September 27, 2022 4:44 PM EDT

Adam Silvera put it right there in the title: They Both Die at the End. But readers still didn’t believe him. “People thought I was going to do a fake-out,” the author says. “None of us is going to be the exception to death.”

Silvera’s heartbreaking YA novel follows teens Mateo and Rufus, who were both just notified by Death-Cast—a service that alerts subscribers when they are going to die within 24 hours—that their time has come. The story follows their romantic adventures together as they try to make the most of their last day. The novel was published in 2017, but it saw an unexpected surge in sales three years later thanks to BookTok, the subsection of TikTok that has proven powerful when it comes to launching best sellers. In 2020, when the world was on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bookworms on the platform helped catapult Silvera’s novel to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Now, building on that momentum, the author will publish a prequel, The First to Die at the End, on Oct. 4.

Silvera, 32, says he feels “indebted” to the BookTok community: “They’ve allowed me to return to the Death-Cast universe, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.” The First to Die at the End takes place on the day that Death-Cast first launches and offers another queer love story, this time centered around protagonists Orion Pagan and Valentino Prince, who meet in Times Square. The two are instantly drawn to one another and explore the city together as the threat of death looms over them both—Valentino has received the call, while Orion is living with a heart condition that could end his life at any moment. The new book dives deeper into the lore of Death-Cast as readers hear about it from the perspective of the man who created the service, as well as his wife. Silvera wrote the book so that a new reader could start with the prequel and then read the original novel. “You want things to be in conversation with the other book but not fully reliant upon it,” he says. “There’s no real sequence to read these books.”

For the author, whose path to writing started with a barista job at Barnes & Noble, exploring teen love stories is a way of processing his own past. “YA has really allowed me to deal with my own trauma, as well as reimagine what my life could have looked like had I been out as a teenager,” he says. “I grew up in the South Bronx. It didn’t feel safe to be so openly queer. I didn’t feel fully confident in myself yet. Today I love being queer—it’s one of my favorite things about myself.”

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Silvera spoke to TIME about The First to Die at the End, plans for another book in the series, and whether he would subscribe to Death-Cast if given the choice.

TIME: When did you decide to write a prequel, and why?

Adam Silvera: I’ve always loved the Death-Cast universe, and I always wanted to write more books in it. My original editor wisely cautioned me against doing too many Death-Cast novels because we didn’t want to dilute the beauty of Mateo and Rufus’ love story. Something that I have said from the beginning with these novels is that I will never write the same book over and over. When I presented two ideas to my publisher, my agent, and my editor, they all thought the prequel idea was intriguing.

What can you tell me about future plans for the series?

There’s a third Death-Cast novel, and the narrators are the two young boys we are introduced to in The First to Die at the End, Paz Dario and Alano Rosa. It’s going to be out in 2024, and it’s set 10 years after the prequel, in 2020, with no COVID. I’m going to be talking about how Death-Cast helped prevent COVID from becoming what it became in our world, because it’s an alternate reality.

We’re going to learn even more intimate details about Death-Cast, but also the highs and lows of being the son of the Death-Cast creator. Alano has not had an easy life because Death-Cast is a secret, and people want to know how it works. That presents a lot of challenges for him and a lot of blame befalls him unfairly because Death-Cast can be viewed by some as the reason people are dying.

In reading both books, I interpreted Death-Cast as sort of a villain character, but I feel like in The First to Die at the End, you’re reshaping that narrative. Can you tell me more about that?

That’s such an interesting observation for me, because I’ve never viewed Death-Cast as villainous. They are providing a service for those who want to know and brace themselves for an untimely death. I get asked all the time if I would subscribe to Death-Cast, and the answer is yes.

How do you go about deciding what you’re going to explain in your novels and what you won’t? In The First to Die at the End, readers are left with a cliff-hanger about how Death-Cast actually works.

I have the answer, and I’ve told a couple of people, should something happen to me.

But I think it just becomes a bigger distraction from the story I want you to pay attention to, which are the love stories within these novels. In the book, the creator of Death-Cast—who I basically use as a vessel to express my feelings about readers asking me about Death-Cast—says that once that door opens, there’s no closing it. I 100% agree, because all that does is invite you to poke holes in it. From my comprehension of Death-Cast right now, it just works. We regularly go through life not knowing how something works and just accept that it does.

Something that I appreciated in both books is how the stories focus primarily on the two main characters, and not so much on the trials and tribulations of being queer.

We are starting to have this narrative that we need to retire the coming out story, because we’re in a generation where there’s a lot more understanding and acceptance. In 2010, that was not really the case, but that’s not really the case either today. There are so many teenagers—and I know this because they DM me or I meet them at book signings—who are scared to come out today because of parents, guardians, friends, teachers, or classmates.

In this alternate reality, there is a Harry Potter-type book franchise and the author is a queer trans woman—very interesting, given all that’s gone on with J.K. Rowling.

I’m very vocal about my deep disappointment in J.K. Rowling and all her anti-trans rhetoric. I wanted my readers, specifically trans readers, to know that this is a safe space. There is no anti-trans nonsense within my novels, and there never will be.

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Between the four main characters in the series so far—Mateo, Rufus, Orion, and Valentino—who do you identify with most?

Orion. Orion wasn’t even supposed to be a narrator in this novel; his best friend Dalma was, but it just wasn’t coming together. I thought, “Let me write something that just feels closer to me,” and Orion was born. It was as if the book would never have existed without him in the first place.

Orion’s a writer. He’s from the Bronx. He’s Puerto Rican. He curses so f-cking much, which is me, but he also has a really big heart. There are so many parts about his identity that are identical to my own, except I just wasn’t out yet. So I got to play pretend a little bit and see what it could have looked like, had I been out in 2010. He lost his parents during 9/11, and even though I didn’t lose my parents that day, how he describes that day is 90 to 95% identical to what I experienced.

Sept. 11 is such a focal point in the book. Can you say more about your relationship to that day?

My mom was in Manhattan that day. She normally worked in the Bronx, right across from where we grew up, but she had a meeting. She had to walk the bridge back to come pick up my brother and me from school. We were creating all these plans in case we got separated, because I was 11 years old. It was so terrifying to fear death like that.

Two months later, my favorite uncle died in a plane crash on the way to the Dominican Republic, Flight 587. Within that two-month period between 9/11 and losing my uncle, I came to this understanding that people can be here and then just suddenly be gone without any warning. And that’s how Death-Cast was born. My death anxiety basically created this service where they can tell you when you’re about to die. It’s not so you can prevent it, because these books are not about that. It’s about just giving you that heads up so you can get your affairs in order and so things aren’t left unsaid.

They Both Die at the End is being adapted for television. What’s your involvement with the show?

I was originally attached and involved as the creator and executive producer, but as of very recently, I have stepped away from the show.

How do you feel about that?

I’m processing. I love the universe so much. We will see what happens, but at this stage, it’s just in development. There are no scripts. There is no cast. There’s nothing in production. There’s no streaming home for it. There are some really brilliant producers who are still attached to the project, so there is always hope.

Speaking of hope, one of the things you do well in these novels is suspend hope throughout the entire story. Why is there that hope, if we know what’s going to happen in the end?

I’m telling you the ending from the title: They Both Die at the End. It was a really interesting exercise for people because they didn’t believe me, and I’m like, that’s on you. People thought I was going to do a fake-out where they’ll be the exception to the rule. None of us is going to be the exception to death. As much as I love the boys in these books and want them to live, they’re not going to develop immortality for the sake of it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com.

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