In my current novel in progress, the main character and narrator, Mike, has a genius younger brother, Dougie, who has skipped two grades but never skipped an opportunity for a sarcastic comment. Dougie is a hoot and threatens to take over every scene. Although he’s book-learning brilliant, he lacks common sense and has very low social intelligence—which, together with his immaturity, makes it difficult for him to navigate the hallways of a suburban high school.
In this new novel I’m writing about my usual topics—death, loss, dark humor, grief, and whether it’s possible to save someone—but also other topics from my childhood: parental alcoholism, PTSD, and the difficulty of a bright but socially awkward kid trying to get though American schools.
We are all affected by the times we live in, and I think that’s especially true of writers. So I’m also writing about evil, powerful evil, and how some collaborate with it and others—at great risk to themselves—resist. I’m writing about courage. I’m writing about empathy, how we develop it, and how some people lack it. I am writing about right and wrong and the struggle for the human soul. As his brother Mike explains, “Sometimes, before it settles down to point the right direction, Dougie’s moral compass spins.”
By the end of the novel, everything will turn on whether Dougie can be empathetic and whether he’s learned to take care of others when he gets an offer to collaborate with power and evil instead.
I like the arc of Dougie’s story and its promise, especially in these dark times. As I sat down to write this today, I learned that the Trump administration has terminated the “medical deferred action” program, under which desperately ill children without legal status were getting treated for life-threatening leukemia, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and other conditions, without the interruption of getting deported, which could kill them.
That hit pretty close to home. My first book was about a family where the boy had leukemia. My wife is a former pediatric intensive care nurse who now works in a children’s hospice, with children who have life-limiting illnesses or who are at the end of their short lives.
May we all be better in learning empathy and learning to do good, even when it costs something, instead of evil. That’s what my next book is about, and Dougie is helping me to tell the story. For that, he’s my current favorite.
Good luck to us all.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.
When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing, he’s on Twitter: @deangloster