Interview With Jay Asher

*This interview first appeared in SLO NightWriters Newsletter

Jay Asher is an American writer of contemporary novels for teens. He has published two books to date. In Thirteen Reasons Why (a 2007 New York Times best-selling young-adult fiction novel), Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package 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. Hannah's voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life.Universal Studios purchased film rights to the novel on February 8, 2011, with Selena Gomez cast to play the lead role of Hannah Baker. In The Future of Us, co written by Carolyn Mackler, Emma and her best friend Josh log on to the Internet in 1996 and discover themselves fifteen years in the future on Facebook, before it was even invented. The Film option rights for the a movie version of the book has been sold to Warner Bros. I met with Jay in one of the San Luis Obispo cafes in which he frequently writes.

If I did my writing in a coffee shop I'd eat lots of pastries and do not much else.
Oh, I do too. I did most of the editing of my second book at SLO Donut Company, eating 2-3 donuts every night. Right after the book got finished, I flew to New York and while I was there the Entertainment Weekly was going to do a feature article on me. They had a professional photographer who was going to photograph me. Of course this was after I had been eating donuts every night for three months straight, not going to the gym, and this was the biggest thing that was ever going to happen to me.

What was your dream job when you were a child?
I always wanted to do something creative. I wanted to be an elementary school teacher or a cartoonist or an animator. Walt Disney was one of my heroes. Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts was another one. It wasn't until college that I decided to write children's books.

You wanted to write funny children's books and ended up writing Thirteen Reasons Why – how?
The time when I loved reading the most was when I was in elementary school and what I liked to read were funny books. When I started writing, I was writing picture books and books for third and fourth graders. But then the idea for Thirteen Reasons Why came to me and it was the first book to sell.

You got the idea for Thirteen Reasons Why because a member of your family attempted a suicide. Once the book got out you started participating in raising suicide and anti-bullying awareness.
After the book came out, I started getting asked to speak at different panels. At first it felt strange because I didn't think I had any expertise on the subject – I just wrote a book from my personal understanding. But I learned from the feedback I got that I could show others the importance of reaching out, the importance of being there for those who needed help. My readers connected with the book because they suddenly felt that they were not alone, that somebody understood them. Hearing my readers' stories is still very emotional and a great honor to me.

Do you ever feel that you were put in a box because of this book and can't get out?
I really struggled with that. I wrote about a third of another teen book that was not going to be that serious, but I was speaking at these suicide awareness events and it terrified me that people have certain expectations that are so different from what I wanted to write about. For two years I stopped writing completely. I couldn't even look at my old files. It wasn't until Carolyn Mackler contacted me and asked me to co-write the Future of Us with her that I finally started writing again. I realized nobody is going to see this book as a direct follow up to Thirteen Reasons Why, because it wasn't mine. But still, the expectations were there. As soon as people heard the plot involved social media, they assumed I was going to address online bullying.

Thirteen Reasons Why describes American high school. The book was published in 31 other countries. Do you get feedback that implies this is an American experience only?
I have heard from readers from other countries who said it felt like it was about an American town but they also said the emotions were the same. When I was writing the book I never even thought about it being translated to different languages. When Clay goes to a coffee shop, he orders a cup of coffee called “hairy chest blend”. It is supposed to reflect that he wants something strong and caffeinated. But then a Japanese translator called me and when I explained what I meant with the name, he said: “Well, not many men in Japan have hairy chests, so if it's not an actual type of coffee, let's change the name'”. Very often the references that are specific for the United States ended up being explained in the footnotes in translations, which I don't like because I think it takes readers out of the story.

I imagine some people say Hanna's experience is unrealistic.
Yes, they often say “some of the stuff that happened to her happened to me and I dealt with it”. That's basically saying if I can do it, anybody can do it, but we know that's not the case. Some people are just more sensitive than others. Should they be able to deal with it? Yes, but we also know suicides happen and they never should. It's never the best solution.

Have you received negative reviews that you have learned from?
I feel arrogant saying no, but I really haven't. Some people don't receive the book well, but things that don't work for them work really well for other people. It's always a trade off. There are certain things in the book that some people don't understand, or take the wrong way and with those it is tempting to say “OK, let me clarify it”. But there are also people who completely got what you meant and if you clarify it, it's not going to be as powerful for them. It was a lesson I had to learn - some people just aren't going to get your book.

What do you do when you're not working?
I love traveling and I love speaking, so I always say yes when asked to speak. Otherwise, it's just raising my son and hanging out with my family. It's funny, because before I got published and people asked what did I do for fun, I'd say I write. Now that it's my job, it feels like writing is not the right answer anymore.

Is it still fun then?
I always thought that brainstorming was fun. I take a lot of time just thinking about the book and make notes, but writing itself really isn't fun for me. I pretty much hate writing (laugh). What I like is thinking about the book.

So you like being an architect of the story, but unfortunately also have to be the builder.
Yes, yes, pretty much. I love the architecture side – creating the story. When it comes to the actual writing I am easily discouraged. I prefer to edit as I go and make my writing as perfect as I can, so when I send it out the response I get is: “This is great! Here are a few changes you want to make”. I don't know what I would do if the publisher said we're going to take out the first half of the book and redo that and that. I'd feel horrible.

I have heard from many writers that the best way to write is to just sit down and turn off your inner editor. You can fix your draft later.
That's what I had to learn – that every writer is different. I tried it with my second book, one that never got published. There was a deadline – first draft had to be returned on this date and the second on this date. So I tried to do that and it completely froze me. I did the outline, which I had never done before. I would try to write fast and I would look back and say this isn't good, and I couldn't see it being good because I didn't spend time with it. I just had to learn that maybe that's how other writers do it, but I just couldn't work like that. I have to write when I am inspired. Everything that I wrote I wrote when I was inspired. It's learning the tricks of what works for you and learning about what doesn't work.

What are your future projects?
The whole idea of expectations freaks me out, so I always try to be very vague. I just finished a screenplay. I wrote it with a friend. I am revising one of the funny children's books I wrote earlier. I like working on several things at once. When I am working on several things that nobody is waiting for, nobody knows I am working on, then it makes the act of being a writer more fun again.

For more information about Jay Asher's books, speaker schedule, list of events and more, please visit his web-site

This interview first appeared on SLO NightWriters web-site:


  1. I'm really interested in checking out his book now!