Dustin Thao on writing, grief and his emotional YA debut, You’ve Reached Sam

"I love an emotional story, especially ones that make you cry, but I think there should always be some light in the end."


It’s safe to say a packet of tissues is a must-have reading accessory for Dustin Thao’s YA debut, You’ve Reached Sam. A unique and heartfelt exploration of first love and grief, we were so excited to have the opportunity to chat to Dustin all about this emotional YA contemporary.

Hi Dustin! We’re so excited to get to chat to you to celebrate the release of your YA debut, You’ve Reached Sam. Being your debut novel, you must have spent a lot of time alone with this story and these characters. How does it feel knowing this story, that’s been your own for so long, is now being read by readers all over the world?

Thanks for having me! My feelings are all over the place now that people are reading You’ve Reached Sam. Your first novel is something you write when no one is looking, so it’s surreal to have it published in different languages all over the world. I vividly remember those days writing alone in the guest room of my grandma’s house, wondering if anyone will ever read this. So it’s been a long journey for me. Believe it or not, my book deal was announced over 2 years ago. Publishing is as slow as everyone says. But I’m happy to finally see YRS on the shelf!

You’ve Reached Sam has such a unique premise and yet it’s an idea that sadly many of us will have wished to be true during our lives. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired Sam and Julies story specifically?

The premise of You’ve Reached Sam is something I kept with me for a long time. It was the story I kept coming back to. It’s definitely something we’ve all thought about at one point in our lives. Getting a second chance to speak with someone you’ve loved and lost. I think that’s why it resonates with so many people. We all experience loss throughout our lives, and some of us might have even played out that call in our heads. I definitely had someone in mind when I wrote it. You’ve Reached Sam took a few years to write because I kept restarting it, and during that time, I experienced my own losses. One of them was my best friend from high school. After she passed away, I read through our old messages again. You never think about saying goodbye until the moment passes you. I think about this every now and then. And this experience definitely found its way into the book.


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Whilst being utterly heart-breaking, You’ve Reached Sam is also ultimately hopeful and cathartic. Was this a balance you aimed to achieve whilst writing and how did you go about doing so?

Yes, that was a very important balance for me so I’m glad you found the novel hopeful in the end. I love an emotional story, especially ones that make you cry, but I think there should always be some light in the end. While I wanted to portray grief in its raw form, I also wanted to make sure Julie found her way out of it. Grief is a frustrating, nonlinear experience, and there are no real five stages to move through. That’s something I explored with the book, especially with Julie who takes a lot of time to move forward, which might frustrate some readers. But I drew a lot from my own experience with grief and of those around me. I also wanted to remind readers that letting go isn’t about forgetting. And I hope that comes through in the book.

I can imagine it must have been incredibly emotional to write at times? Did you ever have to prepare yourself mentally/emotionally to write and if so, how did you go about doing that?

Since I drew from some personal experiences, there were moments that definitely hit close to home. Especially the ways Julie shuts herself from the world in her grief. But You’ve Reached Sam isn’t a book I wrote all at once. It was a long process and I restarted it multiple times over the course of a few years. I think that gave me a lot of breathing room and time to think about the story I was trying to tell. It’s okay to take breaks from your project, especially when they’re emotional. You always come back with a fresh set of eyes.


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Your DVpit pitch for You’ve Reached Sam was a huge hit on Twitter but I’m assuming that wasn’t the beginning of the books journey? Could you share with us what the writing/DVpit/publishing process was like for you?

I love sharing my DVpit story. It was a moment in my life where things really shifted (after countless rejections). I had never participated in a pitch contest before and actually hadn’t touched Twitter in years. This was a later stage in the book where I was finally getting requests from agents (for a long time I was getting no responses). A week or so before DVpit, a big agent emailed me, saying she was halfway through the book and was loving it. I couldn’t believe it! She even asked to follow me on Twitter. I was so excited, I thought about skipping the pitch contest altogether and waiting by my email for her offer to come in… then I remembered the last few years of rejections and close-calls, and reminded myself there’s no such thing as a dream agent and to never put your eggs in one basket. So I tweeted my pitch and went back to bed (I stayed up all night working on it). When I woke up, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I couldn’t even count the number of agents and editors who liked and retweeted me. The day after, I got the email from the first agent asking to have the call. I notified the other agents and was lucky to get multiple offers. In the end, I went with the first agent and we sold the book a few months later!

You’ve Reach Sam may have only just entered the world but for those of us pining to read more of your work, is there anything you can share with us about your 2022 title?

My second book is another contemporary YA, and it explores similar themes to You’ve Reached Sam. I’m deep into revisions at the moment, but I’m comping it as Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay meets WandaVision. So you can imagine it’s another emotional rollercoaster, with a hint of magic. It comes out fall 2022 and I can’t wait to announce it (hopefully soon!)

Get your copy of You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao here.

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