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