Five years after the publication of Adam Silvera’s 2017 speculative YA romance, They Both Die at the End, a recent viral TikTok sensation, the author is set to release The First to Die at the End, a standalone prequel. The new novel follows queer teenagers Orion and Valentino, who meet serendipitously on a summer night in Times Square. Together, they celebrate the historic launch of Death-Cast, a corporation that can predict people’s death dates, all while exploring big existential questions and rapidly deepening romantic feelings. Silvera spoke with PW about the trials of maintaining continuity when writing a prequel, his first experience with death, and the planned third novel in the series.
Since Death-Cast was an established entity in They Both Die at the End, did you already know its lore from the inception of the first book, or did you have to do a lot of worldbuilding for The First to Die at the End?
I had to do so much worldbuilding for the prequel. While I knew how Death-Cast predicted someone’s ending, there were so many other components to that organization that I hadn’t stopped to think about because it wasn’t necessary for They Both Die at the End. Basically, Death-Cast was just the catalyst for the first book, but this time around I had to think, “Okay, what are the other parts surrounding this engine?” The Death-Cast creator didn’t exist as a character when I wrote the first book, so I had to figure out who he was, and who his family was, and all these different things.
I also really wanted to highlight that Death-Cast was a subscription service that people had to sign up for, because all the characters we met in They Both Die at the End had already been subscribed for the program for seven years at that point. But for this book, I knew that everyone wouldn’t sign up for Death-Cast from the jump. I had so much fun building out the lore, and now I feel like I have more confidence in moving forward with other Death-Cast projects, because now I understand the groundwork of everything.
In developing the prequel, did you have to wrestle with any wants or instincts that could have potentially jeopardized continuity or thematic resonance with the first book?
So, I basically wrote most of the book in the wrong season. Death-Cast was originally supposed to launch at the beginning of a new year, and my assistant Kaitlin, who was building a Death-Cast timeline map working backward from the first book, discovered that two random details from They Both Die at the End meant that Death-Cast needed to have been created somewhere between July 15 and August 1. I had to rewrite a large portion of the book. I mean, there were snowball fights. The characters were visiting the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. There were all these descriptions about ice and the cold and coats and scarves, all of which had to be completely reworked. There was a near death that involved sliding on ice at one point, and I had to come up with summer alternatives for all these things.
I had conversations where friends were like, “blame it on global warming.” I was like, “no!” Global warming was not so bad in 2010 that it’s going to be snowing in July in New York. I could’ve just acted like it wasn't a thing, these aren’t exactly details that most people—even die-hard readers—would pick up on, but I knew, and there’s no way that I was going to be able to let that go.
Your books often deal with myriad experiences of Latinx—specifically queer Latinx New Yorker—diaspora. You’ve also said that you tend to leave pieces of yourself scattered in your books. Is there a particular experience or facet of yourself that you’d love to explore that you maybe haven’t yet?
I hadn’t intended for my second novel, History Is All You Left Me, to be as heavily about OCD as it was. But I had just noticed that I wrote Griffin with all my own compulsions, and it really spoke to the greater themes of the book, watching those compulsions spiral even further outside of his control.
I think with The First to Die at the End, I was able to do so much with Orion, especially with his specifically New Yorker observations and connections to 9/11. While mine and Orion’s experiences aren’t exactly the same, my mom was in Manhattan that day. And so the way Orion describes 9/11 is pretty identical to what that day looked like from my perspective. I didn’t realize how much I needed to get that off my chest and put it to paper. I even came to understand recently that the Death-Cast was born out of my own death anxiety. My first broad experience with death was 9/11, but then two months later, my favorite uncle died in a plane crash headed to the Dominican Republic. It was another example of how people can be here one day and then just completely gone the next without any warning. It was such an emotionally charged, concentrated time for me, so I really loved getting that off my chest and exploring those losses through a young adult lens.
These parts of myself really just find their way into those characters as I’m moving through the story that I set out to write. I’m not sure what else I’m aiming to hit right now. I feel like I’ll discover it within whatever I'm writing next.
In writing both Death-Cast books, how did you decide which POVs to explore and how in depth you got with them?
I had so much fun writing all those interstitial perspectives. I love seeing who interacts with the main leads of each book, and coming to a deeper understanding of them, because often the majority of these characters, especially in the case of this book, converge into the climax of the novel and if I didn’t explore them—if we didn’t understand why these other characters were playing such a critical role in the final act of the novel, if we didn’t know who they were and where they were coming from and what led them to that stage—I think those events would feel so much more underwhelming For me, you can’t tell the story without them. They are just as integral to the book as Mateo and Rufus in They Both Die at the End or Orion and Valentino in The First to Die at the End.
Are there any other POVs that you’d like to revisit?
The two protagonists of the third Death-Cast book are going to be the son of the Death-Cast creator and a boy who we meet in this book. But I think there are a couple of characters from They Both Die at the End that I’m hoping to find an organic way to bring into the third novel. One would be a Death-Cast operator, Andrea, who we know from both books, and she has such a small role, but I’m playing with an idea that would allow her to have a bigger role in this next novel.
She’s no one’s favorite character because she’s kind of insufferable, but I love writing insufferable characters so much, and her perspective on Death-Cast and working at the company has always been fascinating to me. The way I started to look at it is that I think The First to Die at the End is similar to a Marvel Avengers movie where you really get an ensemble of all the main characters that I’m writing about.
You mentioned in your interview with Time that Dalma was originally supposed to be the narrator of this book before you switched to Orion. How early in the writing process did you make this switch?
It came so late. Dalma, the creator of The Last Friend app from They Both Die at the End, was the first narrator I had even thought about for this prequel because I was like, all right, whose story can I tell that has a cool connection to They Both Die at the End, but hasn’t been so fleshed out that I’m going to feel limited by it. And Dalma was the one that I kept coming back to, and it really broke my heart that I couldn’t make it work for a number of reasons. But I didn’t want to erase her from the story, and I wanted her to still have that inspiration for The Last Friend app. That’s when I made the decision to have her be Orion’s best friend, which I love so much. I hope to tell a novel where Dalma is one of the main narrators in the future because she really has become one of my favorite characters who hasn’t been a primary protagonist so far.
Was this still in your outlining process or had you already started writing?
I’d written about a third or fourth of the book multiple times where the leads were going to be Dalma and Valentino and they had completely different stories as well. But I had hit a wall with that version of the story, and it was probably December of last year when I realized Dalma was not supposed to be the main character. From that point on, after trying for six or seven months, Orion was born, and the book was done within about two and a half months.
The thing is, this is such a lesson for writers, because you get so invested in what you’ve created so far that it feels impossible to turn your back on everything that you’ve done, especially after months and months and months of work. But I don’t know if I would be as proud of the book as I am today if I stuck with the first incarnation. So I think there is a Dalma story. It just wasn’t this one.
The First to Die at the End is quite a bit longer than They Both Die at the End and about on par with Infinity Reaper. Have you found yourself trending more toward longer stories at this point in your career? Or did these just have more story to tell?
It’s funny, because Infinity Reaper is 130,000 words and The First to Die at the End is 105,000 words, but because of margin sizes, font sizes, all those things, they look really comparable. But there’s a 30,000-word difference.
I will tell a story for as long as it needs to be told. I’m not actively setting out to write long books—even with Infinity Son, I intentionally wanted to write a shorter book. And I think, judging by a lot of the feedback I received from readers, because I actively tried to write a shorter book, things felt underdeveloped. Because I specifically tried to write a book for reluctant readers, or readers who aren’t quite as fast, like myself, and get really intimidated by really long books, I think the book suffered. I had that reader in mind, but ultimately I think that messed with my process; I cut some crucial things that I think people needed for more enjoyability and understanding. So I’m always going to write what the book is calling from me.
For me, the length of this novel feels right because we’re being introduced to Death-Cast and Orion and Valentino for the first time. I had to treat it as a book that anyone can pick up and not just for fans of They Both Die at the End.
You’ve said of your books that you often find yourself wrestling with mortality, and you’ve also mentioned previously that you tend to use the process of writing as an additive form of therapy. Can you speak more about this process?
It's so funny because I really could not afford therapy years ago, but found myself often wrestling with a lot of personal matters through my writing. I would say my first three novels— More Happy Than Not, History Is All You Left Me, and They Both Die at the End—they really are the most “me” novels that I’ve created, and because they’re dealing with things that are either big fears of mine or big traumas that I needed to process in a different way, writing these novels allowed me to see things from different perspectives outside of my own.
When you’re writing a novel, you can’t only consider the perspective of your primary narrator. You have to think about things from the head spaces of your secondary characters as well. Doing so has allowed me to grant forgiveness to people in my life, and to myself, and I’ve really cherished that process so much. I always highly recommend it because just like therapy, you don’t work through everything in a single session. It requires a lot of work and it takes a lot of time, and that exact thing can be said for writing.
When I embark on that journey, I really do come out a little more healed at the end of one of these stories that I’ve created.
Do you have any other projects beyond the third Death-Cast that you can tell us a little bit about?
So I’m working on the third Infinity Cycle novel, which is the last book in that trilogy, and then I have a few ideas that I’m thinking about. One involves time and I don’t know yet if it’s a young adult novel, or an adult novel, or a graphic novel, or if it’s a short film. I have literally so many ideas on how I can approach that story. But it’s been with me for years, and anytime I share the opening page with people, they get chills, so it’s a story that I’m determined to get right and to figure out which medium it will exist in.
I also have an adult fantasy idea that I’m really excited about, and then multiple ideas in the Death-Cast universe. But I would say the time book and the adult contemporary fantasy are pushing their way to the forefront.
The First to Die at the End by Adam Silvera. Quill Tree, $19.99 Oct. 4 ISBN 978-0-0632-4080-3