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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Story Secrets: 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher

Tell Me a Secret - Worldwide Blog Tour

Today's blog tour stop is at Through the Tollbooth, where Liz Gallagher and I are chatting plotting, mapping, and querying - comment here or there to win! (full entry details here.) And now on to Jay!

That's right, Jay Asher is on the scene, here to share secrets to his mega-hit, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY!

I probably don't have to tell you that 13RY is published in over a dozen countries and has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for...I don't know, two years now? And probably for the rest of Jay's life?

Well, anyway, it is that awesome. Plus Jay is a super nice, down-to-earth guy, and we are thrilled to welcome him today. (At left, Jay and I hang out at the SCBWI WWA Conference.)


Thirteen Reasons Why is a suspenseful novel dealing with a lot of serious teen issues. Clay Jensen, a high school junior, finds a package on his doorstep addressed to him and containing several cassette tapes. The tapes were recorded by his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, who committed suicide two weeks earlier. On each side of each tape, Hannah talks about a different person at their school who she feels led to her decision to take her life. And if you received the tapes, Hannah says, you're one of the reasons why.

Holly: 13RY is such a shocking, yet universal story - and you've told it in a way that resonates with so many readers. How did the idea strike?

Jay: I spent about nine years trying to find the right story to tell in this audiotour format, using two simultaneous first-person narrators. One narrator would be a recorded voice, and the other would react to what the recorded voice was saying. I wanted to structure a novel like that after taking an audiotour of a mock-up of King Tut's tomb. But I wanted to tell a story that would be enhanced by that structure rather than use that structure simply as a gimmick. Around the same time that I took that audiotour, a close relative of mine attempted suicide. She was, like the character in my book, a high school junior. Talking to her over the years let me see how someone could become like Hannah. It took nine years before those two ideas, the unusual structure and the issue of suicide, came together.

How did those two elements come together? Gradually or like a lightning bolt?

I was driving on an icy road, it was dark out with no streetlamps, and the story just came to me. At the time, I was only interested in writing funny books for young children. So when the premise hit me, it was a total shock. I was so intrigued and excited by the idea, driving was no longer safe. I pulled into a parking space at a gas station, whipped out a notebook, and just started writing. The first twelve-or-so pages of the book is very similar to what I wrote in my car.

Did anything unexpected come out of telling Hannah and Clay's shared story?

From the beginning, Hannah's voice was very clear to me. On many occasions, her character would say something that I hadn't planned, revealing something about her that I didn't know, yet sounded so natural for her to say. Every time that happened, I went with it. But giving up that control to one of my characters seemed very...weird. But it also felt right. Those unexpected moments made the writing much more interesting, and I think made Hannah's character much more realistic.

Who inspires you?

My readers. Even though I was unpublished while writing Thirteen Reasons Why, I kept my future readers in mind the entire time. I knew I was writing about issues many of them will have experienced, and that inspired me to write about those issues as honestly as possible.

What was it like to write in two voices? How long did it take, and did you have to do multiple drafts?

It took me three years to write, but I was working on other manuscripts at the same time. I'm a very slow and precise writer, so I only had one real draft. But I wrote the book in two parts. First, I wrote Hannah's story from beginning to end. That way, I could stay in her head and not have to leave her voice. Then I went back and wrote Clay's part of the story. After I finished the entire manuscript, I had four people read it to tell me where certain scenes dragged or something was confusing. It was exciting whenever someone pointed out a problem with a scene or a character because I knew the manuscript was getting stronger with every edit.

So what is the real story behind the story? Any secrets you might be willing to share?

When I was a teen, I never would've picked up a book about suicide I would've assumed it would be too depressing. As I wrote this book, I kept thinking, "What would keep someone like me from putting this book down?" So I tried to make this novel as suspenseful as possible. My main bit of writing advice is to always write as if your future reader has a bookmark within his reach. Your job is to never let that bookmark touch even one of your pages.


Thanks so much for stopping by, Jay! Readers, check out the Thirteen Reasons Why official site, which includes a video series of Hannah's tapes. Here's a video of me interviewing Jay for readergirlz:


Oh, and tomorrow's blog tour stop is at Mitali's Alley of Books with a vlog art tour and reading! Mitali said of TELL ME A SECRET, "Totally in my top faves of this year. You have GOT TO READ IT." I can't wait!


  1. 13RY is my favorite YA novel. It's haunting tragedy resonates with you days after you reach the end.

    Me, my husband, and older daughter all read it and couldn't put it down.

    Jay is also an inspiration to many writers, like myself. Thanks for the interview Holly,

  2. I read 13RY a few months ago and loved it! Such a great story.

    Thanks for the interview! It was really interesting to see where the idea of 13RY came from.

  3. Oh man, I LOVED 13RY!! I read it a week or two ago, and I swear after I put down that book, all the words that Hannah said kept on buzzing around my head. Granted, I was listening to the audio tape (which sounds SO similar to Asher's reading). I'll be looking forward to the very vaguely described upcoming novel from Jay Asher! :)

    Wow, it took so long to come up with ideas, and then to write it all up. I guess that just amounts to the quality of the novel, so I don't mind if the next one takes a few years, as long as it's even nearly as good as 13RY was. Great interview!

  4. I just finished 13 Reasons Why and loved it...well, as much as you can love such a painful topic. I listened to it on cd and the narrators were great!

    I'm so excited for Tell Me A Secret to be released. I've read about it on a bunch of different YA sites and it's generating great buzz! :)

  5. 13 Reasons Why is probably my favorite book that I have read this year. I also listened to it on audio and the format was spectacular! I loved it. This book is a perfect example of how every action has consequences. I loved it. Thanks for sharing this, it was nice to see Jay Asher's inspirations for this book.

  6. I havent read 13 Reasons Why yet though I've heard great things about it. I do have a copy and will eventually get to it.

  7. I loved 13 Reasons Why. I just met Jay at the Michigan SCBWI conference. His story is so inspiring. I try to remember it when I want to give up.

  8. I also loved this book. I didn't know much going into 13 Reasons, but I devoured it in 1 sitting anyway. I just loved how it was written in audio format. It was very different from anything else I've read.