Friday, January 14, 2011

Interview with Jay Asher!

I recently had the opportunity to interview Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill/Penguin, Fall 2007).  If you haven't read this book yet, you should definitely check it out.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a suspenseful, thought-provoking novel that tackles the tough subject of teen suicide and the idea that you never really know what’s going on in anyone’s life but your own. In this book, a teenager decides to take her own life. Instead of leaving a suicide note, she records thirteen stories about thirteen people who pushed her toward that decision. She then mails the tapes to the first person on her list, and the story unfolds. Thirteen Reasons Why has won numerous awards and was on The New York Times Best Seller list for 65 weeks!

Jay, thank you so much for this interview. Many of your fans have shared that after reading your book, they thought a lot more about always treating people with respect because you never know what others are dealing with. I love the quote from one of your fans that said your book made her want to be “wonderful to everyone.”

When you set out to write this story, did you plan to have such a strong message from the start? Or did the story line come first?

The story came first, and if a decision ever had to be made regarding story versus message, story always won out. The entire time I was writing this book, I had the fear that if the message ever dominated, a good chunk of readers would close the book because it would sound too preachy. People don't read novels to be preached at, they want to be told an entertaining story. I was also afraid the story would become too sad for anyone to want to finish, so I focused heavily on creating suspense. Story and suspense, that's what I focused on. Because of the premise of my book, I knew the message would be fairly obvious, so my job was simply to keep the readers flipping those pages faster and faster.

Did you ever imagine that your book would be embraced the way that it has? What were your hopes for this book, and have your expectations been met?

I thought the book would sell fairly well if teens were made aware it, because I thought it would be something they'd go and tell their friends about. But there's always the fear that bookstores and libraries, for whatever reason, won't stock your book and teens won't even know it's out there. Thankfully, we always had such amazing support from booksellers and librarians. But no, I never imagined it would take off the way it has. I thought it could be an underground word-of mouth hit, but I never imagined it would get onto the NY Times list for even one week (it stayed on for 65). I never imagined that counselors and psychiatrists would use the book in their professions, or that teens would claim it saved their lives. Because of all of that, this book went way beyond anything I could've expected.

How do you stay so in tune with what teens are going through – especially teen girls? Any research techniques that helped you with that?

Basically, I have the philosophy that adults and teens aren't very different at all. Adults have learned more ways to handle situations, but our initial gut reactions are extremely similar. The same thing goes for males and females. Society gives us different roles for how to act in situations, but I think our emotions are fairly similar. So I never said "If I were still a teen..." or "If I were female...", but instead "If I were in this person's shoes today..."

You invested 12 years of writing and submitting your work before this first book was sold – with a few close calls in between. When you finally received “the call” from your agent offering representation, and then “the call” about the book being sold, what was that like? What did you do first?

I'd had three previous agents over those twelve years, so getting the call that my agent wanted to represent me wasn't as "big moment" as the call from my first agent, but that's because I knew that having an agent doesn't necessarily mean I was going to sell anything. The fact that it was Laura Rennert made me feel like I'd stepped into the big leagues, though. I mean, she represents Ellen Hopkins! My phone was turned off when she called to say a publisher was interested, and that actually added an interesting twist because when I finally turned on my phone, my agent had then left two messages. Soon after her first message, she called back to say another publisher was interested. Two publishers? Awesome! After work that day, I took my wife to the same spot where we got married to let her know that I sold my first book, and we both streamed joyous tears for a very long time.

You’ve mentioned that the manuscript was rejected at several houses prior to being sold; did you ever worry that it wouldn’t sell? How long did it take to find the right house?

After twelve years, I was numb to rejections. Whenever another house rejected me, my feeling was, "Of course they did." Oddly enough, earlier that year, I told my wife that if this book didn't sell, I was going to stop writing. Twelve years was my limit. Looking back, I'm glad I didn't reach my limit at eleven years! We ended up having three publishers bidding on my book, so I spoke with all three editors on the phone (not at the same time), and that's what made me know that Razorbill was the perfect house for Thirteen Reasons Why. And I was right!

At one time you wanted to be a screenwriter, how do you think your book would translate into a movie?

Whenever I write, I think in cinematic terms. I picture each scene as if it's playing on a movie screen, visualizing what it looks like when the scene begins and ends, and what details the camera focuses on. A couple of the first big reviews I got even used the word "cinematic", which made me smile. I think it would translate very well to the screen as long as they get the tone right.

In your lifetime, what would you like to accomplish with your writing? What would you personally define “success” as a writer?

I've always wanted write a book that a lot of people really enjoy, and this book accomplished that. But to know that I've written something that personally touched and inspired so many people, that's the kind of success I never expected. And I feel comfortable saying that it's the very best kind.

Jay, thank you so much for your time and for your fabulous novel. Congratulations on all of your success so far - and big congrats to you and your wife on the arrival of your beautiful son this past month. You will make a wonderful father. I wish you all the best!

You can visit Jay at
Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville is featuring Thirteen Reasons Why this March in their “Not for Kids Only” Book Group. You won’t want to miss it!


  1. Oh how timely, Cathy. I'm going to hold off on reading your interview until after I've read the book. I'll share the link with the other members of the "Not for Kids Only" book group.
    Thanks for this!

  2. Thanks so much Carmela. Can't wait for you to read the book.

  3. This interview definitely peeked my interest in "Thirteen Reasons Why." I am going to go out and buy the book, read it, and then share it with my thirteen-year-old daughter!

  4. Thanks Michelle. I know that your daughter - and all of her friends - will LOVE it! So will you. Have a great day.