Interview: Jay Asher
Current Mood: awake
Current Song: The Hustle by Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony
There are many reasons why you should read Jay Asher's debut novel Thirteen Reasons Why . . . but I'll save those for my review of the book, which is on my Best Books of 2007 list. In the meantime, I've asked the author thirteen questions.
When did this story first come to mind?
I once took a self-guided audio tour at a museum and thought that'd be a cool way to format a story. Instead of Chapter 1, you have Cassette 1: Side A. But I was only interested in writing humorous middle-grade novels at the time, and I couldn't find a funny storyline for that format. Years later, I was in Wyoming, driving on a dark and icy road in the middle of winter (a tense experience for a California boy), and the idea just hit me. I pulled into the nearest gas station parking lot and, for the next twenty minutes, cranked up the heater and scribbled out the book's introduction.
I only hesitated because I wanted, primarily, to write a suspense novel. Since I'd never written anything suspenseful before -- or for teens -- I knew it could easily turn into a "problem" novel. But the subject matter itself didn't scare me. A close family member attempted suicide when she was Hannah's age. Over the years, we discussed the events and emotions that led to her decision, so I felt confident tackling the subject. But to make sure I didn't overlook any of the warning signs or stages a suicidal person goes through, I read a lot of books on the subject and attended suicide symposiums. I'm fortunate to have an editor who used to work at a crisis hotline. She had a special sensitivity to the issues in this book.
If someone is worried that a friend might be depressed or suicidal, who should be told first?
The first person a concerned friend should talk to is the person they're concerned about. Suicide has such a stigma attached to it that we feel we're going to offend that person by bringing it up. But I'd rather err on the side of offending them than losing them to suicide. That person needs to know they can talk to you, and that you won't downplay their feelings. But then you need to assist that person in finding those avenues of help that are available. Don't let them brush it off as something they'll take care of if things get worse. Instead, give them the phone numbers and contacts they need…or initiate those contacts for them.
And if readers see pieces of Hannah in themselves?
They absolutely must talk to someone about their feelings. But finding that person can be a problem because of the stigma I mentioned earlier. Most people are embarrassed to admit they're having suicidal thoughts, or even that they're depressed. On my book jacket, we're including a phone number and website (1-800-SUICIDE and www.hopeline.com) for teens who might need someone to talk to. That was something my editor agreed to early on.
Thirteen Reasons Why is told from two perspectives: Hannah, talking on the tapes, and Clay, listening to them. Which POV was more difficult to write?
Clay's. I had a strong vision of Hannah's character from the very beginning, so I never struggled with her. In fact, after reading my manuscript, my agent told me I must have a depressed teenaged girl in me trying to get out. But Clay's character was harder to pin down. He needed to be someone we could empathize with, but who wouldn't overshadow Hannah. But then I was concerned that his part of the story might be boring. I had a breakthrough when my wife told me, "No matter what he does while listening to those tapes, even if it's just picking blades of grass, it's going to be a tense scene." In honor of my wife's wisdom, I have a scene with him doing just that - picking blades of grass.
At what point did you decide which of Hannah's listeners would be the one to share the reader's journey? (In other words, did you plot out Hannah's story and then later decide Clay would be the other protagonist, or did you know all along who it would be and why?)
When I first started writing, I knew about ten of Hannah's so-called reasons, but none contained an appropriate character for the reader to follow through the entire novel. When I figured out what Clay did to wind up on the tapes, I knew he was the person we should follow. Then I altered some of the other stories so that his "reveal" happened at what I considered an appropriate spot in the novel.
If I could, I would package your book with blank cassette tapes in an effort to get readers to record their responses to the book or even reveal their own secrets, like an audio version of PostSecret. Have you thought of doing any cool tape-based project like that?
The people in Penguin's marketing department seem to be having a ton of fun with this book. They designed a chamber of commerce map for my fictitious town, mimicking the one used throughout the book. They're building a website (www.thirteenreasonswhy.com) that'll have some cool interactive elements to it, such as audio clips from each tape. But I did pass your idea onto them, as well! I think readers could really get into something like that.
There are those who hold superstitious thoughts about the number thirteen. I think it's a lucky number. Why did you pick it?
When the premise came to me, I knew Hannah's last name was Baker. And because I love puns, I originally called my manuscript Baker's Dozen, realizing it solidified how many turning points in Hannah's life I needed to write. That's the only reason for the number thirteen. If a baker's dozen was fourteen, Razorbill probably would've changed the title to Fourteen Reasons Why, which isn't as catchy.
You and two of your best pals are collectively known as The Disco Mermaids. What's the story behind the name?
Robin Mellom and Eve Porinchak are my writing buddies, as well as two of my closest friends. Every year, at the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators summer conference, they have a themed after hours party. One year, the theme was The Glitter Ball, so we dressed as disco dancers. The next year, it was a Beach Bash, and we dressed as mermaids. Both years, we won first place in the costume contests. When we decided to work together on a blog, that was the first name we thought of, and you can see pictures of the costumes on our blog. Unfortunately, we all own way too much mermaid memorabilia now.
Was the road to publication bumpy or smooth?
Both! The tagline on our blog is, "The road to publication isn't easy. It's kind of like a churro . . . long and bumpy, but sweet." And that has definitely been true. Along the way, my manuscripts have won a lot of writing contests. But with each win, I assumed publication was right around the corner. Silly me! There was a time when I became so frustrated that I almost gave up. I figured there had to be another outlet for my creativity. But when I told my wife, she started crying because she knew it amounted to giving up on my dream. So I promised to stick with it, mainly because I've never been able to handle seeing her cry. And eight months later, I sold this book. (I told you my wife was the smart one, right?) To go along with your lucky number thirteen idea, Thirteen Reasons Why will be released thirteen years after I decided to become an author.
Normally, I ask folks to list their top ten favorite books. Would you like to list thirteen?
I can't think of any reasons why not (told you I like puns)!
- The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
- The Mad Scientists' Club by Bertrand R. Brinley
- Stotan! by Chris Crutcher
- M is for Monster by Mel Gilden
- Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
- Jake, Reinvented by Gordon Korman
- Vegan Virgin Valentine by Carolyn Mackler
- The Secret Life of the Underwear Champ by Betty Miles
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
- There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar
- Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol
- Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
- The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone