Interview with Jay Asher, NY Times Bestselling Author of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jamie BlairJuly 13, 2009
I’m a big fan of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. To me, it explores teen suicide on a basic, everyday level, and leaves the reader thinking about how their actions can impact other people in unintended ways. For anyone who hasn’t yet read it, you should – go get it now, then come back and read this interview.
Second, here’s a synopsis from the books website. http://www.thirteenreasonswhy.com
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out how he made the list. Through Hannah and Clay’s dual narratives, debut author Jay Asher weaves an intricate and heartrending story of confusion and desperation that will deeply affect teen readers.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with OPWFT, Jay. We’ll start with questions about the book for the fans.
Q: What inspired you to write THIRTEEN REASONS WHY?
A: After taking an audiotour through a King Tut’s tomb mock-up, I spent several years trying to come up with a story told in an audiotour format. But I was only interested in writing humorous books at the time and couldn’t come up with a funny idea where that format was necessary rather than just a gimmick. About that same time, a close relative of mine attempted suicide. Talking with her over the years about what led to her decision was very eye-opening, but it took nine years before that subject matter clicked with the audio idea.
Q: Is there a part of the teenage Jay Asher in Clay Jensen? Did you know a girl like Hannah in high school? How do we see your teenage experience reflected in your characters?
A: Personality-wise, I was a lot like Clay in high school. And like Clay, I hardly went to any parties, though I wasn’t anywhere close to being valedictorian. I’m sure I knew plenty of girls like Hannah in high school, but I had no idea who they were…which is a big part of what I was trying to say with the book. People can appear one way, but have a lot more going on in their lives than we know about. And I wouldn’t say my teen years are represented in the book very much. When I began writing, I talked to a lot of my friends about their teen years, and those (much more interesting) years are what you’ll find in the book.
Q: What is your favorite scene in THIRTEEN REASONS WHY?
A: My answer to that question changes periodically. For pure creepiness, I like the scene where Hannah’s outside the Peeping Tom’s window. I like the subtlety in the interaction between Clay and his mom at the diner. But my favorite scene to write was the one where Hannah and Clay kiss. The kiss didn’t last long, but after everything I’d put them through…and was about to put them through…I really wanted that moment to last forever.
Q: How much research on teen suicide did you do before writing THIRTEEN REASONS WHY?
A: Not very much scholarly research. I talked extensively to my relative about her frame of mind leading up to her attempt, and I went to a couple suicide prevention forums (which I’m now a featured speaker at!). I simply began writing when I felt I understood the emotions and the point-of-view of someone like Hannah enough to tell her story confidently. I wanted the story to be led by her as a full character rather than a bunch of research. But after I wrote a draft, then I read books on teen suicide, spent many hours doing online research, and went back to enhance certain aspects of the story.
Q: What is the message you would like your readers to take from your book?
A: Primarily, the book’s about the small things we do that impact the lives of others. And since we don’t fully know what’s going on in anyone’s life but our own, there’s no way to know exactly how they’re going to be affected by what we do. It was also important to show that Hannah didn’t do everything she should have to get the help she needed. I hear from a lot of teens in Hannah’s position who say they were inspired to get help because they recognized they were making the same mistakes as Hannah.
Q: What do you have up your sleeve next for our reading pleasure?
A: A secret!
For fellow writers, I’d like to ask about your journey to publication and writing style.
Q: How long have you been writing? Was THIRTEEN REASONS WHY the first manuscript you completed and queried to agents?
A: It was far from my first completed manuscript. From the time I began submitting to when I finally sold something, twelve years had passed…and three agents had come and gone. But this was my first teen novel, as well as my first non-humorous manuscript, so I think I stumbled around until I found my voice with this book.
Q: Do you outline or wing it?
A: I wing it. Winging it can be scary, but I’ve tried outlining and I find it way too stifling. A lot of my favorite moments in THIRTEEN REASONS WHY came when my characters drifted far from where I thought they were heading. I usually have an idea where the book will end up and a few major points I want to hit, but other than that, I just want to know one scene ahead of where I am.
Q: Do you prefer to write in first person or third? Present or past tense? Why?
A: I prefer third person in the past tense, but THIRTEEN REASONS WHY was told with simultaneous first-person narrators speaking in the present tense. I guess you should just do whatever the story needs as opposed to what you’re comfortable with. But my favorite books growing up were third-person, so that’s what always sounds most natural to me…at least in the early stages of an idea.
Q: Did you or do you have a critique group? Do you see a benefit in having one?
A: I was in a critique group for many years and it helped tremendously. If you want to be published, it’s so important to realize that when people read your words, you won’t be there to stand up in their defense if people misread what you were trying to say. That said, no one read more than the first ten pages of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY until it was finished. Because of its unusual structure, I needed complete freedom to make plenty of mistakes before showing it to anyone. But I had four sets of trusted eyes read it before sending it off to agents.
Q: Writers sometimes struggle with bad habits, like using too many adverbs, or passive verbs. Do you catch yourself having a writing habit that you try to break?
A: Not much anymore. My critique group beat my most severe bad habits out of me. They taught me to reorganize my sentences so they don’t all sound the same. I was horrible with that one!
Q: Do you edit while writing, or leave editing until after the first draft?
A: I edit like crazy as I go. If I can’t go back to any page of my manuscript at any time and be satisfied, I get very discouraged. So by the time I finish what you’d call a first draft, it’s fairly polished.
Q: Best piece of advice for aspiring authors?
A: Join a critique group. You want one that’s honest and made up of people with similar goals. If they enjoy writing but don’t absolutely want to get published, they’re not going to push you as hard as a group of writers battling to be the first one published. But they should also be extremely supportive, and it helps if someone in the group bakes cookies!
Q: What professional organizations are you a member of?
A: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. SCBWI. Love ’em!
Q: What kind of networking do you do, and how do you interact with your readers?
A: There’s a website for my novel, set up by my publisher (www.thirteenreasonswhy.com), and a lot of people leave comments there. I also have a blog (www.jayasher.blogspot.com). But most of my interactions come from my MySpace page (www.myspace.com/jay_asher). My favorite part of every day is when I check my MySpace mailbox. I get messages from teens and librarians all over the world…and I answer every one, unless they have a blocked account. (Note: if you ask for a response, UNBLOCK YOUR ACCOUNT!!!). And I absolutely love doing school visits. The face-to-face interaction is amazing.
Just for the fun of it…
Q: What is your favorite color?
A: Purple. Truthfully, I don’t have a favorite color. But the last time I did, when I was a kid, it was purple. So let’s stick with purple.
Q: Favorite flavor of ice cream?
A: Chubby Hubby by Ben & Jerry. If you’re not careful, it’s definitely a case of truth in advertising.
Q: Mexican, Italian or something else?
A: Italian. My first girlfriend’s grandparent’s owned an Italian restaurant. I didn’t know that when we began dating, but it was an added bonus for sure!
Thanks again for talking with us! We look forward to many more Jay Asher books lining the shelves in our Borders and Barnes and Noble stores in the future. Congrats on the success of your book.