Painting Sunsets: Hopeful Stories of Loss by Dean Gloster


               When I was twenty, my mother finally finished her decade-long quest to drink herself to death.  I’m not completely over it. I’ve even written about it here before.

               My mom raised me to believe I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. That complicated things, because—as part of the mysterious way roles and tasks are handed out in dysfunctional families—I’d decided in adolescence that it was my job, as a parentified child, to keep Mom from dying from her beverage of choice. Spoiler alert: That’s not actually how alcoholism works: The alcoholic has to decide to stop drinking. It’s not up for a group vote.

               So the theme I return to, in my stories, is death, and whether it’s possible to save someone. Sometimes it isn’t. My debut YA novel, Dessert First, is a voice-driven tear-jerker about smart, funny 16-year-old Kat Monroe, who donates her bone marrow to save her younger brother from his leukemia relapse, and what it does to her when the transplant doesn’t seem to be working.

               My current YA novel in revisions, Just Deal, is about a boy dealing with grief after his mother’s death and then finding out that he and his friends must try to save the world.

               I have a YA short story coming out in the next Spoon Knife anthology, “Death’s Adopted Daughter” about the meeting between a teenage girl and Death at the shore of the river Lethe. (And whether she can save herself. Or, it turns out, save Death.)

               I’ve got another novel and a novella going and they’re also both in some way—surprise—about death and whether it’s possible to save someone.

               As writers, we’re not completely in charge of what story ideas show up. My muse, I suppose, favors melodies in the Aeolian mode—with a hint of haunting loss. But I believe if there’s a core of personal emotion in the story, the writer who clutches the raw power of that emotional third rail can transmit some of the energy to readers and move them.

               These aren’t easy stories to tell, about flawed, sometimes dying people and how love and hope and limited skills can’t always make things okay. I used to be a stand-up comic, but even including lots of humor—which I do—doesn’t make those stories go down easily.

               That’s one reason I work so hard at craft. I believe the mantra of trust the reader in the sense of trusting them to get it and in resisting—mostly—the urge to over-explain. But we shouldn't trust readers to keep reading, if we haven’t done our part, by including lots of reasons to keep turning the page. So I try to beguile with voice, humor, suspense, mysteries, vulnerability, inviting opening sentences, compelling end-of-chapter page turns, high stakes, careful scene construction, and everything else I can think of. (Including, you know, too many subplots.)

               I’m a craft geek. Something of a desperate craft geek, because I love my characters and their voices and want them to get out into the world.

               My mother always wanted to be a writer, but the relentless self-critical aspect (this isn’t good enough yet—how do I make it better?) was too debilitating.

               But now I’m putting in the time. I work hard at writing, because I want to honor my characters’ stories, not have them die voiceless like my mother.

               Which is a theme I find worth writing about.

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.  School Library Journal called his YA novel DESSERT FIRST “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 his usual story novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and an off-kilter sensibility, including a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 54 percent of his soul.


  1. Wow Dean! Powerful stuff here and beautifully expressed. I hear so much that is familiar to me in your post, though my mother's weapon of choice was three packs of cigarettes a day. With seven kids, she couldn't drink enough to kill herself and still be functional. Yep, those kinds of life experiences leave a mark on a young soul.

    I suspect many YA writers are drawn to the genre as a way of healing their own wounded inner teen, but we also write about those traumatic events hoping to share them with others and help them feel seen and less alone. I know this is true for me. Thanks for your willingness to be a light in the darkness.

  2. Compelling, post, Dean. And so true how our wounds show up in our stories the same way every time! Only different. Keep up the great work.


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