“Thirteen Reasons Why” author says: We had to show it
Jay Asher, author of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” came to the Gaston County Public Library in mid-June to talk about his New York Times bestseller-turned-Netflix-hit-series – and gave his answer to the question that has continued to rocket around the internet:
Why did the series show the suicide and sexual assault so vividly?
Asher’s 2007 novel tells the story of a girl named Hannah Baker, who commits suicide after recording 13 audiotapes. The story is told through the perspective of Hannah’s tapes, and through Clay Jensen, a boy who knew Hannah. The book, and 2017 TV series, began nationwide discussions about suicide, mental health, bullying and sexual assault. Many praise the story for bringing up tough issues that people tend to avoid talking about. Others worry that the novel and the show “glorify” suicide.
Asher’s visit capped the library’s series called “1000 Reasons Why You Matter”: Beginning in April, library staff handed out 570 copies of the book to teens and held three discussions, at different branches.
We’re used to, when it comes to sexual assault or suicide, things happening in another room. Or things going black at that point. We’re more comfortable with that.
Asher answered some Observer questions before his talk (and he admitted that although he has traveled all over the country for his book, he still gets nervous before speaking at book signings). This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did your initial idea for the novel evolve as you wrote it?
The idea came 10 years after I had a close relative who attempted suicide, and she was the same age as Hannah: She was a junior in high school. I had never thought I would write about that subject matter. But when the idea for the book came to me, I obviously understood it from a certain perspective and felt it was very important to talk about this stuff. With my relative, part of the issue was that while she was dealing with a lot, she also didn’t hear people talking about this stuff. So she didn’t feel confident in reaching out, that anybody was going to understand. So it made me feel like, yeah, you’re writing about very sensitive issues, but that’s why we need to talk about it: Because it’s hard to.
It was a very conscious choice not to talk about mental health. One of the things I was trying to get across was that you don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives ... So when we treat people a certain way, there’s no way to know how they’re gonna take it...
You mentioned your family member who attempted suicide. How do you think that shaped your perspective?
I don’t know how much thought I put into depression or suicide before that happened. For me it seemed like something that happened out of the blue ... So it was very eye-opening, that even people that we assume somewhat have it together at least can be in a very dark place. Which was definitely the inspiration of making Hannah somebody who, unless you really knew her, you would probably think, “I think things are OK.”
Talking to (my relative) over the years, as she was getting better ... there were bad things but she wasn’t thinking rationally a lot of times. She wasn’t seeing things from different perspectives. And it’s important to try to understand even your own emotions from different perspectives. I try to give Hannah’s character that same thing: She’s being honest but she’s also not seeing things from different people’s perspectives.
People have noted that mental health support isn’t really mentioned in the show. What would you say was Hannah’s mental state in the novel?
It was a very conscious choice not to talk about mental health. One of the things I was trying to get across was that you don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives – anybody’s life. One, you don’t know what else they’ve dealt with, but you also don’t know any psychological issues they may have. So when we treat people a certain way, there’s no way to know how they’re gonna take it ... I think people would have dismissed things more if I defined what specifically was going wrong.
Were there any changes in the show that you disagreed with?
No, there weren’t. I really trusted the people that were involved, partly because – starting with the producers, then Brian Yorkie, who is the show creator – a lot of them started as fans. Brian specifically started as a huge fan of the book. I met him ... and I just thought: “This is a guy who completely gets it.”
A lot of the controversy comes from when you write about things that are really uncomfortable to talk about. And the scenes, both in the book and the series, that make people the most uncomfortable are the scenes that I’ve heard the most from readers and viewers about being the most positively impactful. So to change ... I would be taking away something very positive for a lot of people.
One of those changes was that in the show Hannah slits her wrists. In the book she took pills. Can you explain that decision?
They wanted to show it as a very horrific experience. And I think the reason I chose pills in the book was going back to my relative, that’s how she did it.
You know, we’re used to, when it comes to sexual assault or suicide, things happening in another room. Or things going black at that point. We’re more comfortable with that. That’s how we’ve been doing it for so long – and yet people still then wonder why some people aren’t grasping how horrific these things are. So we felt we need to show how horrific it is, and how horrific it is to find that body when you’re the parents. Just from that, I’ve heard from so many people, from teens specifically, who say that they’ve contemplated suicide ... they’ve never really envisioned what that hurt was going to look like.
What do you say to people who say that the novel and the show glorifies suicide?
I’ve heard the same criticism as they give to the TV show, even though the TV show might show it in a completely opposite way. So if showing something is romanticizing, and not showing it is romanticizing, the problem is the issue. People are always going to say something wasn’t handled in the right way. But that’s the thing with issues like this: There is no specific right way, and because of that, people then shut down.
Fiction can be a very easy way to talk about things we don’t want to talk about.
Do you worry about what psychologists call “suicide contagion”?
That’s something that comes out of a very positive concern. You don’t want that to happen. I think that’s great that people are concerned about it. But at the same time, for the past 10 years that I’ve been doing this and hearing about that, I hear from readers literally saying, “This book saved my life. I would not be here if I hadn’t read your book.”
I understand that concern, and I think we need to talk about this stuff from all different perspectives.
An article on the Penguin Teen site said that in your original ending, Hannah lives. Could you talk more about that?
We put out just recently the 10-year anniversary [edition], which includes as one of the bonus contents, the original ending, where she lives. I did that because my relative lived. And I thought: Here’s also a great chance to show that Clay has changed as a person, and will now be somebody that’s there for her. The beautiful idea of second chances. But I was talking with my publisher, and we basically discussed a more appropriate ending: that, when you actually go through with it, there are no second chances. The idea that for everybody, no matter how isolated they feel, there’s always people they can go to – but if they don’t, they don’t get that chance. We felt it very important to show that finality.
Tell us what you’re working on next.
I have a graphic novel that’s coming out hopefully at the end of this year. I have two other books that are currently out, and I’m working on some screenplays. I’m working with another writer to turn my third book, “What Light,” into a movie, which hopefully happens. I’ve always had several things (going). With “Thirteen Reasons Why,” it took me three years to write it, not because it took that long, but because I was working on other stuff at the same time. I have a hard time focusing on just one thing.