Dean Gloster’s young adult novel Dessert First is a beautifully written, compassionate story of a young girl dealing with the painful realities of her brother’s fight with cancer, while at the same time navigating her own tumultuous teenage experience. Sixteen year-old Kat has had to grow up quickly, with much of her family’s attention focused on her brother and his illness. But in many ways, Kat faces the everyday challenges of a normal teenager – a first crush, difficulties with friends, and a messy sibling relationship. Gloster captures Kat’s voice with authenticity, humor, and sensitivity. With Dessert First, he delivers a moving story that doesn’t shy away from the pain, but also serves up a generous portion of hope and a large dollop of forgiveness. It is a pleasure to welcome Dean Gloster to BCB today!
Tabitha Lord: In our society, people often feel uncomfortable around illness. We especially don’t want to see sick kids. It’s painful. Yet, when we might rather look away, you’ve done an incredible job of inviting us to come closer – through this fictional family. Can you talk a little about where the idea for the story came from, and your inspiration for writing it?
Dean Gloster: My wife, Nancy, worked as a nurse in the children’s intensive care unit at UCSF hospital, taking care of children with leukemia, and she now works in the palliative aquatics program at the George Mark Children’s House. They do respite, transitional, and end of life care for children with life-limiting illnesses. That was a big part of the inspiration for the book.
TL: You decided to tell the story from the perspective of Kat, the teenage sibling of a child with cancer. What made you choose this point of view?
DG: Sometimes the point of view chooses us, rather than vice-versa. I loved Kat’s voice and sense of humor and fierceness, and it was fun telling the story through a semi-reliable narrator—she tells the truth as she sees it, but sometimes she doesn’t see the whole picture.
TL: The pages of Dessert First are full of interesting minor characters, developed with depth and purpose. Can you name a few of your favorites and tell us how they helped move the plot forward or added to the reader’s picture of Kat’s world?
DG: Kat misjudges her sister, and I liked their journey toward reconnection. I loved the chemistry and push-pull between Kat and her friend and crush Evan, and how it showed Kat finally taking the risk to let someone into her life. The contrast between Kat’s contentious relationship with her sister and Kat’s closeness with and compassion for her online friend drowningirl, I thought, made for an interesting dynamic. And Kat is so hurting and angry that she creates some of the difficulties she has with peers—Tracie, Kayla, Curtis. They may be villains to her, in her story, but it’s also easy to see that she may be the villain in theirs.
TL: There are some people who just say the wrong things at the wrong time. Generally they aren’t trying to be insensitive, but their misplaced words are hurtful nonetheless. In your story, Mrs. Umbriss fills this role. To me, she embodies these misguided souls, and also offers a teaching moment. What was your intention behind her character?
DG: Writing fiction is complicated, because you try to convey a larger experience, compressed, in scenes. Poor Mrs. Umbriss bears the brunt of that compression.
Most of us don’t know what to say about something as unfair and terrifying as potentially fatal childhood cancer. And anything involving mortality in our culture is taboo. So sometimes it’s hard just to sit with a family’s fear and grief, and it’s hard to ask how to be there for them. Instead, sometimes people withdraw or try to fill the silence with one quick platitude or another. Mrs. Umbriss manages a few of those platitudes.
TL: Loss is an integral part of this story’s fabric, yet you never lose the thread of hope. There were many beautiful moments scattered throughout the narrative. Is there one for you that was particularly joyful to write?
DG: I love the scene where Beep leaves the hospital and figures that, as long as they’re carrying him, he might as well make it fun, so he sticks his arms out to “fly”. But probably my favorite is when Kat has the dream about Beep, with his hair grown back, near the end.
TL: My son, a screenwriting major, likes to say that humor is the flip side of horror. I’d also argue that humor is the flip side of sorrow. There are laugh-out-loud places in your story that perfectly describe those awkward teenage moments with grace and sensitivity, and even bring levity to otherwise heartbreaking scenes. This shows really artful storytelling. Can you talk a little about crafting that dichotomy?
DG: Joss Whedon said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” And John Cleese says humor isn’t the opposite of serious, it’s the opposite of being solemn. Dark humor is one way we humans deal with difficult situations and make them manageable. My background includes doing stand-up comedy, and I use lots of humor in life, so it seemed to fit.
TL: With young adult fiction, among other things, the narrative voice must provide depth and substance yet sound authentically age appropriate. In my opinion, you got it just right with Kat. How did you discover and develop Kat’s voice?
DG: Kat’s voice came very easily. For most of my teenage years, my mother was dying, and things were difficult at home, so back then I had an underlying anger that came out as a kind of sarcastic humor. Part of Kat’s voice was just channeling my own 16-year-old self. And I used to coach girls’ soccer and got wonderful help from a critique partner and my writers’ group—all of whom had once been 16-year-old girls. Then, in editing, I rewrote the lines that didn’t quite fit her voice.
TL: “If you can forgive the world and life for their craziness and for being so wrong, you can survive the place where the world breaks you.” Kat writes this line in her make-up term paper, and it’s one of my favorites. In the book, Kat not only needs to forgive, but she needs to ask for forgiveness. Both pieces are important. Can you talk more about this theme in the story?
DG: Like a lot of writers, I didn’t know what the book was about—learning to forgive—until I’d finished a couple of drafts. Kat is really hard on herself, and she takes on responsibilities that are beyond her. But she’s also hard on her friends and her sister and the world around her, and still angry that several of her friends abandoned her. So forgiving herself and forgiving others are the things Kat most needs to learn. Change is almost as difficult in fiction as it is in real life, though, so Kat has to go through rough times to get to those realizations.
TL: I am now in the camp of, “I will read anything Dean Gloster writes.” So, please don’t disappoint me! What’s next?
DG: Thanks! I’m revising a fun, odd novella about a boy in high school who unwittingly gets a summer internship with death. And I have another novel I’m working on, Last Night Out, about identity—who we are if we’re not who we used to be. An 18-year-old whose personality has changed because of a brain tumor likes her new personality and spends an all-nighter driving around San Francisco with the guy who is her best friend, having adventures and trying to decide whether to go through with surgery to remove the tumor. I describe it as “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist with life-or-death stakes in the Twilight Zone.
TL: Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Dean. This was truly a remarkable book!
About the Author: Dean Gloster is a former law clerk to two U.S. Supreme Court Justices and a former stand-up comedian. When not writing YA novels, he ski races during the winter (Super-G is his best event) and is enrolled in the low-residency MFA program in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he has the most amazing, wonderful fellow students in the world. His wife, Nancy Ricci, works at the children’s hospice and respite care center The George Mark House in San Leandro, California. When Dean is not at home in Berkeley, California, Saucy the dog guards the commas in his manuscripts. Dean thinks that writing, flying, and ski racing have lots in common: According to Douglas Adams, all you have to do is throw yourself at the ground—and miss. You can visit Dean’s website at www.deangloster.com and buy his book here.