Monday, July 4, 2011

Talking with Writer Jay Asher, Author of Th1rteen R3asons Why

Jay Asher’s Th1rteen R3asons Why recently came out in paperback, after being honored by not only “best seller” status as a hardback, but also honored by many awards for excellence in YA literature.

Clay receives a package in the mail – a box full of cassette tapes with no return address. He listens to Hannah’s story. Her decision to kill herself, and the reasons why she decided suicide was the only answer.

I won’t be able to give the power and grace of the story any further justice…so I’d like to introduce Jay Asher. He was generous enough to take some time to do a Carpe Keyboard interview this month. Welcome, Jay ---
 

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Carpe Keyboard: Wow. All I can say is wow. Th1rteen R3asons Why is one of the few books I’ve read this year that has given me chills from beginning to end. Congratulations on your skill – and on getting this amazing story published. Your website lists about 15 (did I count that right?) awards for this book. What are you? Some kind of super writer? Did you channel teenagers day and night while you wrote? I think you need your own theme song. And maybe a cape.


Jay Asher: I would love a theme song! But it'd be slightly embarrassing if they played it before book signings or school presentations. Maybe it should just come on when I open my front door and head out into the world. Yes, that would definitely be cool! But I've never been a cape person. They snag too easily.


The voices you write for both Clay and Hannah are eerily genuine. I felt like I could hear Hannah’s voice on those tapes. Any advice on achieving such pitch perfect voice? Clues? Hints?


Those voices just came to me the moment I started writing. They felt real, so the object was then to get out of their way and let them talk. Sometimes they said things I didn't quite understand, yet sounded genuine, so I kept those lines in. More often than not, those lines became clearer as the story moved along.


One of my favorite details of this book is how you tell Hannah’s story using her distinct voice, but we also get to see Clay’s reactions – Clay’s version, in some instances – of the same events. Why did you choose to have a female character commit suicide, but have a boy character so poignantly receive her story?


My personal understanding of suicide came when a close relative of mine attempted suicide. She was a junior in high school, like Hannah. I'm sure that's why the suicidal character first appeared to me as a female. Then I did some research and found that most people who attempt suicide are female, so I decided to keep the character as I originally envisioned her. Since so much of the dual-narration goes back and forth fairly rapidly, I thought it'd be easiest to visualize that change if the second narrator was male.


There are lots of comments and reviews posted on your website about this novel. Do you think you’ve reached young men or women who might feel like Hannah did? How does that make you feel?


I've heard from many people, teens and adults, who have felt like Hannah. Sometimes they felt like her long ago, but other times they felt like her when they picked up the book. Suicide is difficult to talk about, whether you're feeling suicidal yourself or you think someone you care about may be suicidal. Because of that difficulty, many people who contemplate suicide don't know who to open up to. So they'll pick up a book that mirrors their emotions. Over the years, I've heard from so many males and females who say the book inspired them to seek help. The first step in seeking help is acknowledging that people will understand, and even a fictional story can help people see that.


This may be too personal – but I’m going to ask anyway. Were you bullied or made fun of at any point in your life? Is there a part of you that knows, from experience, how Hannah feels? (Just so you know…as a reader, I definitely found myself remembering some of the more painful memories of high school where children aren’t children anymore and everyone can be a target. My guess is, most of your readers conjure up visceral memories as they hear Hannah’s story with Clay.)


I don't know if anyone gets through life without being bullied at least a little. So yes, I was bullied at times, but it was never too traumatic. In fact, I think I was lucky. It's weird that, since I wrote a book about teen suicide, so many people assume I must've had a difficult high school experience. Nope! I think anyone can write about anything as long as they try to understand people who had different experiences. It shouldn't be difficult to feel empathy for others.

I’ve posted here on Carpe Keyboard before about parents and their role (or lack thereof) in YA and MG books. Where the heck were Hannah’s parents? Was the choice to make them so removed from her story a conscious one? Why? 

Initially, it was due to the limitations of this particular story. It wouldn't make sense for Hannah to send the tapes to her parents, so I couldn't let her talk about them too much. But I also didn't want her parents discussed because readers (as well as the characters listening to the tapes) would've read too much into whatever she said. If I made them out to be wonderful people, the story would've been even more heartbreaking than it already is, and I had a certain level of heartbreak that I didn't want to cross. If I made them out to be monsters, then everyone would want to brush aside some of the things she talks about. They would've felt certain scenarios wouldn't have mattered so much if Hannah had a better home life. I didn't want any distractions from what Hannah was saying.


And what about Clay’s mom? She seemed sympathetic, like perhaps she knew somehow that he was going through something hard during that night. But she kept letting him lie to her – letting him distance himself when he was obviously in pain. I was glad she was in the story, but as a mother myself – I wanted to smack her in the forehead. Do you think she had to be relegated to the background in order for Clay to deal with Hannah’s story and his role in it?


Actually, more people tell me they love Clay's mom! Yes, he's lying to her, but Clay knows she's on to him. When they're in Rosie's Diner, he knows he's not getting away with it. But he also knows that his mom's there for him if he truly needs her. He knows his mom cares. I've spoken to thousands of teens since my book came out, and I think there were only three teens who ever asked, "Where were the adults?" But adults always ask that question.


When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?


I mostly write at night. When it's dark outside and it feels like the rest of the world is sleeping, that's when I feel most creative.


Finally, any advice for budding YA writers? (Not that I…ahem…know of any.)


If you're writing something serious, and you have a message you're trying to put across, don't force it. Let readers figure it out for themselves by letting them watch the good and bad things your characters do. It's always more powerful when an author makes you feel something rather than tells you something.

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Thanks very much, Mr. Asher, for taking the time to share some of your insights and writer’s story with Carpe Keyboard. And congrats again on the success of Th1rteen R3asons Why in paperback!

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this review! Just ordered the book from my library.

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  2. Wow, what a great interview. This book sounds really powerful. I can see why it won so many awards.

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  3. A very nice interview, Karen. I've read the book and enjoyed it so much. It's sad that young people feel their lives are not worth living. As a former teacher, I know how often this happens.
    Thanks for a great book, Jay.

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  4. Great interview, Karen! I read Thirteen Reasons Why awhile back and it was a truly fantastic read. I can see why it has become the inspiration it has for young people. It definitely deserves all those awards :)

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  5. Awesome interview to both of you. I can't wait to read the book

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  6. Great interview. I was fortunate to hear Jay Asher speak at a SCBWI conference recently, and was riveted by the story of his road to publication. He followed a long path to the finish line -- but oh, what a finish!

    The accolades for 13 Reasons are well deserved indeed.

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  7. Great interview. I love this book. It is one of my all time favorites.

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  8. I've heard so much about this book, I have to read it!

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