Dustin Thao's Debut Is a Love Story Wrapped in Loss

Posted by Sharon on November 1, 2021
Dustin Thao hesitated, at first, to describe his debut YA novel, You’ve Reached Sam, as a romance. “I categorized it as a contemporary fiction with a speculative twist,” he explains. Which is accurate, but he adds, “I definitely understand it was a contemporary romance, too, because that aspect is so important to the story.” 
The book follows 17-year-old Julie as she grapples with the sudden and tragic death of her boyfriend, Sam. In the midst of grief-stricken sadness, she calls his cellphone one last time to listen to his voicemail. When Sam picks up the phone, she realizes she’s been given something many people pray for: a chance to say goodbye. 
While, yes, at its core You’ve Reached Sam is about Sam and Julie’s love story, it’s also about loss and grief. It’s a process Thao describes as a “complicated, slow, nonlinear experience where one day everything can feel fine and the next it's like a fresh wound.” The novel explores how it manifests differently with the different people in Sam’s life—from his cousin to his best friend—and how, at the end of the day, you never fully lose someone. 
Thao spoke to Goodreads contributor Taylor Bryant about the inspiration behind his debut novel, how he landed on the structure, and what we can expect from him next. Their conversation has been edited. 

Goodreads: Talk a little bit about the inspiration behind You’ve Reached Sam. Why is this the book that you wanted to write?

Dustin Thao: I started writing You’ve Reached Sam for myself. This was a while ago, and it was during a hard time in my life. I held on to the premise of the book for a very long time for different reasons. The book explores something I think we've all thought about, which is having another chance to speak to someone you lost. For me, I lost my best friend from high school. And the thing is, we actually lost touch a while ago, and I guess, in my head, I always thought that one day we'd meet up again, maybe at a coffee shop, and things would be like old times. But then a few years ago, she passed away. I was going through my old Facebook messages, and I realized she had reached out to me, but I just never responded. 
At that time, I guess it didn't occur to me that there wouldn't be another chance, and that's something I felt guilty about for a while. It wasn't until I spoke with a mutual friend of ours, and I told her that I really wish I had just responded, and she said to me, ‘Well, you still can.’ I didn’t know what to think about it at first, but one day I sat down and I wrote a letter and then I sent it. That was a cathartic experience for me, and she is someone I definitely thought about as I was writing the book.

GR: Have you always written YA and romance?

DT: Not necessarily, but I began writing YA simply because I started writing when I was 18, and YA had a big influence on me. One of the first books I remember that made me cry was Bridge to Terabithia. It left a big impact on me, it devastated me. I think it's stories like that that I gravitate to the most—ones that have an emotional impact—and those are the stories that I really wanna write. Not necessarily YA or adult, but ones that make you feel something and ones that explore deeper themes such as loss and grief and moving on.
Romance had always been a word that I hesitate to use to describe You’ve Reached Sam, which is silly because now I've totally embraced it. I had a conversation with a friend recently, and I realized all of my favorite stories are romances. The film Your Name, which is one of my favorites and had major influences on the book, is a romance at the end of the day. It’s between two teenagers. WandaVision is probably one of my favorite shows in a very long time, and it’s at its core a love story. It is about the relationship between Wanda and Vision. I've rewatched it probably two or three times, and every time I think about it, you don't really remember the CGI or the final battle; you remember the connection and the love the two characters share. So I definitely want to write more stories like that, that embrace romance.

GR: What kind of research did you have to do for the book?

DT: I did some research around the city of Ellensburg [in Washington]. I looked at maps and historical facts. I really wanted to create that authentic small-town experience because Ellensburg is that. I live close to it, but I really only drove through once. 
Research comes in different forms, like in conversations and interviews also. I think a lot of the influence of the book comes from real stories from people that I've spoken to which influence the emotional arc of the book. One example is with my friend's grandmother. After her husband passed away, she kept his voicemails on their landline phone, and she would listen to them almost every day. She did this for years until one day, out of the blue, all of her voicemails disappeared. She was devastated, and she called up the phone company to try to get them back somehow, and they did everything they could, but they ended up telling her that it's not possible and that they're gone. Her story really touched me, and, honestly, as I was writing the book, every time that someone would ask me what's it about, I would tell them and they would share similar stories. Especially since we live in a very digital age, we have text messages, phone calls, voicemails that people leave behind that we connect to and we keep. It really made me think about the way we grieve and things we hold on to, even if it's someone's voice, and what that means. 

GR: The book jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, going from flashbacks to the present day. How did you decide on the structure that you ended up with?

DT: So I love this question because the flashbacks in the story were something that I felt was a bit more experimental during my writing. I wrote them as montages in the way that we see them in a movie. And one that always inspires me, in terms of montages, is the opening sequence of Up. In terms of structure, in terms of the flashbacks, that’s something I was trying to re-create but in a written format. It was challenging, but also really fun for me. 
I can see how it can be a little jarring at first for a reader to be thrown into a series of flashbacks in the way that I wrote them because I don't know if it's often done in a book in the way that we see them visualized on film, but I think once they understand the structure, they learn to enjoy them. Some early feedback from a lot of the readers is that it's their favorite part of the book, and it was honestly mine, too. When I pick up the book, they’re the parts that I like to reread because it was the most fun for me to write.

GR: The story explores grief and losing someone at a young age, and I particularly like that it explores how it manifests in the different characters. Why was that important for you?  

DT: I think it's important to show young readers especially that there's no right or wrong way to grieve. Something I learned is that a lot of readers might not relate to the way Julie is dealing with her loss in terms of the way she isolates herself from the rest of the world, but I wrote it that way because that's how grief manifests in me. The reason why I bring in different characters and explore their journeys is that some readers, as I've learned, might relate more to Mika, who feels like she has to be stronger in the beginning, or they might relate more to Oliver, who seeks friendship and who seeks comfort in others.
Bringing in these characters I thought was important because it shows kind of the ripple effect of someone's death. While the story focuses on the relationship between Sam and Julie, I wanted to show Sam and his life outside of that. He had goals, he had other friends, he had family, and everyone around him is dealing with the same thing. They’re dealing with the same loss, but they're just all going through it differently.

GR: Were there other iterations of the story?

DT: I don’t think there were other iterations because the premise is something that I kept with me for a very long time and came back to every time I lost a family member. The idea of reaching out to someone you've lost appears in stories all of the time, and the one that I remember the most was from The Fault in Our Stars, when Augustus passes away and the main character lies on his bed and calls him, and it goes straight to voicemail. I remember being heartbroken by that, and I think it might have been in that moment where I thought, “What if Gus just picked up? What would've happened in that moment?” I kind of sat on that and began to explore that answer. 
Some early reviews and early readers were surprised that it was multiple phone calls because they thought it would just be the one, and then in my head, I was thinking, “That'd be a very short book if it was one call or it would’ve been a very long phone call.” So I definitely had to play around with that decision. 

GR: Do you read reviews a lot?

DT: I feel like everyone reads their reviews in the beginning, no matter how many times you're told not to. I had authors tell me not to, my agent told me not to, and my editor told me to stop reading the reviews. And eventually you do, but it’s like you get 100 five stars, but you only remember the one star, right? Something my editor said that definitely stuck with me is that you can't please every reader. One thing someone might find jarring, another reader might love and find brilliant. I think that's totally true, and it's something that authors realize in time, and then we learn to not get into our heads and that reviews run the gamut. It's a part of the journey.
Reading is subjective, and, honestly, at the end of the day I'm learning if one person likes my book, it means a lot. If one person cries, that means a lot. I’m grateful for all reviews—good or bad.

GR: There are a lot of side characters in the book, from Mr. Lee to Rachel and Julia's mom and Sam's brother. Was there a favorite non-main character that you liked creating?

DT: I have a soft spot for Sam's best friend, Oliver. Writing him was easy. I love the dynamic between him and Julie because, as you know, those two were not always friends. It was meaningful for me to explore their relationship after Sam's death and to show how grief can sometimes bring people together and can sometimes create new bonds and new friendships. I love that aspect of the book and Oliver’s one character that I would love to explore more in the future. 

GR: You mentioned Bridge to Terabithia in the beginning. Are there any other YA books that you love? 

DT: One of my recent favorite YA reads is definitely Felix Ever After [by Kacen Callender] that I think everyone should read. If you want a positive story with a happy ending, I think that's a perfect book for you. I also want to recommend The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu because that is the last book—it’s a short story, actually—that made me cry. I’d heard a lot about it, and everyone kept telling me that it's something that’s gonna make you cry. And I didn't believe them because I didn't believe anything could make you cry in less than 20 pages. But by the end of the short story, I don't think I’ve ever cried more when it came to a book or story or film, to be honest. So it’s something I highly recommend. My last read is Ace of Spades [by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé], which I absolutely love, too. It’s a lot of fun. There’s one book on my current to-read list that I actually have right now, which is She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan that I’m very excited to read. I’m probably gonna read it right after this interview. 

GR: Were there any other books that you turned to for inspiration for You've Reached Sam? You mentioned The Fault in Our Stars

DT: Other books that had an emotional impact that helped me write You’ve Reached Sam are, yes, The Fault in Our Stars and also History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. If you want an emotional read, those are some books that I recommend.

GR: Music plays a significant role in the book, particularly for Sam. And I'm always curious what writers listen to when they write, if they listen to anything. Do you have a general soundtrack? Or did you have one specifically when you were writing this book?

DT: So there definitely is a You’ve Reached Sam playlist, but I've never shared it with anyone before. I always worry that people will think I'm cheesy if they learn what I listen to because really the playlist, or things I was listening to at the time, were like a bunch of sad songs. One of them being “One Hundred Years” by Five for Fighting. 
I actually have a background in music, and when I was living in Southern California, I worked at a recording company and I was writing my own music. You can see with the book that that kind of appears through Sam, who’s a songwriter. There is a scene in the book where Sam and Julie write a song together, and what's interesting about that is the song didn't actually exist in the first iteration of the book. It wasn't until my editor got back to me, and she said you should write the song. The weekend before revisions were due, I ended up writing that song in a couple of hours because I needed to turn it in really quickly. So it's really funny to think that this song exists in a book, especially when I used to write songs for fun and I never thought I would do it again.
The thing I love about having music in books is that I know the readers will immediately play it as they read it, because that's how I am as a reader. Every time a song appears, I have to play it because it sets the tone for that specific chapter or scene. I guess I was deliberate when I did that. So, like, Elton John makes an appearance. I grew up on soft rock, so there are lots of soft rock songs that exist within the book. And what's interesting is every now and then on Twitter, I will see someone that tags the book and also the song, or like make a TikTok and play the song with it. So that's always fun to see. 

GR: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

DT: I hope that readers, at the very least, think about grief differently. I hope through the book and through Sam and Julie's story that they think outside of the standard five stages and understand grief as a more complicated, slow, nonlinear experience, where one day everything can feel fine and the next it's like a fresh wound. I also hope that through Julie they understand that grief is not something that you need to go through gracefully. Like with Julie, you can be a mess, you can take your time, you can make mistakes. It's a frustrating, painful process and you can't always fully understand what someone else is going through. I hope people become also more patient when it comes to grief. Something that I truly believe is that you can never fully lose someone, so I hope that's a message that comes through.

GR: What's next on the docket for you?

DT: I'm currently in the middle of revising my second book. It's a standalone, but I like to believe that it exists in the same universe as You’ve Reached Sam and is happening around the same time, but of course it's with different characters, dealing with different things. Circling back to WandaVision, actually, I was drafting the second book around the time the show came out, so the show has a lot of influences in the story itself in terms of what it explores, such as love and loss, imagined experiences, and learning what's real and what isn’t. I don’t have the pitch down just yet, but as of now, I give the comparison to WandaVision.

Dustin Thao's You've Reached Sam will be available in the U.S. on November 9. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Lady (new)

Lady Dazy This looks like a book with a subject that many readers will be able to relate to.

message 2: by 3unfly (new)

3unfly This is a beautiful interview. I've never read the whole interview here, but this catches my attention. I love how the author describes the process of making the book. I definitely would read this. Thank you 💕

message 3: by Lucynda friend (new)

Lucynda friend R u all ok I can't reading a lost of it

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