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Dustin Thao is a Vietnamese American writer based in New York City and author of You’ve Reached Sam – our January YA Book of the Month! Read on to discover more about his debut novel, the writing process and his favourite YA reads in our exclusive Q&A.

Can you tell us how the idea for You’ve Reached Sam came about?

DT: The premise of You’ve Reached Sam was something I held with me for a long time, one that slowly developed over the course of a few years. It’s something I knew I had to write, even if it was only for myself. I think it’s an idea so many of us have thought about at one point in our lives, being able to speak to someone we’ve loved and lost and what we might say if we had a second chance. There was definitely a person I had in mind as I wrote it, which made the writing experience very personal. I can’t think of the exact moment the idea came to me, but I can think of moments that gave me sparks of inspiration that motivated me to sit down and get the words out. There were many of them, some from films I watched, and some from real experiences that might have found their way into the book.

 

This debut is described as If I Stay meets Your Name with grief playing a major role for the novel’s protagonist Julie. Do you believe in second chances?

DT: In a lot of ways, I do believe in second chances. Grief is a universal experience, although we all go through it differently and heal in our own ways. Maybe we can’t dial their number and have them pick up, but there are ways to remember them and say the things we need to. The truth is goodbyes are something we are never prepared for, so don’t feel guilty if those words aren’t said in time. When I lost one of my best friends a few years back, that’s something that I had to learn myself. One of the messages I hope readers take away is that we never fully lose someone, that they leave their marks on us long after they’re gone. I believe endings create new beginnings, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Those are the second chances I believe in.

 

If you could speak to anyone from the other side, who would you wish to speak to?

DT: I have thought of this question before. If I could pick someone right now, it would be my best friend from high school. The thing is, we actually lost touch years ago, and I always thought that one day we'd meet up again and it would be like old times. But a few years ago, she passed away. As I went back through our old messages, I realized she had reached out to me, but I never responded. I guess it didn't occur to me that there wouldn't be another chance. I felt guilty about this for a while. After I shared this with a mutual friend of ours, she told me I could still respond. I didn’t know what to think about it at first, but one day I sat down and I wrote a letter and sent it. That was a cathartic experience for me, and she is someone I definitely thought about as I was writing the book. Sometimes, I even imagine what she might have written back.

 

Dustin Thao Dustin Thao

 

What was the writing process like? There are moments in your novel that will leave readers crying but was there any part that you personally found hard to write?

DT: Writing You’ve Reached Sam was an emotional experience for me, which is probably why it took me so long. I wrote it on and off over the course of a few years. I started a few projects during this time, but this was always the one I came back to. It was the one I needed to finish. There were definitely some scenes that were harder to write, but they're also the ones I’m most proud of. Not to give too much away, but the final chapter and epilogue made me shed some tears as I wrote them. Actually, before I even started writing, I already saw the first and last phone call in my head. So to reach that ending, and be able to put that vision I held onto for years to words was an incredibly meaningful moment.

 

If your book were to be adapted for screen, who would star in it?

DT: So, there may or may not be some film-related things happening in the background, but I unfortunately can’t talk about it yet… However, it’s always fun to imagine it on screen and think about the cast. Because Julie and Sam are so young, I believe it would be great to see some fresh faces to play them. There aren’t many roles that have Asian men as the romantic lead, so seeing Sam’s character on screen would mean a lot to me. I am especially protective over Sam, and if the book ever becomes a movie, I’ll be sure the right person is picked.
 

If you were to give your characters some advice, what would it be?

DT: If I could give them some advice, it would be this: there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and you don’t have to do it gracefully. Grief can be messy and nonlinear and confusing, and that’s okay. Some days you’ll feel fine, and the next day it feels like a fresh wound. A quote from the book I want to share, “Letting go isn’t about forgetting. It’s balancing moving forward with life, and looking back from time to time, remembering the people in it.”
 

As an author, what are your thoughts on YA/Romance genre getting massive hits on TikTok now?

DT: The way You’ve Reached Sam blew up on TikTok was a huge surprise, even more so than hitting the New York Times bestseller list. It was something I never anticipated and still don’t quite know how to process. At this point, there are more videos than I could probably watch! (Which is incredible!) I hope this success opens more readers up to contemporary romances, especially in the young adult space as there are so many books that deserve more hype. More importantly, I hope it changes the way publishing decides to push these kinds of novels, as there clearly is an audience for them.
 

What are some books you have read recently and loved? What are your Top 5 YA must-reads?

DT: The last book I read and loved is Crying in H Mart, which is another honest and beautiful exploration of grief. In terms of recent YA reads, I loved XOXO by Axie Oh, especially since we have the same cover artist. As for my top 5 YA must reads, I’ll list them here:

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Picture Us at the End of the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

How to Be Remy Cameron by Julian Winters (A happy book to balance things out)

 

Lastly, Dymocks is so proud to make your debut our January 2022 YA Book of the Month! Can you tell us what your next project is?

DT: I am honored to be your January pick of the month! It truly means so much to me, especially knowing You’ve Reached Sam is reaching new readers all over the world. I am currently revising my second book which is another contemporary YA that explores similar themes about loss, with a little magic woven in. I hope to announce it in a few months. As of now, I comp it as We Are Okay meets WandaVision. And I can’t wait for everyone to see the cover!


You've Reached Sam is available in store and online now.

You've Reached Sam
Dustin Thao
$24.99
  

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