Writing Wednesday: Meet Jay Asher

Today is Hump Day. Lots of people just call it Wednesday, but let’s admit we need something good to get us over this blah day in the middle of the week. Writing Wednesday is my little contribution to ending the midweek blahs. To kick it off, I have the fantastic Jay Asher, fellow ABLAer and author of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, to help me out.

But what can I ask this guy who’s been asked EVERYTHING? That’s not a hyperbole either. I did my best, and while some questions are repeaters (but who doesn’t want to hear about his writing process?), I threw in a few original ones (or such is my opinion; Jay may think otherwise) into the mix. And if you still have unanswered questions, check out www.thirteenreasonswhy.com and www.jayasher.blogspot.com.



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1. Since I am a child of the 1980s, I love that Hannah Baker leaves her instructions in a series of cassette tapes. How did you come up with this idea, and were you concerned that today’s teens may not be able to relate?

I had the idea to use cassettes as a storytelling device back when cassettes were a tad more up-to-date than they are now.  When I finally found the right story to tell with an audiotour structure, I did wonder whether cassettes were still appropriate.  I liked the visuals of Clay flipping the cassettes over and watching the spools wind the tape, but that wasn’t why I chose to stay with cassettes.  If I chose the most modern form of recording, the terminology used by my characters would be slightly outdated the moment the book was published (and get even more outdated as time went on).  So I used an older form of recording, cassette tapes, and had Clay wonder if he even has a way to play them: “No one listens to tapes anymore.”  My readers end up having the same reaction as my character, which keeps the story current.  In the end, outdated gadgets will always be outdated!

2. This is a great point, especially now when new technology and social networking sites seem to appear daily. Will referring to things such as texts, Twitter, IMs, etc. be something you’ll be mindful of in your books? Do you suggest authors work around this or just sprinkle these things into their novels with caution?

There are a lot of teen novels meant to be very of-the-moment.  Techno-speak, pop culture references, and slang can be found on every page.  And we need those books because there are plenty of readers who want those books.  If a certain type of technology is needed to further a scene, I’ll use it.  If my character needs to pull an iPhone 3GS out of her pocket, then she will.  But if I can get away with having her pull “a phone” out of her pocket, that’s what I’ll say because story is much more important to me than anything else.  In most cases, readers will fill in the details appropriately.  If I’ve done a good job establishing my character, the reader will visualize the exact type of phone my character would use, or what type of car she drives, or which musician she’s listening to, and my story gets to stay current a little longer.

3. Do you carry around a voice recorder or notebook to keep track of your ideas?

After writing THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, in which a girl records the reasons why she decided to take her life, I think the sight of me walking around while talking into a voice recorder might be kind of…creepy.  Almost any time I leave my house, I have a notebook with me.  I mostly jot down ideas so I can stop obsessing about them, but I rarely return to those notes.  I think if a line of dialogue or a plot twist is meant to be included in a story, it’ll naturally be there when I sit down to write that scene.  If I try to force an idea into a manuscript simply because I once thought that idea was really creative, it probably won’t fit naturally with what I’ve already written.

4. Can you describe your writing process?

I’m still trying to find a process.  The only time I’ve ever truly become stuck while writing is when I tried working from an outline.  My process, I suppose, is to write whatever I’m excited about.  If that means I’m bouncing between three manuscripts at a time, then at least I know that each page I write is coming from a creative place and not from an attitude of forcing something just for the sake of writing.

5. Was having your book out in the world all you anticipated? What surprised you—for better or worse—about the publication process and beyond?

On the positive side, my book has sold beyond what I thought I could even cross my fingers and hope for.  I thought it had the potential to be a somewhat underground word-of-mouth success, but then it became a completely aboveground word-of-mouth success, spending over a year on the New York Times bestsellers list, being released in dozens of countries, and even becoming a high school play.  I didn’t think any of those things would happen.  The book has also personally meant more to people than I expected.  I expected to get letters saying the book made my readers want to treat each other with more respect, but I also have people tell me they wouldn’t be here had they not stumbled upon my story.  I feel truly blessed to hear both of those sentiments about something I wrote.

At the same time, certain types of criticism have been much harder to deal with than I expected.  I truly don’t mind if someone criticizes my writing or storytelling skills, but when they say my book is inappropriate for teens, it drives me crazy.  When I first began hearing the “inappropriate” word, it hurt me personally.  But now, it just upsets me for the sake of my readers.  I might get an e-mail from a teenager saying my book made them want to be a better person, or inspired them to ask for help, or to reach out to a hurting friend, and that same day I’ll read a review from an adult saying my book is totally inappropriate for teenagers.  I’ve come to realize that most people who say “inappropriate” actually mean “makes me uncomfortable to think that these things actually happen…so stop talking about it!”

6. The idea of one event changing the course of others or being the catalyst of something greater is something that has always resonated with me. For this reason, Butterfly Effect, is one of my favorite movies. Can you expand on that theme in THIRTEEN REASONS WHY—how it came to you? For example, did you know as you were writing that everything began with that first kiss, or is this something that came to you somewhere halfway in the story?

I didn’t think too much about that theme before I began writing the book. When the original concept came to me, Hannah was just going to talk about a bunch of things that happened to her.  I did make the decision at some point that there shouldn’t be one huge event that everyone (my readers or the characters in the book) could point to and say, “That’s why she did it.”  Making it a bunch of smaller events, where one event not occurring could’ve changed everything, highlights that butterfly effect the best.  And I loved that movie, too!

7. I read something disturbing about you on MySpace. It says—gulp—that you don’t like onions. True? Sweet ones and green ones alike?

Well, I guess I just learned something disturbing about you.  You like onions?  Gross!  And I have to correct something you said.  There’s no such thing as sweet onions, that’s a term made up by the onion lobbyists.  There’s only one type of onion currently available on the market: nasty onions.

8. What tips can you give writers, in general, and debut authors?

For beginning writers, your work will improve dramatically when you join a critique group.  Plus, it feels good to know that you’re helping writers improve their craft at the very same time that they’re helping you.  For any writer, beginning or professional, it’s always important to think about suspense.  Any book, no matter what genre, will be more intriguing with a little suspense.  For debut authors, keep your eyes open for creative opportunities to promote your book.  A book club in Alabama did some very creative things with their discussion of my book, and I then promoted those same ideas to other book clubs around the country.  Book clubs have been a huge factor in the success of THIRTEEN REASONS WHY.

9. What is ahead for you? What are you working on now? Can you tell us without having to kill us?

Actually, no.

3 comments for “Writing Wednesday: Meet Jay Asher

  1. January 13, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Wow, what a great interview. It’s so interesting to see that authors who do well have the same fears as the rest of us 🙂

  2. January 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I had no idea 13 was turned into a high school play–how cool!!!

  3. Leah Cypess
    January 14, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Great interview! I snorted up water when he talked about how creepy it would be for him to walk around talking into cassette tapes. Yeah, good point.

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