Suicide is a taboo subject in our society. So it’s refreshing and yet somewhat surprising when a novel—a young adult novel to be more specific—finds its way into the hearts of people all around the world, achieving a coveted spot on the New York Times Bestseller lists, numerous literary awards and an upcoming film adaption. Thirteen Reasons Why tackles a teen’s suicide by unveiling its complicated layers. The novel has sparked a much needed conversation and continues to attract new followers every day.
While working as a newsletter editor for a suicide prevention organization in 2009, I reached out to and subsequently interviewed Thirteen Reasons Why author, Jay Asher. He was humble, kind, and elated with readers’ reactions and feedback. He spoke of the fans who stood in the back of crowded rooms after readings, waiting to thank him personally for writing a book that encouraged them to reach out for help.
Two years later, fear of following up his bestseller nothing but a vague memory, Asher’s awaiting the publication of his second novel, The Future of Us, due out this November and co-written with Carolyn Mackler, author of Tangled. Here he shares a few literary milestones along his journey.
Life of Riley: My first question to you back in 09 centered on the stigma of suicide and mental illness, and how readers and the public at large would react to your book. Two years later, it’s obvious that the reaction has been extremely positive. Was this something that took time? Or do you feel that the public embraced 13 Reasons almost immediately?
Jay Asher: On a small scale, people embraced the book immediately. The reviews were wonderful and the letters I received were so enthusiastic. I especially loved when readers said they told all of their friends about the book. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was because our society does a horrible job of discussing these issues honestly. But when people talk about a book like this, they can’t help but also discuss the questions it raises. Readers were so passionate about the story and its message, they just kept spreading the word.
LOR: #1 New York Times Bestseller. How does it feel? What does that mean to you as an artist?
Asher: If I hadn’t seen that list for myself, I would say it’s unbelievable. It’s a very weird concept to fully appreciate, so all I can do is thank my readers for their enthusiasm. As an artist, there will always be critics who just don’t get it for various reasons. But when this many people obviously do get it, I feel comfortable knowing that I wrote the book exactly as it needed to be written.
LOR: Okay, one of the coolest parts of your blog, the international book covers of 13 Reasons Why—surreal to see your story translated throughout the world? (The Serbian cover is pictured to the right.)
Asher: Absolutely! While writing the book, I never even considered how it would be received anywhere other than the U.S. But the book is about some very basic concerns and emotions, so it actually does make sense that teens (and adults) around the world would be able to relate.
LOR: So fill in the time gap a bit if you will. What have you been working on since I last spoke with you?
Asher: For a couple of years, I didn’t work on anything. I travelled around the country speaking about Thirteen Reasons Why, and I still do, but I didn’t write anything. The success of Thirteen Reasons Why gave me a lot of fear about following it up. But then Carolyn Mackler, one of my favorite authors, said she was interested in co-writing a book with me. From that moment on, I’ve found the joy in writing again.
LOR: Congratulations on the film adaption. What was the catalyst for such a venture?
Asher: Even while writing the book, I pictured it as a movie. The structure of the scenes and the dialogue were heavily influenced by cinematic storytelling, so it was always my hope that it would get made into a movie. Some producers did make offers, but I kept declining for various reasons. Sometimes they were very small reasons, but the story meant so much to me that even the tiniest thing could keep me from selling the rights.
LOR: Funny that we discussed the possibility of a movie and who would play Hannah, Clay and the rest of the 13 Reasons ensemble. Were you a part of the team who worked on casting?
Asher: So far, the only role we’ve announced is that of Hannah Baker. Selena Gomez and July Moon Productions contacted me about turning the book into a movie, with Selena starring as Hannah. After meeting Selena and her mom to discuss their vision for the movie, as well as to hear how Selena pictured Hannah, I was sold.
LOR: Selena Gomez. She has a huge following with the tweens and teens. How important do you think her celebrity and connection with the younger crowd will affect the film?
Asher: Selena obviously has a large fan base, which I’m sure looked good to the movie studio. But when I decided to go with her, it was only because of how powerfully I thought she could portray the entire journey of Hannah’s character.
LOR: In a recent blog post, you discussed meeting with Jennifer O’Kieffe in LA. Was that a normal evolution to adapting the book to film—handing over the reins to a scriptwriter? How did you feel about that? And were you worried about the book’s dynamic staying true to your vision?
Asher: I was there when Jennifer originally interviewed for the screenwriting job. She pitched her vision, which basically enhanced our vision, so I felt no worries handing the story over to her. We’ve had several meetings and conversations since then, where I occasionally offer suggestions. But I’m lucky that I can mostly just sit back and marvel at how she’s adapting this oddly structured book for an entirely different medium. The book and movie will complement each other beautifully.
LOR: Let’s talk about your new book, The Future of Us, that you co-wrote with Carolyn Mackler.
Asher: Carolyn and I hardly knew each other when we decided to try to write a book together. So before we fully decided to do this, we talked a lot about our likes and dislikes of other collaborative novels. We talked about character development and our basic approaches to storytelling. The similarities in the way we viewed those things made the writing process extremely smooth. We brainstormed the entire book together as we wrote it, and then edited each other’s chapters as we went along, wanting the book to feel like it could’ve been written by one author.
LOR: I’ve noticed that you’ve become a professional collaborator, working with the film industry and O’Kieffe and writing with Mackler. Writing is a challenging career. Do you find the collaboration process as another level in your writing career or as a support system for making it all work?
Asher: I think all writing has various levels of collaboration. I had a critique group for many years, and I was essentially working with them to make my manuscripts stronger. Authors also collaborate with editors to make the writing even tighter and more compelling. Wherever the most intriguing idea is, whether it’s to write something on my own or with someone else, that’s where I’ll go.
LOR: What’s next for Jay Asher?
Asher: We’ll see!
Author of the #1 New York Times bestselling novel Thirteen Reasons Why, and The Future of Us (co-authored by Carolyn Mackler, available November 2011). Visit Jay’s blog at www.jayasher.blogspot.com. You can also keep up with the latest news and interviews by visiting Jay’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/jayasherwriter or following him on Twitter @jayasherguy.
To read more from my 2009 interview with Asher, visit the August edition of Life Support.