Mary Sheehan sits down and chats with Jay Asher, about his popular novel 13 Reasons Why and its impact on society.
The author of the popular novel 13 Reasons Why, Jay Asher, has a unique role in the realm of young adult fiction. His book, and its Netflix adaptation, tell the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who takes her own life as a consequence of traumatic bullying. Rarely has a single narrative polarized such a vast amount of readers and viewers.
While his novel depicts suicide and mental illness, Asher is careful never to explicitly put his characters in boxes. In regards to this he says, “that’s part of the criticism, that I never diagnose Hannah. If I said she was bipolar or she had this, it would’ve given the characters and the readers an excuse to not look at the small things.” Asher defends his decision to leave the protagonist undiagnosed, reflecting how we don’t know everything about people we meet in real life. “We don’t know what people are dealing with. I wanted the reader to recognise that the person that you think you know walking down the hall might have a chemical imbalance that makes what you do to her that much bigger.”
The overarching concept that Asher wanted readers to take away from his novel was the idea of a snowball effect; that actions have a knock on effect. Asher states, “good and bad, we affect each other. This is the part I wanted to get across, an incident on top of everything else that person has gone through. People talk about walking down a hallway and smiling at someone. It’s a small gesture but you never know what it could mean to to them.”
Writing a novel that deals with such a raw and painful subject requires a bit of emotional distance. Asher “came up with the idea for the novel nine years after my relative tried to commit suicide. I think that distance was necessary. I wouldn’t have been able to put any blame on her right away. It became a thing where there was more she could’ve done to get help, there’s more she could’ve done to limit some of the hurt that happened to her. Honestly, showing the victim having imperfections allows you to see it’s a real person, and that’s why this stuff hurts so much.”
Asher’s descriptions of this suicide attempt appears to place a lot of blame on someone who may not have felt able to seek help or may not have been aware of the channels to go through. It may be thoughts such as these that have led to heavy criticism of the netflix adaptation, which many view as problematic. The show has also been heavily criticised for its use of graphic imagery, and appears to defy recommendations for reporting on suicide which can be found at reportingonsuicide.org.
Asher also admits that his success with the novel is bittersweet and unexpected. As a writer, he says he did not foresee 13 Reasons Why becoming such a widespread phenomenon, or that it would resonate with so many people. Asher believed only a few people would truly “get it.” According to Asher, the book’s popularity is ultimately a consequence of society’s hesitancy to discuss issues with a stigma attached to them. “It’s been bittersweet… I have to acknowledge that one of the only reasons people say they have a book they really relate to, is because it deals with things we don’t like to talk about.”
“I was very conscious of writing it from a teen emotional perspective, and I do think that’s why it’s connected to so many teens. It doesn’t feel like an adult trying to preach.”
Asher advocates that despite its tough thematic content, this book is absolutely a young adult novel. He states, “I was very conscious of writing it from a teen emotional perspective, and I do think that’s why it’s connected to so many teens. It doesn’t feel like an adult trying to preach. Asher claims that any preaching coming from it is from the reader preaching to themselves.
Lastly, Asher has a deliberate message for communities facing a crisis, or multiple crises, similar to Hannah’s. He asserts, “it’s one of those things where there isn’t a right way to deal with it. There’s a wrong way, and that’s to not talk about it at all. People get so caught up in being afraid to say the wrong thing, they halt and say nothing at all.”
Only positive things will come from letting people know you care. You don’t want someone in the moment who’s feeling suicidal to not know where to go.
Describing the response to his hit novel, Asher recounts how one email he received from a fan said “all we need to do is care,” which he goes on to reiterate, “there’s no way to do that wrong. Only positive things will come from letting people know you care. You don’t want someone in the moment who’s feeling suicidal to not know where to go.”
Since the writing of this article it has come to light that Jay Asher has been removed from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators due to allegations of sexual harassment.
If you are struggling with your mental health you can contact Pieta House at 1800 247 247 or pieta.ie, Niteline at 1800 793 793 (between 9pm and 2:30am) or niteline.ie, and Samaritans at 116 123 or samaritans.org.