Writing of Ghosts when the World is Grieving, a guest post by author Helene Dunbar
When I was 15, I worked behind the snack counter in a movie theatre. I wasn’t an huge fan of movies or anything, but it was fun and I liked the popcorn and the pale candied almonds which would become bleached by the lights of the glass case and given to staff because we couldn’t sell them looking faint and old.
Working in a movie theater allowed me to sneak into the movies of all ratings and for some reason I don’t remember, a friend and I set our sights on entry to Amityville Horror, the ultimate haunted house story. While I stuck it out to the end of the movie, as a teen who was often in my own house alone, I had nightmares for years.
I’ve avoided horror films ever since. I was a little more open to horror books (and remember staying up multiple nights in a row to read Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches and then being unable to go to sleep). That said, it was never where my interests fell and so, when I started developing the idea for my 2020 book, Prelude for Lost Souls, which is set in a town where everyone speaks to the dead, and it’s companion book, The Promise of Lost Things, which comes out today (July 5, 2022), I tasked myself with writing the tale of a haunted town in a way that wasn’t horrific.
Or at least not horrific in the typical sense.
Most of my books have been inspired by news stories of one sort or the other and my St. Hilaire books came from an episode of Mysteries at the Museum and a piece they did on the spiritualist community of Lily Dale, NY. How cool would it be, I thought, to set a YA book in a town filled with mediums and ghosts.
I started drafting a fictional retelling about the Fox sisters, two teen girls who had been accused of faking their purported powers as mediums. When that didn’t really work, I moved the story further and further from the truth. Then I threw that out and started over.
What I kept coming back to was grief and loss. After all, you can’t have a ghost without a death and without people left alive to grieve them. The entire business of mediums is to help people manage their grief, like some sort of otherworldly therapists.
The grief in Prelude – published in 2020 but written pre-pandemic – is obvious, one of my main characters has lost his beloved parents, another is grieving her teacher/guardian. But in retrospect there is something almost removed and, dare I say, manageable, about their grieving process.
I wrote – and more importantly, revised – The Promise of Lost Things in the heart of the pandemic. My day job is in communications for a healthcare company and COVID was part of every conversation and every email. My daughter was isolated and homeschooling. My father got sick pre-vaccine and his life will never be the same. I was brimming with more emotion than I knew how to handle.
And I had this book to write at a time when everything felt horrific.
So I did the only thing I could. I poured as much of my own grief as I could into the story of these characters, Asher Mullen is mourning his sister, Mari, who was everything to him as well as the lost connection with his parents who also can’t get over Mari’s death. Russ Griffin had lost his best friend when Dec Hampton moved to NYC and already has a dead sometimes-boyfriend in Ian Mackenzie but he knows, in his heart of hearts, that they can only hold onto each other for so long. I took away the hope he had for a complicated family situation to resolve. As for Willow Rogers, well, I was glad to be able to exorcise a little bit of anger through her.
But here is the thing about grief. Like the monster in a horror film, it will eat you alive if you allow it to. At some point you need to find your way to the surface again and realize that most ghosts go away when you stop believing in them and change the narrative.
And so, when/if you read Promise I hope you see the glimmers of something joyful peeking over the horizon. If you’re someone who requests a signed book or bookplate for this book, you’ll likely see me signing “write your own rules” in it. This has been a theme in my books and in life, although like most people, I see this as a guiding star that is sometimes easier than others to achieve.
In writing the story of these characters, I was able to find a way to vanquish some of my own ghosts and move forward and I’m delighted that the work in process I’m immersed in contains far more kissing and far less grief. Wishing you the same.
Meet Helene Dunbar
Called the “queen of heartbreaking prose” by Paste Magazine, Helene Dunbar is the author of WE ARE LOST AND FOUND (Sourcebooks, September 2019), THE PROMISE OF LOST THINGS (July 2022), and PRELUDE FOR LOST SOULS (August, 2020) as well as BOOMERANG, THESE GENTLE WOUNDS, and WHAT REMAINS. Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as traditional Irish music, court cases, and theater. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter.
About THE PROMISE OF LOST THINGS
Three characters with their own agendas converge in a town filled with mediums, where most residents make their living speaking to the dead…and there’s no such thing as resting in peace.
Russ Griffin has always wanted to be a fantastic medium. Growing up in the town of St. Hilaire, where most residents make their living by speaking to the dead, means there’s a lot of competition, and he’s always held his own. But Russ knows the town he loves is corrupt, and he’s determined to save it before the sinister ruling body, The Guild, ruins all he’s ever wanted.
Willow Rodgers is St. Hilaire royalty. An orphan, raised by The Guild, she’s powerful and mysterious. But she has secrets that might change everyone’s fate. She’s done with St. Hilaire, done with helping desperate customers who think mediums work for them. She wants to end the cycle for good and rid the town of ghosts, even if that means destroying the only home she’s ever known.
Asher Mullen lost his sister, and his parents can’t get over her death. They sought answers in St. Hilaire and were left brokenhearted. Now they want to expose St. Hilaire as a fraud. Asher is tasked with infiltrating the town, and he does that by getting to know Russ. The only problem is, he might be falling for him, which will make betraying Russ that much harder.
Russ, Willow, and Asher all have their own agendas for St. Hilaire, but one thing’s for certain, no one will be resting in peace.
Filed under: YA Lit
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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