13 Reasons Why author on 'bonus content' the Netflix show adds to his book
It’s been 10 years since Thirteen Reasons Why first hit bookshelves—and became the life-saving bestseller it’s known as.
A lot has changed in the time since. Not only has author Jay Asher has gone on to write two more books and a graphic novel, but the book itself has finally made its way to a screen, with the much-awaited adaptation becoming Netflix’s latest original series.
With 13 Reasons Why now available for streaming and the book it’s based on now celebrating its 10th anniversary, EW caught up with Asher to discuss the adaptation, his experience since, and if he ever considered writing a sequel.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you think is it about TV, as opposed to film, that helps serve this particular story?
JAY ASHER: What you hear mostly people gripe about adaptations is, “They took out this scene,” or, “They had to condense these characters.” I understand why they have to do that. But if you had a favorite character and now they’ve been melded together with another one, it’s disappointing. The second they proposed the series it was a way to completely go around that problem. You don’t have to condense. In fact, you can expand. As the series developed I was excited for the fans. They’re going to get the same 13 reasons and the same characters, but also “bonus content.” You’re getting more storylines involving extra characters. You get to see the characters interact more than in the book. The book is what it is and exactly how it’s supposed to be but when you have new mediums, you have new opportunities. I was so confident in the people that made it. That’s evident in the first episode. You hear so many lines directly from the book and you realize these are the characters from the book.
You’ve lived with Clay and Hannah in your head for so long. Seeing Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford play them, was there anything they added to the characters?
You see Dylan’s character in a way that he’s not portrayed in the book. In the book, it follows him. He gets the tapes and he listens to all of them by the next morning. You only see 24 hours of his character arc. In the TV show, where it takes place over several days, you have more interactions with him and the other characters. You definitely see a side of him that you just don’t get to see in the book. It still feels so real to me. As a guy who wrote the character originally, that was the really fun part for me. It started out my character and then we get to see him beyond the book in a way. That was really exciting. I felt like I was allowed to be lazy and still have my story continue. It was the same thing with the other characters. It would start as my character and in the scene where they’re specifically talking about each of the reasons they’re the same character. Then when you see the repercussions of the tapes going on, which is not seen in the book, now it’s those characters in scenes I didn’t write. It still felt like my characters, which is what absolutely impressed me the most. There are lines that aren’t in the book that felt like I could have written that.
A lot has changed in the 10 years since the book came out, in terms of technology, like Hannah didn’t really have to deal with cyber-bullying. Did you talk about possibly incorporating more modern technology like that into the show?
It’s one of the things where I wrote the book at the time that I wrote it. If I were to write it today, it would be a little different. [In the show] ideas about Hannah that get spread around because of a photo, which wasn’t in the book because nobody had camera phones back then. It felt like this is the right way to spread this. It’s also just visually much more compelling. To see a rumor spread just by words in a hallway is not going to be visually as captivating as it is so it just felt better for TV to do it this way, but also, appropriate because that’s more how it would happen as opposed to how it happened in the book. There was a lot of talk of keeping this feel. Even when the book came out it had somewhat of a retro feel because even 10 years ago tapes were outdated. They kind of wanted to keep as much as they could. Not make it super, super modern feeling, while giving it this old school feel, which they did in certain ways while also being very honest about how things are different now for teens.
Kids are picking up the book even now and becoming fans. Have you spoken to fans who read it when it first came out and have since grown with it?
Yeah. I’ve actually stayed in contact with a lot of them, which has been weird. When the book came out they wrote me something that very much touched me. Whether it’s we became friends on MySpace back then and then you just periodically see them online. As they become adults and you see them go to college. Some of them now married. Some I do keep up with. They feel like a part of it as well.
Do they re-read it? Do they recommend to other people?
A lot of people re-read the book. But to me, the really beautiful part of this whole thing has been hearing people recommend the book to other people. As an author, I love to know my book sells really well. At the same time, there’s always been a bittersweet quality for me because I really don’t think the book would have been this successful if the subject matter wasn’t so hard to talk about. When I hear about somebody recommending the book to a friend, even without saying it, I feel like you’re telling that person, “All these issues in the book are things that I’m okay to talk about.” I think you’re really opening yourself up as being a safe person to come to. Same thing when I hear about a parent reading the book with their child and then discussing it. It’s an easy way to talk about these things that are otherwise kind of hard to bring up out of the blue. Over the years that’s been a really great thing. I’ve heard from a lot of parents who say it just provided this way to bond with their child in a way that they hadn’t before. That’s one of the things I’m really excited about with the show. The parents are a bigger part. Even more adults are going to watch it. I cannot imagine watching it and having a teenager and not saying, “Okay here are some conversations we have to have.”
Right. And the adults on the show were saying that.
Even if it’s just, “Has that ever happened?” How do you say something, out of the blue, if you don’t think your kid’s ever been cyber bullied. It’s a weird thing to just bring up out of the blue. Now you can point at something fictional and say, “Has that ever happened to you?” It makes it so easy to have conversations. I’m excited about that. The producers and I have talked a lot about that over the years. They’ve had conversations with teens about the book over the years. It’s weird because it’s just a piece of entertainment but at the same time everybody’s excited about getting the message out too, which is really cool.
I read in an interview that you were really anxious as you were writing this book. Now that it’s been such a success, do you feel a little more confident as you go into other books?
No. It’s scary. Honestly, the weird thing was that was my first published book. It definitely wasn’t the first book I wrote. Everything I tried to sell before that was humorous. I thought I was going to be known for my humor. But then I had an idea for a story, which was absolutely not humorous. But, of course, that’s the one that sells and becomes big. [But] then everybody’s expecting the same thing, which is not where my mind naturally goes. I have three other books that are all very different. I cannot not have range. Of course, it would be smarter to not put out the same thing, but maybe with the same tone.
Or tackle another hard-to-talk-about subject.
Yeah. I love that people ask that question. “Are there any other topics or serious issues that you’d love to address?” Looking back, I do think one of the reasons 1Thirteen Reasons Why has been so successful is not because it deals with serious issues, but because I had a unique and interesting way to tell that story. I knew the issues were going to be dealt with in the book, but I felt my job was to write the story as entertainingly as possible. Let the issues be there naturally. Or the book would have sounded preachy. There are definitely issues I’d love to write about, but it has to be a unique way to tell that story that makes it worthy of being a book.
Having seen the show and the storylines of characters dealing with what happens to Hannah after the events, have you played with possibly writing something set in the same world, but maybe 10 years later?
One of the really weird things is when I first came up with the idea for the book it was going to be a series, which took place over several days. You were going to get a lot more interactions between Clay and the other characters. Some of the themes I had developed actually somewhat made it into the show, which is really odd. But I wanted it to be this very intimate story between Clay and his very immediate reaction to what he’s hearing. I wanted to keep it basically just the two of them. So when the series expanded it, I actually go to see a lot of the repercussions that I originally thought I might write about. There was a point where I considered writing somewhat of a sequel, but I decided not to because I felt so many people had such a strong connection to the book that no matter what I did, it would change it a little bit for them. So I decided to leave it alone. Obviously, the TV show is going to change the characters because we see more of them, and beyond what’s on the tapes. That’s where the book is written exactly how it needs to be. The TV show is its own thing, even though it absolutely honors the book.
Thirteen Reasons Why (the book) is available for purchase. Order it here.
13 Reasons Why is streaming on Netflix now.
Based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, the Netflix drama follows a teen named Clay who attempts to figure out what led his classmate and crush Hannah to take her own life.