Jay Asher is the author of the novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. An American best seller, now published in 31 other countries and soon to be released as a motion picture.
Prompted by a flyer in Starbucks in Joplin, MO. I decided to go to Carthage, the next town, for what I expected would be a typical author event. It turned out to be anything but. Jay’s talk had some nodding familiarity with bookstore appearances, but would never be remembered that way. His audience was not the average midlife female book buyer who is keeping bookstores open. The event was not even in a bookstore.
Jay spoke in a high school auditorium to a couple dozen 13-year-old girls, a half-dozen boys, a half-dozen parents, and one white-haired vagabond.
On the theater screen was an image of the cover of the book. He opened with a 24-word elevator pitch that would turn the head of the most jaded literary agent.
“This book is about a 13-year-old girl who commits suicide and leaves 13 audiotapes, each one addressed to someone who contributed to her fatal choice.”
I was awed by the risk he was taking with this audience–and mesmerized in anticipation of where he would go from there.
In the voice of an adolescent writer, he proceeded to tell of his evolution as a writer, beginning with before he could read. Yes, his first ideas of his craft were from the stories his mother read to him. Then, on to his rejection as a high school journalist, where his articles were deemed so unworthy that his only assignments were music reviews.
He tells the story of reviewing a star performer whom no one liked but him. The article drew one anonymous response saying that maybe Jay was right that there was some merit to the music. The school paper had a policy of not publishing anonymous letters, but the editor called a staff meeting to make the point that writers and critics need to be open-minded and that there is a wide variety of reader tastes out there.
Jay felt vindicated at that meeting and never admitted he had written the anonymous note.
By now, his auditorium audience was chuckling at his light-hearted self-effacing talk. We were his captives.
He continued his story to his college years, when he tried and was rejected as a writer of young adult books. Of the following years, he told of the sort of rejections he received then and over the next ten years. There were the letters that began, “Dear writer, we’re not interested, but good luck in your writer career, the editor.”
He was heartened when he finally received a two-page rejection detailing every single reason the book was hopeless, since it convinced him the book had been read.
Thirteen Reasons Why was conceived in 2006 after a young relative made an unsuccessful attempt on her own life. Jay reached out, endeavoring to learn about the state of mind of a depressed teen. Then spoke to other friends and family about their experience as teens. He found a strong adolescent voice for Hannah Baker, his main character, and was compelled to write.
He spent three years writing the book. There were doubts, memories of rejection, and his day job getting in the way– and at least one six-month hiatus. But he finished and did a critique process that is worthy of a separate blog. He sent it off to his agent, who called one day with the news of an offer. Hours later the agent called with the news of the second offer. And then the third.
On the screen flashed pictures of the moment he told his wife the news, then of telling his mother, then of telling his baby.
Then there was the year of working with the publisher: take out one scene, add another, enlarge a third. Change the title, do the cover, and all the other things the publisher talks with the authors about even though the publisher will have the last word. And then the nine-month wait for a release date that suits the publisher, whose agenda has to do with everything except the author.
As Jay meandered through his writing and publishing process for us, he used the steps as parables for teen coping skills.
When he referred to the first sterile rejection letter, he said, aside, “Girls, if you dump a guy, give him some reason why—any reason. But don’t let him go crazy places in his mind.”
So, too, when he discussed the email response he received, he allowed words of unknown others to confirm that his message was heard by the people who needed it–thereby reiterating the message for the people in the auditorium.
I don’t know any more about teen suicide this morning than I did last night. But what I do know is that a couple of dozen kids in Carthage, MO. will pay a bit more attention to how they treat their peers, will be a bit more attentive to signs that something is amiss in others, and will be a bit more motivated to ask when someone is a bit off.
At the end of the night it was a consciousness-raising, gently motivational experience for the kids, the adults, and the white-haired vagabond.