Author Interview: JAY ASHER
Poised at the Edge
First of all I’d like to thank you, and congratulate you, for writing one of my favorite books of the year. THIRTEEN REASONS WHY certainly lives up to the considerable amount of hype that it’s receiving. In this book you tackle the painful issues of teen suicide and adolescent cruelty. Clearly there is a need for books like this, but what made you choose to write it?
When I first got the idea for this book, I wasn’t interested in writing anything other than humorous middle grades. To even consider tackling such a serious book for an age group I’d never written for was a bit scary. But I knew that if I didn’t commit to it right away, I would obsess over its possibilities until I eventually gave in and began writing it anyway. Regarding a need for books like this, yes, I definitely had some things I wanted to say along with just telling a suspenseful story. Because of dealing with the repercussions of an attempted suicide in my family, I wasn’t afraid of the subject matter, just whether or not I could pull it off.
THIRTEEN REASONS WHY has an unusual format. The story is told in two voices. One voice is Hannah Baker, who made a series of cassette tapes before committing suicide. The other is Clay Jensen, one of the recipients of Hannah’s tapes. Writing the story in this format seems risky, like it would be easy to make the story too confusing. You really pulled it off smoothly. Did you ever consider writing it in a more straight forward style?
No. That simultaneous dual-narrative is how the idea originated, and I knew it was the only way to tell the story. In order to let the readers understand Hannah’s story in the way I intended, they needed to hear Clay’s reactions immediately, and not in a subsequent chapter, as most books with two first-person P.O.V.s do. As the writer, it also made writing such an emotionally draining book a little more fun…almost like piecing together a puzzle rather than writing a novel.
I think that THIRTEEN REASONS WHY would be an ideal book for high school classrooms. It has tremendous social relevance, and would generate great conversations. Would you like to see more contemporary YA in the classrooms; and what books would you suggest?
Several schools and libraries across the country are currently using THIRTEEN REAONS WHY for their teen book club picks. I’ve been working directly with most of those groups to help organize their discussions (and send them freebies!). Most of them are bringing in crisis hotline workers or teen psychologists to discuss the issues presented in the book, which has turned this into such a positive thing. It’s been inspiring to see adults using this as a means to open a dialogue on such serious topics. That lack of a dialogue (due mostly to adults feeling uncomfortable discussing such issues), has been a real tragedy. And yes, I think contemporary YA books are a brilliant way to start those conversations. As opposed to saying, “Here are some facts, and here’s what you should think about this issue,” it allows a discussion on, “What should this character have done differently?” I think books that don’t shy away from difficult issues, such as CRANK by Ellen Hopkins (or anything written by her), are great because they get the respect from teens required to start an honest conversation.
On one of the tapes Hannah says: And in high school people are always watching you so there’s always a reason to pose. It’s no wonder that in adolescence people are more at risk for suicide. Your book clearly illustrates the game playing, lying, and rampant cruelty that goes on inside the walls of many high schools. What message would you like your teen readers to take away from the novel regarding social cruelty?
Basically, even though Hannah admits that the decision to take her life was entirely her own, it’s important to be aware of how we treat others. Even though someone appears to shrug off a sideways comment or to not be affected by a rumor, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on in that person’s life…and how we might be adding to their pain. People do have an impact on the lives of others; that’s undeniable. Almost every time I hear from a teen, they tell me that the book changed the way they treat other people. My favorite quote came from a girl who said the book made her want to “be wonderful.” Isn’t that awesome? I love my audience!
Can you please tell us about the research you did while writing THIRTEEN REASONS WHY?
I read several books on teen suicide, attended symposiums, but also relied a lot on good old fashioned personal experience. What makes me feel hopeless? What keeps me from reaching out? My female friends helped with that part of high school life that I never experienced. But, most importantly, a close relative of mine attempted suicide when she was Hannah’s age. Over the years, we’ve discussed her frame of mind at the time, and how her perception of things weren’t necessarily accurate.
One of the key ways that Hannah is harassed by her peers is that she’s called a slut. A boy she really liked started false rumors about her. A negative reputation was built on those false rumors. Do you think this a typical scenario in high schools today? Any ideas on how teenagers can prevent this kind of behavior; or protect themselves if it happens to them?
I think it’s worse than when I was in high school. If there was MySpace or instant messaging back then, rumors would’ve spread so much faster. And the truth is, it’s almost impossible to protect ourselves from rumors. We can only do our part in not starting or spreading them. One of the most amazing things I’ve witnessed because of this book is hearing from teens who recognized some of Hannah’s feelings as matching their own. They also recognized the obvious mistakes Hannah made in not fully reaching out for help (she simply hinted at her problems). They then took it upon themselves to make sure they got the help Hannah never received, which is very inspiring to me.
It was a long road to publication for you. Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Get into a critique group and learn your weaknesses as a writer. I absolutely love getting critiqued, because I know it brings my words one step closer to coming across how I meant them to come across. (By the way, I didn’t have anyone look over this Q&A before I sent it back. So if anything’s confusing, it just proves my point about critique groups…because everything I said made perfect sense to me!)
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on my next novel for teens, which will be a little lighter than THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. One thing my readers claim to appreciate about my first book is its honesty. If I can write my second book just as honestly, I think they’re going to like it.