On Thursday 8th February, Jay Asher, the author of the bestselling novel 13 Reasons Why lead a presentation and Q/A session with UCD Litsoc and PsychSoc UCD. He flew over from his home in California for his first trip to Ireland and was greeted warmly by the audience. To start off the talk, he commented on his love of Irish weather, though bleak, it was a welcome change from the persistent, hot sun back in the US.
The first segment of the talk detailed the long years that his debut novel emerged from. Originally an aspiring children’s book writer, after years of rejection and failure to successfully get published he decided to write a novel based on something quite unique and somewhat daunting at the time: suicide. 13 Reasons Why (2007) is a fictional novel, based on the brutal aftermath of schoolgirl Hannah Baker’s suicide. She records 13 cassette tapes for the 13 reasons why she took her own life, with all the individuals involved receiving the tapes one after another. At the time of release this novel broke through a huge stigma surrounding the subject matter of suicide, tackling it head on.
Asher was inspired to write the book after a close relative of his attempted to take her own life. Following this event, he and his relative spoke quite deeply which gave him the idea to write the book. After years of writing, and twelve rejections from publishers, Asher himself was losing faith, until the 13th publisher made an offer. He told stories about some truly harsh rejections, giving him a forewarning to how some people would interpret his story.
After a long 3 years of writing the book, finally it was released to the public. What followed was a series of events which shattered Asher’s expectations for the book. Fans poured in with their opinions on his work, and with stories of their own to share with him. Asher went on to share some of the emails that truly touched him. Examples included stories of his book inspiring them to offer what turned out to be life-saving support to friends they knew were going through tough times. Other emails centred around Asher’s book having a profound effect on individuals undertaking self-harm and contemplating suicide. These stories served as evidence that even though his book rattled some cages, it has truly saved lives.
13 Reasons Why became quite controversial in the US due to its subject matter, even being recommended to be banned in some schools. Asher stands firm that we must tackle suicide openly and honestly in order to allow for a suitable climate for those seeking some much-needed help to come out.
One element that he highlighted about reading his book, and any book too, is that different people read the same words differently. Through their own personal experiences, each reader will read the book differently, and react differently. “You can’t control how people read things, you just have to know why you’re writing it.” It is this that has gotten him through the heavy criticism he received for allegedly ‘romanticizing’ or ‘glamorizing’ suicide. The purpose of the book for him, was to stimulate conversation and remove the stigma attached to suicide, allowing for a better environment for those suffering to reach out for help.
Asher also spoke regarding the development of the Netflix television series based on his novel of the same name. He remarked on how amazing Executive Producer Selena Gomez was throughout the production of the show, also telling us how she was one of the only people he had met who truly understood the book the same way that he did.
The talk was followed by a Q/A session which also centred on his novel 13 Reasons Why. When asked about how his book can help the status quo, Asher answered: “Bullying, suicide, these things have been around forever, and they’re not going to go away, but what we’ve been doing clearly hasn’t worked at improving things,” he also added that the book is not for everyone, admitting: “There are some people who have such a hardcore view on the subject, that there’s no way they’re going to change. When you are dealing with a subject such as this, all you can do is write as honestly as possible.”
One student very bravely came out and shared a very touching story, detailing how the book saved them from possible suicide. Personifying Asher’s message and the emails of fans being helped by the book. Some people have reacted negatively to the book, yet Asher explained that it has been able to get people talking about the subject: “It’s never going to be a comfortable and easy conversation. Let’s keep talking about it.”
Asher was given an honorary membership of LitSoc and PsychSoc, which was followed by a generous applause.
Conor Capplis – News Writer