Why teen-suicide novel 'Thirteen Reasons Why' is saving lives: An interview with Jay Asher

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Jay Asher‘s YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which comes out in paperback tomorrow, has grown into a major phenomenon over the last four years. In this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly we caught up with the author and got the story behind the book that some readers credit with changing — and even saving — their lives. You can read the story below.

Jay Asher had dreaded this moment. It was his first book signing, and one woman had been hanging back, waiting for the crowd to thin. 
 Finally, she walked up to the table. Her 14-year-old son had taken his own life 
 a few years earlier, and she’d read 
 Asher’s book. “My heart just stopped,” recalls the author, 35. “I was thinking, ‘Here we go. Here’s where somebody’s going to totally chew me out.’ ”

Asher’s YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why is a great read that happens to be about teen suicide. It’s suspenseful and addictive and more entertaining than people might expect — or, Asher feared, might want. The book has an irresistible hook: High school junior Clay Jensen comes home from school one day and finds a box containing seven cassettes. When he pops in the first, he hears the voice of a classmate, Hannah Baker, who recently killed herself. “I’m about to tell you…why my life ended,” she says calmly. “And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.” Hannah then tells the whole sad story, her voice alternating with Clay’s thoughts as he learns about the bullying and casual cruelty that slowly drove her over the edge.

Since it came out in 2007, Thirteen Reasons Why has grown into a word-of-mouth phenomenon, hitting the New York Times best-seller list six months after its release and lodging there for 
 65 straight weeks. Sales never flagged—and as a result, the book is only now 
 being published in paperback (it’s in stores June 14). From the beginning, the reaction to the novel has been 
 intense: an outpouring of emotion from readers who connect with the book’s message of tolerance and compassion. That potential confrontation at the book signing turned out okay, by the way. “She started crying,” says Asher of the grieving mom. “She said that for the first time she felt she could let go of some of the guilt.”

In person, Asher is cheerful and earnest, projecting not a shred of inner torment. The son of a nurse and a mailman, he grew up in the California towns of 
 Arcadia and San Luis Obispo, where he still lives with his wife, JoanMarie, and infant son. After college, Asher spent years trying to kick-start a career writing children’s picture books. Publishers weren’t interested. In the mid-1990s, while he was taking an audio tour of a King Tut exhibit at the Luxor casino, it occurred to him that a character listening to a recorded voice could be a good framework for a novel. Around the same time, the author says, a close relative tried to end her own life. “There wasn’t one final big thing that happened to her,” he says. “It just got to the point where she gave up hope of things getting better.” It was almost a decade later that Asher, driving home and letting his mind wander, realized he had two perfectly matching parts for a novel. “I pulled into this gas-station parking lot because I was so riveted by the concept,” he says. “I scribbled down the first 10 pages in longhand.”

Asher worked on Thirteen Reasons Why for three years. But just as he was nearing the end, he lost confidence. One night he took his wife out for an expensive dinner that they couldn’t afford, and announced that he was scrapping the book, giving up writing for good. Looking back, he thinks that he was terrified of this deeply personal novel getting rejected by publishers. “My wife started crying, because ever since she knew me, that was my dream, to be a published author. When your wife cries, you’ll do anything to get her to stop crying, so I said, ‘Okay. I’ll finish this one book.’ ”

Asher’s manuscript did, in fact, get rejected. Twelve times.

___________________________________________________________________________
When Penguin’s young-adult imprint, Razorbill, ultimately published Thirteen Reasons Why, Asher’s expectations were modest. But early readers were hooked, and word spread online. It wasn’t long before fans started to find Asher through his MySpace page. “The most common thing I’d hear was just ‘This book makes me more aware that even the small things I do can have an effect on people.’ But I’ve also heard from teens who say, ‘I was suicidal when I picked up your book, and I identified with Hannah, and I wanted her to live.’ When I started getting emails like that…I can’t even describe the feeling.” Tearful teens also approached him after readings to share their stories: “When somebody’s face-to-face with you saying, ‘I may not have been here had I not read your book,’ how do you respond to that? The first 
 several times I traveled, it was almost too much. I was totally grateful, but emotionally it was really hard.”

The pressure got to him. After Thirteen Reasons Why, Asher got about a third of the way through a novel about two teens who barely know each other in school but find themselves becoming friends in each other’s dreams. “I was 
 totally excited about it; my publisher was excited about it,” he says. “And that’s when fear overtook me. I was afraid of having it seen as a massive failure, either because it didn’t sell well or it didn’t mean as much to readers.” For two years he didn’t write a word of fiction. The book still sits unfinished on his hard drive.

It was an email from fellow YA novelist Carolyn Mackler (Tangled) that finally got him writing again. Mackler pitched the idea of a book written by both of them, told from alternating points of view. He loved the concept, and not just because Mackler is one of his favorite authors. “I knew it was going to free me up to write again,” he says, “because people aren’t going to see it as a direct follow-up.” The result, titled The Future of Us, is about two mid-’90s teens who log on to AOL one day and discover their future Facebook profiles. Though the novel’s not due out until November, Warner Bros. has 
 already picked up the film rights.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood has also shown interest in Thirteen Reasons Why. Asher has turned down several offers because the producers in question didn’t seem to understand the novel. “All it took was somebody saying the wrong thing about one scene and I was like, ‘I’ll hold on to it for a little while longer,’ ” he says. But eventually somebody managed to convince him: Disney star Selena Gomez. Asher and his wife don’t have a TV, so when Gomez requested a meeting, he only vaguely knew who she was. He met with her and her mother at an L.A. restaurant called Sushi Dan. “It was kind of intimidating when I found out they wanted to go to sushi, because I don’t know how to use chopsticks very well,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make a total fool out of myself.’ And I kind of did, but whatever. We had a fun talk about the book. And they totally got it. Their vision for the movie was identical to mine.” The film—which Universal will distribute—is in development.

One person who’ll no doubt be watching closely is Asher’s relative, the woman whose suicide attempt helped inspire Thirteen Reasons Why. Over the years Asher has shared many of the reader emails with her, and says she’s thrilled that her experience has indirectly made a difference in so many lives. “She says that if she had to go through that to inspire a book that has gotten this response from teens, then it was worth it,” says Asher. “That’s amazing for me to hear.”

What did you think of Thirteen Reasons Why? Weigh in below.

Follow me on twitter: @RobBrunnerEW

MORE ON JAY ASHER
‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ author Jay Asher responds to controversial anti-YA article: ‘I got very upset’

Comments (54 total) Add your comment
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  • Mocha

    I loved “Thirteen Reasons Why” and I’m curious to see how it will translate to film–since it was so audio narration-driven, I have trouble imagining a movie version, especially one starring Selena Gomez.

    • Kris

      Selena Gomez definitely is a puzzling choice (and I actually like her) but if they share the same vision, I’m sure it will be great. I always pictured Dianna Agron when I was reading it two years ago but I don’t hate the idea of Selena. I just don’t know how it will work as a film.

      • Ginny

        I have to admit, I see Selena as a really happy person. This isn’t a role that seems to fit her well. I, as well, picture Dianna Argon, or even Dakota Fanning, as Hannah Baker. Selena is always so happy, she plays such happy roles, I can’t see her playing a suicidal girl.

    • Zoe

      maybe selena wi play the girl that clay wanted to help at the end, i think she would have been perfect for that part, but i just check and shes playing hannah, but its still good

    • went

      yeah, i agree

  • Cee

    I am a high school English teacher and love that words can still be this powerful. I’ve recommended “Thirteen Reasons Why” to several of my students and all of them have been impacted by the book in some way. It’s a great read.

  • Anonymous

    I was actually really disappointed in this book, but nevertheless it is great that it spreads the message of suicide prevention.

    • Captain

      I was too only because I had heard such great things. The Clay tape thoroughly disappointed me. I think it was a huge cop-out.

      • alyssa

        i read this book last year and i too was disapointed with the Clay tape i thought it was going to have more then it did but it was still a great book i cant wait to see it in film

    • Kate

      Yeah, me too. I thought Hannah was pretty spiteful, especially because these people would have to live with this guilt for the rest of their lives when a lot of them didn’t do anything particularly bad. Especially the Jessica one – she got upset when she thought her friend was with her ex. How is that Jessica’s fault?

  • Sues

    I wish this was required reading for kids in middle school – to prepare them to give and receive compassion and to just survive. It will be required reading for my kids when they’re ready. I read it and The Book Thief the same month. I am so grateful for authors that have such deep respect for young adults to write so beautifully for them. Press on Mr. Asher. More please.

  • Alicia Cook

    This book was incredible. I couldn’t put it down. It addressed very important issues. I lost 2 friends to suicide and this book was so moving. As an English teacher, I have recommended this book to not only students, but colleagues.

  • Kerri

    I didn’t enjoy this book one bit. The message obviously is good but from the first apge I was turned off by the character of Hannah I find her spiteful. Blaming someone for your suicide especially the story of when she witnessed a person getting raped….she just witnessed it it wasn’t her. So I really don’t think the book should receive so much praise

    • Vicky

      I haven’t read the book yet, but I find this comment a bit disturbing. Just because she wasn’t raped doesn’t mean that witnessing a rape is not traumatic. It worries me that people are becoming jaded to violence in all forms, and yes, rape is an act of violence. Once I have read the book, I might agree with your assessment of Hannah, but I will not agree that “just witnessing” a rape isn’t distressing for a young woman.

    • Katarina Karenina

      I agree with Vicky. There is another book written for teens in which the same thing happens: a high schooler witnesses the rape of a close friend and she spirals downward rapidly. Her behavior changes, her grades plummet, she depends heavily on alcohol to make her forget, etc. I realize this is also a work of fiction, but it is still traumatic for a young girl (or anyone for that matter) to witness.

      This is why I think Jay Asher’s novel is so important. I read it when it first came out and it became an instant favorite. I think it’s the underlying message that’s so important, not necessarily the events that led Hannah to suicide. It goes to show how the words and actions of others, no matter how minor, can have such a powerful impact on someone. In the case of Hannah Baker, a million and one things snowballed into something she couldn’t handle anymore. I’m surprised similar circumstances don’t happen to teens more often and I am so grateful to Mr. Asher for writing something that can touch so many lives.

  • Lauren

    I haven’t read this but I did read Nova by James Boice. It’s a novel (not YA) about a teen’s suicide in a privileged neighborhood outside of D.C. The book looks at the after-affects of the suicide on the suburb and the signs that should have been seen beforehand. It’s a great read and now I’m interested to see how this book tackles the subject.

  • Susan

    Thank you for the great article regarding such a great book and author, Jay Asher. I hope this article spurs others to read the book as it has so much to offer especially since bullying has come to the forefront as needed. Thank you again Mr Brunner for the great job and to EW!

  • Mandy

    How have I never heard of this book? Totally going out to get it.
    Also, ‘The Future of Us’ has an amazing concept. Can’t wait to read it either.

  • Nan

    I loved this book. I recommend it to everyone I know.

  • Captain

    I read this book about two years ago, during my last year in high school. I really related to it and enjoyed it for the most part but I was a bit disappointed by it. Only because I had such high expectations and it didn’t meet them.

  • carmen webster buxton

    nothing works for everyone; there are even people who don’t like chocolate. but if I had a book that worked for that many people, I would certainly be proud of it.

  • DarkPassenger

    I’m looking forward to reading the book, and enjoyed the interview. Thanks for that, EW.

  • Laurisa Reyes

    I read 13 Reasons Why and was really moved by Hannah’s story. I’ve recommended it to countless people. As a parent whose two teens both have made attempts, this books means a lot to mean. It has the power to change people’s lives for the better.

  • School Counselor

    I am a high school counselor(15 years) and found this book to be quite eye opening. I believe the message is powerful…you never know what impact your actions will have on someone. I have recommended it to several students who have found it very ineteresting and were glad they read it. Overall, it helps you realize that something small in your eyes may be a really big deal to someone else. In this age of cyberbullying this is one more reason to be mindful of what is said and done and the impact that it will have on others.

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