Asher speaks openly about “13 reasons why” controversy at Main Library

Ria Parikh | Staff Writer

On September 8, “13 Reasons Why” author Jay Asher came to the Main Library, a Cincinnati and Hamilton county public library, to speak about his book’s evolution and controversy.

Asher said his inspiration came from his relative, who attempted suicide when she was a junior in high school. He said when she was in that state of mind, she had nothing to relate to and nothing to depict how she was feeling, which gave him the idea to write.

“Having spoken to her over the years about how she got to that place where she thought that was the only solution to her pain, in her case at least part of it was that she didn’t feel comfortable opening up because she didn’t see anybody addressing these issues in a very honest way,” Asher said. “They would make fun of people dealing with things she was dealing with, not knowing that she was dealing with it. So when the idea came to me, I knew that it was going to be a bit controversial, but that’s why you need to write about this stuff sometimes, so that it is out there.”

Asher said the events that happened to main character, Hannah Baker, were inspired by what he knows to be true about bullying from friends and family rather than by events that happened to the relative who inspired him.

“Very little of it was actually inspired by things she went through. Most of it was the emotions: feeling alone, feeling like she didn’t know where to go for help,” Asher said. “So (those emotions) heavily influenced that side of it, as far as each individual situation. Some of it was just made up for things that I knew Hannah had to go through, other things were inspired by either things I had been through or my friends had been through. I also sat down with my wife and two female friends to talk about their high school years — things that affected them years later that they thought they would have gotten over by now. Then, I would just fictionalize it, but it gave me a sense of what were sometimes the smaller things that still had a big impact on people.”

Despite the heavy subject material, Asher said the book was intended for teens to try and eliminate problems that his relative experienced. Even for his first time writing for a teenage audience, Asher said it was necessary to convey the raw horrification of suicide and to provide something for them to resonate with them.

“Because my understanding of the issue was inspired by my relative, I think that while I knew it would be more controversial to write it for teens, the only alternative was to not, to make it an adult (novel),” Asher said. “But that still feeds into the problem in our society of because we are so uncomfortable talking about this stuff, specifically about teens, people are always looking for excuses not to. Any teen then, who isn’t ready to read an adult book, would again not see anything out there representing what they’re experiencing, so (writing for an older audience) would just contribute to the problem. With my relative, there should have been people around her talking about this stuff. But when there isn’t they need to have something available for that person, and that’s what I’ve heard so often: readers saying my book is the first time they felt understood, which is so cool to hear but also so sad to hear.”

Asher said he wanted to teach teens to be perceptive of other people, because they never know what someone else is going through. He said he witnesses bullying all too often that would not have happened had the bullies known the victim’s situation.

“Since the book came out, I’ve been of course more aware of suicides, especially highly sensationalized ones,” Asher said. “I remember there was this one in Massachusetts shortly after the book came out where it was the first time people were charged with a crime for bullying this person. It was this big (question of) when somebody takes their own life, can somebody else be held responsible for it? A lot of the bullies said ‘If we had known she had dealt with this, if we had known she had suffered from depression, if we had known she had attempted suicide in the past, if we had known that her parents were getting divorced, we wouldn’t have done stuff.’ That hit the nail on the head of what I was trying to say that you don’t know what someone’s going through. It shouldn’t matter; you shouldn’t be like ‘I’ll do this,’ and hope that everything else in their life was fine. You don’t know.”

Sophomore English teacher and yearbook adviser Kurt Dinan is the Main Library’s Writer-in-Residence, meaning he interviews authors who come to speak at the library. Dinan said listening to Asher speak proved to him that he wrote the book for the right reasons.

“I love talking to other authors because I learn about who they are and what their personality is,” Dinan said. “Jay Asher is a well-known figure because of this book and because of the television show, and I think people make judgements based on the topic and how it is handled in the show and in the book. After talking with him, and listening to him speak, I know he’s a genuinely compassionate person. He’s not trying to make a buck off of this; he truly cares about mental health issues and about teenagers who are having suicidal thoughts and he wants that not to be taboo in society, for people to speak about it, and for things to be done.”

Back in March, Netflix created a TV show titled “13 Reasons Why” that is based off of the book. Asher is not heavily involved in the production of the show aside from reading scripts and answering questions for writers and producers.

Dinan said while he understands the concerns parents would have by allowing teens to read this book and watch a show, he thinks they will benefit teens by showing them they are not alone, and showing other teens that their actions have repercussions.

“I understand parents who are reluctant to have their child read this book or watch the TV show, I understand their concerns,” Dinan said. “But more importantly, I think it’s vital that teens know they aren’t alone and there are people they can go to for help, but also that their actions have ramifications. I think the book makes that clear, and the TV show makes that clear.”

When Netflix produced the show, the production team made a few changes from the book, such as the way Baker dies. Asher said that he understands the reason behind every change because the medium of television depicts actions visually. With the combination of visual depiction and an increased time frame, the TV show made necessary changes that strengthened the message and contributed to reality, Asher said.

“They decided to not use pills because they didn’t want it to seem like an easy thing. They wanted to show it as emotionally horrifying as it is,” Asher said. “To show the parents finding her and how devastating that is. I’ve been hearing from viewers who say a lot of time when they are thinking about suicide they know it’s going to hurt people but at the same time, they feel that their life is such a burden to other people that even if they hurt them to some degree, they will be better off. And then seeing what it would be like to find them takes it and makes it this very realistic thing as opposed to however they romanticized the benefits to other people in their mind. So that’s been kind of frustrating when I hear controversy around it, when I’m the one hearing from others saying why it affected them in such a positive way. ”

Asher said that some of the scenes in the show, such as the showing of sexual assault, while graphic, are necessary for the majority of people to understand the seriousness and severity of the situation.

“We’re fine knowing that person got raped, but we don’t want to be made uncomfortable with it,” Asher said. “And sadly, there are people in this world who don’t have the imagination to understand how horrible something is until it’s put in front of them. We hear about that all the time — the way we like to talk about rape, especially with boys is ‘No means no. When a girl says no that’s it’ and that’s where the conversation ends. It doesn’t hit them the way making them uncomfortable by it would. When I wrote those scenes for the book, I wanted it to be read my males and females, but I wrote those scenes with males in mind. I wanted them to feel how uncomfortable that is, and if they’re not uncomfortable, they’re not getting it.”

Despite the criticism, Asher said he would not change anything about the book or the show because of the lives they have saved.

“The book has been banned a lot. And there has been a lot of controversy about the TV show,” Asher said. “Every specific thing people point out in the show or in the book that they think is inappropriate or done wrong, I’ve had so many people contact me and say ‘That was the scene that made me feel respected.’ There’s this temptation as a caring person who gets hurt to say that I would take out the parts that people criticize. But then, what would I be doing? I would be taking away the parts that really meant something to some people.”

Click here to read the feature story written about “13 Reasons Why” in our May edition.

Photos by Ria Parikh.