October 18, 2017

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Raw Honesty | Author Jay Asher Talks to SLJ About ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’

Jay Asher PicIn anticipation of the live event  with New York Times bestselling author of the YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007) on March 3, School Library Journal caught up with Jay Asher to chat about his work and inspiration for the popular novel, which gives voice to Hannah Baker, a young woman who commits suicide because of her peers’ bullying. SLJ‘s reviewer cited the book for its appeal to teens: “…the breakneck pace and dizzying emotion are the true source of this novel’s irresistible readability at all levels.” Universal Studios has optioned the film rights as a possible vehicle for actress Selena Gomez.

Asher, who co-authored The Future of Us (with Carolyn Mackler), spoke  with SLJ about his path to publishing, his sense of responsibility as a writer, and the importance of using literature to broach sensitive topics with young readers.

Your bestselling novel, Thirteen Reasons Why has touched the hearts of millions of readers, from teens to librarians. Why do you think this book has resonated with so many these past six years?

The book is essentially 13 stories from Hannah Baker’s life, and most people can relate to at least some of the emotions or situations she describes. So there’s a lot that’s recognizable within the book.  And what she talks about are things that are difficult to discuss, so far too often we don’t discuss them. Books can be a non-threatening and safe way to explore these issues, which makes the book then feel personal. But, just as important, it was written as a suspense novel. When someone wants another person to give the book a chance, the best thing to be able to say is “You won’t be able to put it down.” That word-of-mouth aspect has been amazing.

9512thirteenThe manuscript was rejected 12 times before being picked up by Penguin’s Razorbill imprint. What inspired you to write this book and to keep submitting to different publishers?

By the time I began submitting this book, I had been unsuccessfully trying to sell other manuscripts for 12 years. So this wasn’t out of the ordinary. But I was most nervous about this book not selling because I could tell I finally found my voice, and it was also the first time I wrote from such a personal place. In fact, a few months before I finished the manuscript, I told my wife that I wasn’t going to finish it. I was done writing altogether! She cried, knowing how important it was to me to become an author. And no one likes to see their spouse cry, so I told her I would give my dream one more chance.

Do you especially identify with a particular character?

I have to identify with some part of every character, which can be difficult when it’s a character you don’t like. As far as the main characters, a film producer once described Hannah as a romantic in how she sees the world, which makes it even more crushing when the world doesn’t unfold how you think it should. I can be a lot like that. But growing up, I was a lot like Clay. He’s very non-confrontational, which can be good, but can also be a weakness.

What is the most memorable thing that a fan has ever told you about their Thirteen Reasons reading experience? As an author of a book that focuses on such a sensitive topic, do you feel a sense of responsibility to readers who may be contemplating  suicide?

The first time a reader told me the book convinced her to reach out for help rather than end her life was definitely memorable. I still get those emails, and I still need to sit at my computer for a while and let that overwhelming admission settle before I can get on with anything else. It’s a wonderful thing to hear, but it’s also very humbling. I know my own weaknesses and struggles, so my first instinct is to think, “How is it possible that I wrote a book so many people claim saved their lives?” But it is a true blessing that I don’t take lightly. As far as responsibility, with this subject matter I felt the most responsible thing I could do was write the book as raw and honest as I could. No one reaches out for help if they feel no one will understand. And I’ve heard over and over that this book was the first time people felt understood.

How do you juggle author visits, events, and other commitments with your writing schedule?

I’m horrible at juggling! I could probably learn to juggle burning chainsaws before I learned to manage my schedule. But I know that speaking about my books has been a huge part of the success, and it’s also my favorite part of being an author.

Anti-bullying awareness has continued to grow in schools and libraries nationwide since your book’s publication. In what way do you think it adds to the national conversation? How can educators use the novel in their anti-bullying efforts?

A discussion about any sensitive issue can be helped with literature. For most people, being involved in an honest and open discussion about these things does not come easily. By using books, we can talk about situations that happen to fictional characters and explore their decisions and repercussions without talking about real people. It feels safer! By simply using books like mine to start discussions, educators send a message that they’re not afraid of these issues, and that’s very important for teens to know.

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The live event will take place at LREI High School in New York City, where students and educators will have the opportunity to hear Asher in person.  Remote attendees  can participate by setting up assemblies or in-class programs, enabling kids, parents, and teachers to   watch the program and interact with the author.

Those who can’t make it on March 3 will have the opportunity to access the archived program for viewing at a later date.

 

 

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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