Would you dare to grab a walkman filled with unknown content and press play? Clay will do that for you, buckle up because this will be a bumpy ride.
Keep reading for my interview with the author of the compelling, and still very much relevant novel, Jay Asher.
TGON: How did you get the idea of making the tapes the things that move the action forward?
Jay Asher: The tapes were there from the beginning. I had the idea of doing an audiotour type of novel for years, and one day I had this scene in my mind of a boy coming home and seeing a package with his name on it sitting on his doorstep. Inside were a bunch of cassette tapes. He found a way to play them, pressed play, and a voice said, “Hello, boys and girls…,” and then Hannah’s story began. She obviously could have left written words, but it was important for Clay to hear the emotions behind her words.
The book touches upon very serious subject matters, such as sexual assault, bullying and rape. Do you think authors should include storylines of this sort, in YA literature, to raise awareness and compel the readers to think about how to overcome these issues?
JA: I wouldn’t say anything “should” be in literature, just like there are no issues that “shouldn’t” be talked about. I don’t believe any serious issue should be off limits because these things do happen, so it would be irresponsible not to talk about them. But if an author doesn’t want to tackle these topics, they shouldn’t. We need all types of stories! Books that compel readers to think about these issues, and to witness the positive and negative ways characters deal with them, is important. But so are books that are purely escapist reads.
Do you consider Hannah a protagonist or an antagonist of the story? Even after her death, she manages to be a quite manipulative person.
JA: I think characters can be both protagonist and antagonist. When I began the book, I definitely thought of Hannah, in a way, as both. But I eventually came to think of Clay as the protagonist.
Does the fact that Hannah was unstable emotionally due to her traumatic experiences make her an unreliable narrator (obviously, I’m not doubting her confessions when it comes to her encounters with Bryce, Marcus or Tyler)?
JA: I’m sure it does. But I also think any first-person narrator, if they’re a well-rounded character, is unreliable to some extent. It would be boring, and unrealistic, if every word they said wasn’t somehow shaded by the fact that they’re human and going to see things differently than another character.
Do you think it is right to hold somebody else responsible for your death?
JA: In the case of Hannah Baker, she does say that taking her life was her decision. She takes ultimate responsibility for that, which is correct. But it’s also true that we have an impact on everyone we meet, and we can never be sure of the full impact because everyone is emotionally different and has past experiences we’ll never know about.
Why is Clay even on Hannah’s list? If, according to her, he is a good guy, why put him through the horror of listening to the tapes and waiting for his name to pop up?
JA: All we know is as much as Hannah’s willing to say and as much as Clay knows. Clay and Tony have a conversation about this exact thing and come to some sort of an understanding, just like Tony thinks he knows why she gave the second set of cassettes to him. Obviously, listening to those stories was traumatic for Clay, but I think he would want the answers they provide, and I think Hannah knows that. And yet, he also knows there are times he could have done more to reach out. But Hannah isn’t perfect, and she wasn’t meant to be. I don’t think she fully considered every ramification of her recordings, which goes back to your last question, and it is appropriate to disagree with what she did.
Was there a movie, a book or maybe even a song that inspired you or was playing in the background, when writing Thirteen Reasons Why. While reading the chapter with the guidance counselor, I almost felt like it was a reference to The Virgin Suicides where a doctor says to Cecilia, something along the lines, “You’re not old enough to know how bad life can get” and she answers: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl”.
JA: As far as the tone of the entire book, I thought a lot about what I loved in the TV series MY SO-CALLED LIFE. I also listened to the soundtrack from that show regularly. During the last scene, when Clay comes back to school after mailing the box to the next person, I listened to “Larry” by Buffalo Tom repeatedly. And I do love the book THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, and the movie version, but the scene with the guidance counselor was heavily inspired by a situation between a friend of mine and a guidance counselor in our high school.
Why do you think reputation is such a crucial aspect of high school?
JA: I think reputation is important to us throughout our lives, especially if we feel the reputation is unwarranted or no longer applies. But I think high school is when a lot of people first start to consider who they want to be in the future, so we can feel the weight of reputation a lot stronger than ever before.
How come teenagers are much more cruel than adults, and centered around schemes. What is it that drives them to bullying and spreading gossip, in your opinion?
JA: I know some teens who are much kinder than most adults I’ve known, and some adults who are crueler than anyone I met in high school. Hopefully, though, we learn how to better deal with those situations as we gain life experience. As adults, we also often have more control over who we spend time with, so we can more easily change situations that are unhealthy for us. And there are so many reasons people bully and spread gossip, though none of them are good reasons! It can give us a false sense of superiority, mask our own shortcomings or issues, and spreading gossip can easily give us attention. Sadly, when we see so many adults doing that, whether it’s in politics or in tabloids, it’s hard to tell teens not to do it. But we have to. We have to show the negative repercussions of these things as well as model how to do things better, so hopefully future generation are better than ours.
When the book came out, the internet was already “alive” and very much expanding but the social networking websites weren’t as popular as they are now. Do you think the Netflix series will use the outreach the social media offers, in the plot of the show? I can see it being a very cyber-bullying focused show.
JA: The TV show gets into technology as a means to bully more than the book does, though the “reasons” expressed in those scenes are the same as the book. I think they found beautiful ways to be true to the story and address how society has changed because of technology.
Do you see the Netflix adaptation using your original ending of Thirteen Reasons Why?
JA: I’m not going to give away the ending! But I think fans of the book will be very happy with where the TV show takes the story.
Which scene are you most excited to see on screen?
JA: I’ve seen the entire series, and it was incredible to see some of the locations I wrote about. There’s Monet’s! There’s the Crestmont movie theater! But the most thrilling aspect for me were the lines of dialogue that I didn’t write, yet sounded exactly as if I had because the writers completely understood my characters.
“Thirteen reasons Why” premieres on Netflix on March 31.