Q&A: 'Thirteen Reasons Why' author Jay Asher on bullying and teen suicide prevention
Jay Asher’s bestselling YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, follows a boy named Clay through an emotional night after he receives a box of cassette tapes from his classmate, Hannah, who recently committed suicide. Though the book was published in 2007, it has continued to touch teens (and adults!), and helped open up a national conversation about bullying and teen suicide. Over the past year, Asher has embarked on a 50 States Against Bullying tour, speaking at a school in every single state to spread awareness of bullying and talk about how to stop it.
In the midst of his whirlwind tour, EW talked to Asher about how Hannah’s suicide could have been prevented, why teens find his characters so relatable, and why we need to open up about issues like suicide and bullying, no matter how uncomfortable they might seem.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I just read Thirteen Reasons Why for the first time, and I read it in one sitting, cover to cover. Do you get that kind of reaction a lot?
JAY ASHER: Yeah. I had never tried writing anything serious before that, and I didn’t like serious books, so my fear was that somebody would think it was too sad. So I intentionally wrote it as suspensefully as possible, because I knew it would take something like that to keep me from wanting to put it down.
The pacing feels like a TV show, probably because it all takes place in one night.
I think that’s a big part of it. I’ve actually had some people tell me that they started it when they knew they had only a half hour to read, and then when they realized it was probably going to take place in one night, they shut it down because they wanted to read it in one night, as the character does.
The book came out in 2007. What’s it like to be celebrating and promoting the same book for almost a decade?
It’s really weird. To have that happen is amazing. The thing that keeps it fresh for me is knowing that so many of the people i’m speaking to are just reading it, because they just recently became teens. So for them, it’s a new book. It’s actually a really weird mental flip you have to do to keep it fresh, but it’s a huge honor.
How do you think the conversation about bullying has changed in the past eight years? Has it changed?
It really has, and I think a lot of the reason is because of cyberbullying, which my book actually doesn’t really deal with. Bullying has been around forever, and so it became one of these issues that as an adult we look back on and say, “Yeah, it’s just one of those unfortunate parts of growing up.” You know you’re not going to stop it, so it just became easier to call it one of those things that “just happens.” But when cyberbullying took off, which is something that, as adults, we never had to deal with, we started to slowly realize how much more devastating it could be. It doesn’t stop when the school bell rings, it’s just out there.
And it lives forever.
Yeah, it lives forever—so the traditional bullying is still there, but cyberbullying is something brand new to add on top of it that can actually be more devastating. So [adults] just decided now it’s appropriate to really talk about, and my book came along around that same time. Fiction is an easy way to talk about issues: I think it feels less preachy. You can have the students discuss characters in the book as opposed to hypothetical situations, or as opposed to opening up about themselves, unless they really want to.
In Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah goes to her teacher Mr. Porter for help, and he makes a little joke during their conversation, and Clay, listening to the tape, says, “Don’t make a joke right now!” But audience members say your 50 States Against Bullying talks integrate humor well. Is there a place for humor when talking about issues like bullying and suicide?
I think there’s always room for humor, especially when you’re talking about really serious issues. I just think it’s important to give people a little break, partly because it takes away the preachy [tone], but when you add humor, it also gives people a reason to stay tuned in, and to stay comfortable. That’s why I include it in the book: I wanted to give little breaks, and it’s the same thing with my talks. As for balance, and how to do it appropriately, I don’t know. That’s when you really just have to go with your gut. When I was writing the story, I just decided, “I know what I’m trying to say, and I know I have only sincere and positive reasons for doing this.” As long as you know that, hopefully it will come across.
But that has always been a concern, especially when the book came out. The one group I was really, really nervous what they were going to think was people who’ve lost people to suicide. Were they going to think I was taking it too lightly? But even from that group I’ve heard amazing things.
How has that group responded?
At the very first book signing I did, I saw this middle-aged woman kind of hanging out in the background. I could tell she was waiting for the line to go down for a bit more one-on-one-time. The first thing she said was, “Fourteen years ago, my son committed suicide.” I just started sweating, and then she basically said what a lot of people have since said: That reading the book let her, as a mom, know that she only knew as much of his life as he was willing to open up about. It let her realize that even if she’s a great mom, even if he knows that she loves him, everybody has different lives. There’s no way to know exactly what someone’s dealing with, no matter how open you are. You’re just never going to know everything.
When I was reading the book, I was so worried that something would happen to Clay’s mother: Why was she so sad?
Her character, I have to say, is one of the most fascinating to hear other peoples’ reactions. She has just a small couple of scenes, and yet people really focus on her, both as students, and as mothers. I kind of made her a lot like my mom, somebody who knows she’s a good mom, and trusts her son to come to her if needed, but also wants to express that she knows something’s not right. I always knew my mom would be there if I needed her, and I’m thankful for that, because not everyone feels that way. She also didn’t push so hard that I would close off.
I think the same thing is played with Mr. Porter’s character for Hannah. He does care, and maybe he’s not pushing hard enough, and that’s giving Hannah an excuse not to open up. I wanted it to be kind of vague, for you to think, “What should this character have done?” I hear from guidance counselors a lot about that scene, where they say that’s their fear, that somebody’s going to leave thinking they didn’t care.
Or that the person will go in saying, “This is my last try.”
That was one of the very few scenes that was really heavily inspired by something I went through in high school. I was a Peer Helper, kind of like a student counselor, where students can come to you if they don’t think they can go to an adult. A student came to me and I said, “Okay, you have to talk to the counselor about this. This is beyond what I’m allowed to deal with.” I set up the appointment, and said, “I’m going to go with you, but I’m only there as support.”
But I could see what happened in the book happening there: Where the counselor was asking the appropriate questions, but it really wasn’t pulling out of my friend the real deepness of what was going on. I knew if he didn’t say anything, my friend was going to walk out there thinking, “This guy doesn’t care.” Thankfully I was there, and I said, “You need to tell him what you told me.” And then the conversation changed.
You said in an interview that Hannah could have handled things differently, that she could have been more open. I was relieved to hear that, because sometimes she did shut people down.
I’ve heard from teens that read the book when they’re contemplating suicide, and they really pick up on the ways Hannah could have done things differently. They really pick up on who she was pushing away, even if she didn’t know it at the time, and we only know, as readers, that that person cares about her.
One of the greatest emails I got was from this 14-year-old girl who was in that position, and said at one point she got so upset at Hannah because she identified with her, because she wanted her to live. At some point, she had to turn it around and say, “Okay, I can’t be upset with her when I’m doing the same thing.”
It feels like you’ve almost become a therapist, through your writing and speaking. Have you spoken to actual therapists for help with talking to teens about these issues, or is it all going from your gut?
I started by just going by my gut, and I’ve been shown that that’s the best way to do it, just personal honesty. I talk about my own struggles so that they know, “Yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk about these things, but that’s kind of why we need to.”
One of the first people to point out, as a professional therapist, that I was doing it right, works with mental health in the county where I live. He deals a lot with teens, and started using the book in his practice, saying, “Okay let’s talk about this fictional thing. We’re not talking about you, we’re talking about these characters, and their actions, and their reactions.” He asked me to speak on a panel at a suicide prevention forum, and most of the other people on the panel were professionals: therapists, crisis hotline workers. I was nervous about what my role was going to be, and he said, “Well, people are opening up to you because you’re being honest.”
When you speak at schools, you’re addressing the students, but you’re also speaking to the educators, right?
Yeah. I talk a lot about how we need to be open, how we need to make sure that the people around us know we care. To the students, I’m addressing that to your friends: Make sure your friends know they can come to you. But at the same time, it’s telling them the teachers are there because they care. One of the things I make sure to tell the teens at every school I visit, whether it’s for this anti-bullying tour or a traditional author visit, is “The only reason I’m at your school is because the faculty here cares. They know this is uncomfortable to talk about, but they’re not afraid of that. The fact that they invited me here alone tells you that they care, and that they do realize this stuff is important and serious.” If they’re bringing somebody in to talk about this issue, it’s hard. It’s a book that’s been banned a lot.
Yeah, and I talk about that. I tell them, there have been schools where I’ve been invited, and somebody in the community raises a fuss, and I’ve been disinvited. I want them to know that this happens, that this is a topic people are afraid of sometimes. They need to know that at their school, that’s not the case.
I can’t imagine this tour has left you much time to write, but can you tell me about any upcoming projects?
I’m working on another book right now that’s actually an idea I had before Thirteen Reasons Why. There was something missing, and I couldn’t figure out what was missing about it. I’m a very slow writer and always have been. So yeah, being on a tour like this makes it difficult to find time to write, but it’s also the most inspiring thing to make you want to write. Just knowing how much words can really connect with people—there’s nothing more inspiring than that.