“13 Reasons Why” you should have met Jay Asher


Courtesy of Lauren Walker

Lauren Edelman, Online Editor

      Danville bookstore, Rakestraw Books, invited Jay Asher to Monte Vista and hosted the event in the Workday Student Center on November 2.  To celebrate Asher’s first publishing in six years, students attended the event thinking he would solely discuss his new book, What Light, but Asher shared an assortment of insight from all three of his books, past life experiences, and future works.

Details about new book, What Light

  • As explained in the printed paper, What Light has a different approach to romance than 13 Reasons Why, as the book focuses on a high school teenager, Sierra, whose parents own a tree Christmas tree lot in Oregon, but for a month of the year, she must go to desert her life in order to accompany her family to sell trees in California.  Due to traveling for a short amount of time, Sierra doesn’t want to become romantically involved, yet she falls for Caleb, a California teenager with a troubled past.  Although her friends believe she shouldn’t fall for a guy with a programmatic background, Asher gives the story an uplifting tone due to Sierra’s acceptance of Caleb in the present rather than holding him to his past.

Details of the 13 Reasons Why Netflix Original series

  • As expected, Asher had interests right away from different producers for a 13 Reasons Why Movie.  He would meet with them and see their vision, but often had to say “no” because there was always something that he would disagree on. Then Selena Gomez reached out so she could share her intention for a movie.  After bonding over a sushi dinner, he realized that she understood exactly what he wanted to do and unlike some other producers, wanted him to be a direct role in the movie production.  However, they both realized that it was hard to pull out every detail in a two hour movie until they discovered that Netflix was doing original television series.  As a result, 13 Reasons Why became a 13 part mini-series which Asher believed was the “best way to do it” since it allowed the characters to develop better and add new scenes that weren’t included in the book (compared to typical movies which have to take out scenes due to time restrictions and flow).
  • Asher explained his amazement of all the little details put into the series, most specifically the Monet’s Garden Cafe which was built just for filming purposes in Vallejo.  Make sure to look out for it in the first scene of the first episode when it airs!
  • The series was filmed in various areas from San Rafael up to high school in Sebastopol.  Filming will be completed in December, but Asher still has to decide if he wants have a cameo in the series or not (even though many of his friends, family, and coworkers from his publisher are in it!).  13 Reasons Why will be released in March 2017.
  • Asher has written other screenplays as well and in the future, he hopes to work with producers to put them to action.

All about Future of Us

  • Future of Us was cowritten with Carolyn Mackler (who is most commonly known for her book, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Round Things, which won a honorable mention for the Michael L. Printz Award) where “every sentence of book touched by [both authors]” because they divided it up by chapters and heavily edited each other so they both would be completely happy with book.  
  • The story is about two characters in 1976 who are able to see 15 years ahead of their future by the internet.  Even though social media wasn’t around, they use it as the “future telling” device.  It also allowed them to give commentary on social media from the perspective of someone who didn’t know what it was.  They came up with this idea by a discussion of their past relationship problems and would remember thinking that they probably didn’t know person they were going to end up with.  They dug deeper into the concept by wondering how those relationships affected them now. The book took eight months to write.
  • Asher and Mackler actually sold movie rights to Warner Brothers, but he never carried through with it (because he didn’t “love” the script), but he is considering restarting to work on it.

Inspiration of 13 Reasons Why

  • In Las Vegas, Asher took his first audio tour of an exhibit of King Tut’s tomb.  With the intention of learning more about Ancient Egyptian history (a subject he’s always had an interest in), he came out with new discovery: the inspiration for 13 Reasons Why.  “It was at the end of that tour when I thought, ‘I want to set up a book like that’,” Asher said.  “I knew one day I would write a book with two simultaneous characters with the thoughts of someone recording and the thoughts of someone listening.”
  • The inspiration of the main character, Hannah Baker, came from a close relative that attempted suicide as a junior in high school.  He talked to her a lot about the experience and gained a deeper understanding of the subject therefore felt comfortable to write it. Hannah isn’t a based or a direct representation of his relative, but he used her as a way to inspire and give the readers a greater influence.
  • Even though Asher thinks that if he’d known the novel would have taken three years to write, he would have chosen fewer reasons, but he gave Hannah the last name “Baker” because of a baker’s dozen (13 goods) which shows his enjoyment of puns. He joked that he could have called her “Hannah Six” so he wouldn’t need so many reasons.
  • He even wanted to originally name the book “Baker’s Dozen” and was proud of his creativity, but the realized that it wasn’t as genius as he thought (according to his publishers, it was a “lame title”). They came up with “13 Reasons Why” which confused Asher because he didn’t understand that it created suspense of what the 13 reasons were about.

Processes of writing his books

  • Asher knows that writing is a long process that can either exhaust or excite himself based on the scene he’s writing. “If it’s a deep, serious scene it really does exhaust you because of the emotions, but at the same time if I’m working on a scene that’s really fun…I feel energized afterward.” Yet, he is always considering the opinion of the audience because even though he understands his writing, he wants to ensure that all the readers will comprehend his work and see from his point of view.  Asher does this by making his books plot based rather than character based because it allows the characters drive the story and grow with the story.
  • However, Asher still shares the largest difficulty high school students have when writing: writer’s block. “Most writers will make themselves write,” Asher said. “I try but it never works, it just sounds so forced and you can’t fix it. If I’m bored or not excited, I just won’t work on it and then work on something else that has a different tone that will eventually get me excited.”

Not all symbolism is on purpose

  • Asher mentioned that on some of his book tours, several students picked up on symbolism and rhetorical devices in some novels, especially 13 Reasons Why. However, he realized that he didn’t purposely add them in, but would sometimes tweak different scenes to make similarities between them.  “Usually when using symbolism, you don’t want to make it a conscious thing, but consciously [the readers] make that connection to make the scenes mean more.”  He understands that with every decision he made in the book there was some kind of effect, but each could have been interpreted differently.  Nevertheless, he admitted that sometimes he claimed that the symbolism was intentional to sound smart.  Mrs. Kimberly Gillis, MV English teacher, agreed on the subject that the subconscious is the symbol maker and certain objects that act as a motif. Asher commented that he’s picked up on a certain object in the story and often can’t tell if really meant to pick up on it because that object potentially meant something to himself.  He believed a strong book was one that allowed the right amount of room for interpretation, “just as you have different opinions on all people in life”.

High school life

  • In high school he was a journalist and even though he attended college to be an elementary school teacher, he dropped out of his senior year with the result of being the successful author he is today. Even though he originally didn’t love English as a high schooler, he carried along a lesson which he shared with MV students about the power students can have with a pen and paper.
  • In high school, Asher was a journalist for the newspaper with the job of reviewing recent music.  He learned from his teacher that “Whenever we sat down to write, if published our words are going to be read by other people, which mean our words have power, our words could affect all people’s lives through perspectives, and in this case [regarding the music review] how people spend money.  She wanted us all to remember that when we sat down to write.”

Life in college to the time of releasing first novel

  • Asher attended college to be an Elementary school teacher and children’s book author, but never got his degree due to his involvement in writing.  12 years ago, he planned on taking a year off to focus on writing and then return for his final year to finish, but due to his success, he still hasn’t returned.

Reactions to success of books

  • “To be honest, I didn’t think when I published 13 Reasons Why it would be successful, but I thought there would be a small group of people that really liked it,” Asher said, but jokingly added, “I didn’t tell my publishers that when they bought it.”  
  • During the event, Asher explained that the success of 13 Reasons Why has been “amazing and way beyond the scope of success” he imagined; it can even come to the point where it is overwhelming. When writing, Asher says he feels pressure because he doesn’t want to disappoint the reader or publisher since he knows they will naturally compare it to his other novel.  Yet, he understands that 13 Reasons Why will always be his phenomenon. “I’ll never do anything that probably sells as well or means as much to so many people and I’m fine with that,” Asher said. “I’m lucky to write [a novel] like that that brings attention to [Asher’s] other books.”

What would you tell your younger self?

  • Asher explained that in high school, he was “super” shy so if he was to see himself as a writer, he would associate it with staying in an office and not socializing with other people.  “I know that if my younger self stumbled onto facebook now and saw myself speaking, I would be like ‘dude there’s no way I’m going to be a writer’ because it would freak me out,” Asher said.
  • Even as a writer now, Asher explained that his favorite part isn’t the actual “writing part” because it’s hard.  He loves that he gets to travel around the US and meet people that have been affected by his books.

Do you feel like you can improve as a writer? What is the hardest part about writing?

  • “I think you always improve, just naturally.  The more you write, the better you become,” Asher said.  “I can look back as a writer at the earlier stuff that I didn’t sell and still think there were some cool ideas but I’m hopefully a better writer and I were to go back and revise them then hopefully I could revise them.  I think it also has to be an idea you’re passionate about because that will want to make you want to write more.”
  • “In my head, there’s a scene and I see it then I’m like ‘how do i get it on paper where it’s just words?’” Asher admitted.  However, he stated that dialogue was contradicting because it came naturally.  The description could be argued as the most important part of the story, but he said that it was more time consuming. “t’s getting the description down to a point where it doesn’t drag, but also gets across exactly what I’m saying, so being precise with words.”

Topics were intriguing and entertaining

  • “I thought 13 reasons why was a really interesting and captivating novel, it was a well written book that was able to shine light on a touchy subject,” Junior Karalyn Sawchuk said, “I was surprised to find out that Jay Asher was not very interested in English courses and writing while in high school yet eventually became an author.”
  • “I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It was interesting to hear the thought process behind Jay Asher’s books and his inspiration to write them,” Sophomore Lily Arabaragi said. “I’d love to eventually read 13 Reasons Why and What Light.”

Extra Credit

  • Several English teachers were offering students a few points if they stayed for the entire event and got a selfie with Asher. More than half of the students that attended came for the extra points and hadn’t read any of his books, yet several left with at least one copy of the three novels therefore showing that Asher’s presentation/discussion was a success.