Jay Asher on Christmas Tree Farms, School Plays and Kids Today

What Light by Jay AsherJay Asher has been a fixture on the YA scene and speaking circuit since penning his insightful and haunting Thirteen Reasons Why, which is being adapted by Netflix. Jay’s got a new book out this week, What Light, and we wanted to hear all about it!

Tell us about your new book. How was it writing a new novel after the huge success of Thirteen Reasons Why?

The audience that found my first book, and continue to find it nine years later, amazes me. There are even schools across the country using it in the classroom, which makes me laugh when I imagine what my high-school self would think. And while I am extremely grateful for all of that, it did throw me for a creative loop. That was partly due to the expectations of a follow-up, but also because Thirteen Reasons Why was so different from anything I’d tried to write before it. Everything prior was humorous. My eventual follow-up, The Future of Us, was co-written with Carolyn Mackler, and that helped put a buffer between my first book and whatever I would write next by myself. Still, when I decided What Light would be that next book, it felt kind of rebellious to have it be a straight-ahead romance. A romance set at Christmas, no less! But there are definite connections between my first and third books. I consider Thirteen Reasons Why and What Light to be thematic bookends, expressing similar ideas, but this time through an inspiring story rather than a cautionary one.

The concept of Sierra living two lives is very interesting, like a camp self and a home self. Is this something you experienced as a kid?
Other than both of us coming from loving homes, the life Sierra portrays is very different from my own. The concept was inspired by a newspaper article I read about a family that ran a Christmas tree farm in Oregon, but sold their trees on a lot 17 hours to the south, near where I live. That basic premise has been with me for over a decade as I tried to figure out a compelling story with that as the backdrop. I found the idea of having two homes, where one is just for a month each year, and two sets of friends, appealing. And it came with a strict timeline, which is great for storytelling. When it evolved into a romance, including falling for someone when you’re leaving in a few weeks, it then had built-in emotional tension.

Would you want to live on a Christmas tree farm?
I want to be realistic with this answer, but the romantic side of me wants to say yes. For research, I visited several Christmas tree farms in the northwest, one belonging to the family that inspired my story. Another farm ended up inspiring the look of Sierra’s home, surrounded by hundreds of acres of rolling tree-covered hills. It was beautiful! So…I want to say yes. But I also know it’s a lot of work, even for the children on these farms. But they all seem to really love it, even the children, which is a detail I gave to Sierra. So…yes! Answering this question convinced me. It would be hard work, but definitely worth it!

One of our favorite parts of Thirteen Reasons Why, which has stayed with us all these years, is how Clay must hunt for a tape player to hear Hannah’s last thoughts. What piece of technology do you imagine your son will be most confounded by when he grows up? 
My son will be 6 this December, and I don’t think he’s ever seen a phone that plugs into a wall other than when it’s charging. Or a phone that can’t also play songs or help us navigate streets and play videos. In fact, while writing Thirteen Reasons Why, I knew the technology behind phones was changing so much, I tried to refer to them in very general terms. At the time, we were still calling them cell phones, but I predicted we would stop saying “cell” shortly, so I dropped that word from the text. 

You’ve traveled across the country, speaking at schools about suicide. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your touring?
During the 2014-15 school year, I did a book tour called 50 States Against Bullying where I visited one school in each state. I visited wealthy boarding schools, public schools in all sorts of socio-economic neighborhoods, a high school in New Orleans that was still operating out of an old elementary school because of Hurricane Katrina, a Catholic school, alternative schools, a Native American boarding school. The students at these schools sometimes lived in communities with very distinct issues, with different racial or religious make-up, but it was obvious that all students from all backgrounds want one thing: respect. We all deserve respect! So even though the specific realities in Thirteen Reasons Why may not apply in the same way in all communities I visited, when you’re talking about the concept of respect, everyone can relate. I don’t know if that was necessarily surprising to me, but it definitely wasn’t something I’d thought much about before I began my author travels.

Thirteen Reasons Why has been made into a play, performed by high schools, which is so cool! What is it like to see your words translated into a play, performed by your intended audience?
That’s exactly what makes it so special; that it’s being performed by its intended audience. I’ve seen two of the productions in person, and at both schools, parents came up afterward saying they had been concerned about the subject matter. But when they saw the production, and how seriously the students were taking it, their reservations fell away and it was inspiring to them. For me, it’s been one of the most inspiring things to come from the book. It was a group of students in Illinois who approached their theater advisor about adapting my book for the stage. I gave them the go-ahead, made only a few tweaks to the script and then they gave me permission to let other schools use their script for their own productions, which I don’t charge any fees to use.

What are you working on next?
Thirteen Reasons Why is currently being filmed as a 13-part Netflix series, so I’ve been working on the periphery of that. Before I finished What Light, I finished another YA book, which should come out in 2017. 

What Light will be available in stores tomorrow! You can grab your copy here: Amazon | BN.com | iTunes | Kobo | GooglePlay. For more YA news you can use, be sure to check out our Everything YA page. 

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