In that time, the award-winning young adult book has reached millions of readers, been published in more than 30 countries and spent years on The New York Times’ best-seller list. It’s also attracted the attention of Hollywood, with a Netflix miniseries now in production.
“As an author, (the reaction) has been beyond what I expected,” said Asher, whose latest book, the sweet holiday romance “What Light,” is also garnering positive buzz.
Published in 2007 by Penguin Random House imprint Razorbill, “Thirteen Reasons Why” follows a high school student, Clay, in his quest to discover why his former classmate and crush, Hannah, killed herself. He’s guided by cassette tapes recorded by Hannah herself — sent to the 13 people she blames for her death.
The success of “Thirteen Reasons Why” transformed Asher, then a San Luis Obispo County librarian with 12 years’ worth of rejection letters, into an established author and public speaker whose fame doesn’t excuse him from doing chores.
“When you go speak at a school, you might be talking to thousands of people. Then you have this long line of people wanting to get selfies and to get autographs. Then you come home, and there are dishes” waiting to be washed, joked Asher, who lives in San Luis Obispo with his wife, JoanMarie, and son, Isaiah.
Inspired by Arroyo Grande tree-sellers
“What Light,” released Oct. 18, has spent six weeks on The New York Times’ young adult best-seller list so far. The 272-page book focuses on a teen whose family has a close connection to the holidays.
Sixteen-year-old Sierra spends most of the year at her family’s farm in Oregon. But every Thanksgiving, she and her parents head south to California to spend the holiday season selling Christmas trees.
It’s at her parents’ tree lot that Sierra meets Caleb, a soft-spoken hunk with an adorable dimple and a penchant for peppermint mochas. He spends his spare time — and the tips he earns working at a restaurant that resembles Oceano’s Rock & Roll Diner — buying and delivering Christmas trees to families in need.
But Caleb is haunted by a dark secret. Warned by her parents to avoid attachments, because this winter may be their last in California, Sierra can’t help but be curious about this gorgeous guy and his mysterious past.
Asher came across the inspiration for “What Light” several years ago in a newspaper article about the Hopper Bros. Christmas tree lot in Arroyo Grande.
“The part that really got me … was they have two sons that have been making this trek with them their entire lives,” Asher said. “Over the years, they had these really close friendships with people down here that they only saw during the holidays.”
Asher interviewed the Hoppers, visited their nursery in Woodburn, Oregon, and toured other Christmas tree farms in the area. (Hopper Bros. co-owner Dennis Hopper makes a cameo in “What Light” as the owner of a rival tree lot; he and his family are mentioned in the book’s dedication.)
“There was so much story potential,” the author said. “It was just (a matter of) trying to find the right story to tell.”
A romance, he said, felt like the best approach.
Love and forgiveness
Asked if he prefers writing love stories, Asher said, “I’m always drawn to whatever is the most exciting idea.”
“I have three books out, and they’re all very different as far as tone — which is not necessarily the smartest thing as an author,” he said with a laugh.
Still, he argued that “What Light,” with its uplifting story of love and forgiveness, actually serves as a bookend for “Thirteen Reasons Why.”
While the latter, which deals with bullying and peer pressure, is a “cautionary tale about the dangers of not reaching out to people,” he said, “What Light” explores “the power of being there for other people and letting people believe in you.” It’s “a very similar message,” he added, “but from the opposite perspective.”
“What Light,” aimed at ages 12 and older, is the third book Asher has written for younger readers.
“There’s something about the teen years that makes it a really appealing time to write about,” explained the author, who has a new young adult novel, “Piper,” coming out next year. “At that time in your life you have a lot of new responsibilities and also lots of new experiences, so there’s naturally going to be a lot of tension as well as conflict. There’s nothing better for a story than tension and conflict.”
“You can write a love story about any time in your life,” he added, “but when you’re talking about your first love or the first time you really have to trust somebody, that’s going to be when it’s most intense.”
“That’s my favorite part of being a writer, is being able to travel around to schools and speak to students,” said Asher, adding that his visits leave him feeling energized and inspired. “Every time I get back (from a book event), I just feel so good about the future. They’re so proactive within their schools and within their communities doing really positive things.”
According to Asher, the impact of “Thirteen Reasons Why” is still being felt.
He wrote a new introduction for the 10th anniversary edition of the book, which also features an alternative ending, deleted scenes and pages from Asher’s notebook. It hits store shelves Dec. 27.
The 13-episode drama stars Australian newcomer Katherine Langford as Hannah and “Goosebumps” star Dylan Minnette as Clay. (No release date has been announced.)
Filming for “Thirteen Reasons Why” began in June at Bay Area locations including San Rafael and Sebastopol. Asher, who worked with the show’s writers on early drafts of the script, visited the set several times.
“It was incredible to see these things that were just in my head now playing out (in reality),” he said.
Asher said he hopes “What Light,” which fans say has the makings of a classic Christmas movie, will have a similar impact.
“When I go out and speak, I’m not just getting praise as an author. (I’m getting) people coming up and telling me how much the book has helped them in life,” he said. “It’s humbling to hear that. (And) it’s personally inspiring — the idea that just sitting in a coffee shop writing can one day really touch people and help them.”
By Jay Asher