Not afraid to talk suicide

Jay Asher was never involved in bullying in school, either as a victim or a perpetrator. At least, he thinks he wasn't.

But after the emotional journey the author went through in crafting his young-adult novel, "Thirteen Reasons Why," he can't entirely say for sure.

Asher, whose novel is next year's selection for the HB Reads citywide book program, got part of the story's inspiration when a female relative attempted suicide as a teenager. When the relative tried to explain her decision, she gave a litany of reasons rather than a single one — much like Hannah Baker, the novel's co-protagonist, who leaves a stack of cassette tapes outlining 13 events that drove her to despair.

As for the novel's other main character, Clay Jensen, who listens to his former classmate's tapes and gradually realizes what he and his peers did wrong? According to Asher, he represents one of the often-ignored truths of bullying: that those who contribute to it don't always realize they're in the wrong.

"When I was developing what the 13 reasons were going to be, I made the decision not to make them the stereotypical things," said Asher, a San Luis Obispo resident who recently returned from a tour in Germany to promote his novel.

"Thirteen Reasons Why," which came out in 2007 from the Penguin imprint Razorbill, became a New York Times bestseller and made Asher a sought-after name on the lecture circuit — especially at high schools, which have repeatedly invited him to speak to students.

A feature in Entertainment Weekly sported a headline that may, by definition, be the highest praise any author can receive: "Why teen-suicide novel 'Thirteen Reasons Why' is saving lives."

The novel, which sports a cover image of a dour Hannah sitting alone on a swing, is part character study and part page-turner. The reader follows Clay over the course of a night as he plays Hannah's tapes and visits locations on a map that she provides along with them, so that her listeners can situate themselves in the actual spots where the events took place.

Considering that a Hollywood version of "Thirteen Reasons Why" starring Selena Gomez is in the works, HB Reads is far from the highest-profile gig Asher has landed. But when he heard that the program, which spotlights a human-rights-themed book each year, had given him the nod for 2013, he treasured the opportunity.

At his appearances over the last few years, Asher said, he has gotten varied reactions — few more memorable than one from a middle-aged woman who told the author that her own son had committed suicide and that his book helped her cope with the grief.

Other times, at schools, some parents have complained that suicide isn't an appropriate subject matter for assemblies. In those cases, Asher said, he has a ready response.

"I tell them, 'I'm only brought here because some people on the faculty decided they're not afraid of this issue and they think it's important,'" he said.

Are there ever any potential Hannahs in the crowd? Asher never rules out that possibility.

"The fact that I'm there," he said, "is proof to that student that there are adults who care."

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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