People who know me on a surface level are always surprised to hear me say that I’m an introvert. But I am (I’ve just become adept at hiding it. Thanks, theatre!), and because of that, I’m not a fan of going to events without knowing that a friend will also be there. I have no problem eating lunch or even going to a movie or a show by myself, but I somehow always manage to talk myself out of going to hear people I really want to see – authors, politicians, etc. – because of this hangup I have. Usually my FOMO (fear of missing out) kicks in when I see others’ photos, and I ultimately regret not making myself go. That’s why I refused to talk myself out of going to see Jay Asher at our local library last month, and I am SO glad!
When 13 Reasons Why first came out, I was pretty deep in the vampire genre, so it took a few years and a lot of hype before I read it. Once I did, I was just as moved as everyone else. I immediately wished the book had been out while I was teaching high school DOP, though I know I would have had to fight tooth and nail to have taught the book. I thought of a friend who had blamed me for her suicidal thoughts when we were growing up. I thought of countless students who struggled with bullying on a daily basis. The book, and its lesson, that words matter, stayed with me for years. After reading The Future of Us a few years later, I became a self-proclaimed Jay Asher fan.
Surprisingly funny and incredibly humble, Jay Asher stood before a room full of people of all ages and shared the story of his journey to becoming a published author. He never set out to write serious, issue-laden books; he spent the better part of a decade trying to publish humorous children’s books. He explained that 13 Reasons Why resulted from the marriage of two experiences that happened years apart. The idea for the narrative came first when Asher took his first self-guided audio tour. It struck him that alternating between audio narration and the thoughts of the listener would be an interesting – and unique – way of telling a story. He explained that he didn’t want to use this narrative style as a gimmick and thus sat on the idea until the right story presented itself, which it did several years later when a relative of his attempted suicide. After the inspiration struck to marry these ideas and write, as he had titled the book, Baker’s Dozen (and he had the blessing of his aforementioned relative), he realized that he didn’t know what it was like to be a teenage girl. He invited his wife and a few other women over to talk about their experiences, and he was struck by the similarities of the hardships they endured and how they stuck with the women through all these years.
It took Asher three years to write the book. And it was rejected 12 times.
A young girl in the audience asked how Asher felt about the controversy surrounding his novel, and now the Netflix series. He pointed out that the only way to avoid controversy is to not write the book. He said that based on the number of emails he’s received – from teens who credit the book with saving their lives because it was the first time they realized they weren’t alone; from teens who said the book made them reach out to someone who was struggling; from teens who said they saw themselves in the antagonists and vowed to change – the positive impact trumps the controversy. Even Asher’s relative, the one who inspired him to write the book in the first place, said that she wished his book had been around when she was struggling with suicidal thoughts, but if she had to go through her experience for Asher to write the story and help so many, it was worth it.
It was this kind of feedback at an appearance that inspired part of Asher’s latest novel What Light. The male teen was moved to change after reading 13 Reasons Why, but everyone treated him like he was still his former self.
As an incredibly amateur writer myself, it was fascinating to hear how Asher’s ideas for his stories developed over time and from multiple sources of inspiration. It was also interesting to hear that he doesn’t write in a bubble: He sent a draft of 13 Reasons Why to five different people for very different types of feedback; and when he was stuck on a character’s backstory for What Light, he talked it out with a writer friend during a walk. Much in the fashion of his stories, Jay Asher provided solid advice within the narrative of his publishing journey with refreshing honesty and humor.
After the talk (that I would have gladly listened to for at least another hour), it was book signing time. When the long line dwindled and it was my turn to speak with Jay Asher and get my two books signed, I didn’t tell him about the impact 13 Reasons Why had on me. It seemed trite compared to the girl who a few minutes prior had sobbed that his book saved her life. I instead told him how much I loved The Future of Us – that being a junior in high school in 1996, when the story took place, made the book delightfully nostalgic for me to read. He said that he was in college in 1996 and remembered that his first internet search was Def Leppard. It makes me wonder what mine was…
Getting to hear Jay Asher in person was a definite highlight for me. I look forward to the stories he has to offer in the future.