Last week, I had the privilege of meeting New York Times best-selling author, Jay Asher.
His first major novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” resonated with me when I first read it in eighth grade. I remember my friends and I devouring this book like candy as Asher told his tale about Hannah Baker struggling to be the new girl in town, talking to adults, keeping friends, first love and suicide.
“Thirteen Reason’s Why” was on the New York Times best seller list for over a year. According to Asher’s blog, the book has won numerous awards and recognitions.
When I heard that Asher—the man who practically broke my heart in written form—was coming to Houston, I knew I couldn’t pass this opportunity up. I invited my friends, Bianca and Rachel, to come along.
Blue Willow Books hosted the event. Visiting this bookstore was a first to me as independent bookstores are few and far between amidst the hundreds of Barnes and Nobles in the area. Blue Willow was quaint and cozy, making it the perfect venue for an intimate event such as an author talk and signing.
Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Books, passed out hot cocoa packets that featured “What Light’s” book cover. In the book, the two main characters, Sierra and Caleb, share their love of the weird way they take their hot cocoa. It was an adorable gift that I plan on having as a keepsake. Also, it was 80 degrees outside, so I wasn’t planning on drinking it anytime soon.
Asher introduced “What Light” as a story that he’s been working on since before he wrote “Thirteen Reasons Why.”
The story was inspired by a Christmas tree lot in Asher’s hometown in California.
“I never really thought too much about the family that ran it,” Asher said. “They just sold Christmas trees and there was later a newspaper article about the family.”
The Hoppers, the family that owned the lot, lived in Oregon on a Christmas tree farm 17 hours away.
“Once a year, they’d pack up their stuff, ship their trees to California and then live on this tiny little lot selling trees,” Asher said. “They had two sons. Over the years, their sons got some really close friends in California that they only saw one month out of the year, and then they would go back home and have their 11-month-out-of-the-year friends.”
Asher thought that the Hopper family had a fascinating life.
“One, you’re leaving your home during the holidays, but then you’re seeing some of your other friends during that time,” Asher said. “Just having a set timeframe of one month, I knew there was some kind of story that could be told there. It was just finding the right story.”
The story eventually became about Sierra, a teenager who falls in love with Caleb while she’s working on her family’s Christmas tree lot in California. A full summary and review can be found here.
Asher said that he made a breakthrough in the story after participating in a tour called 50 States Against Bullying, based on “Thirteen Reasons Why” in 2014. Asher visited one school from each state to discuss anti-bullying and suicide prevention. Students shared with Asher what the book meant to them.
“There were all these heartbreaking stories that I was hearing, but it was also very inspiring because they were talking about all these things that they’ve been through or were currently going through,” Asher said. “They saw that they could use their pain to help other people. It was so touching that there were so many people thinking about it like that.”
Asher realized that “What Light” was about a similar idea, but it would be a literary bookend to “Thirteen Reasons Why.”
“As opposed to writing a cautionary tale, as ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ was about the dangers of not reaching out to people that you know need help, I could tell an uplifting and inspiring tale about the beauty of reaching out to people and believing people and as well as opening up enough so that you let people believe in you,” Asher said.
Asher told us that he felt like a rebel while writing both books.
“I have to say that a Christmas love story is not the most obvious thing for the guy that wrote ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ to write,” Asher said. “I felt so rebellious writing that book (‘Thirteen Reasons Why,’) thinking, ‘This is not what people are going to expect and that’s why I’m doing it.’”
Asher expressed to us that “What Light” was his passion book, and that he wouldn’t have been satisfied as a writer until it was published.
“It’s this tale of forgiveness and redemption and letting people grow and believing in people when they do grow,” Asher said.
After a Q&A, we were able to go through the signing line. Bianca, Rachel and I instantly grew giddier to meet Asher. When it was our turn, I shared with him my eighth grade experience of reading “Thirteen Reasons Why.” He thanked me for being a fan for so long and wrapped me up in a hug.
After meeting Asher, I discovered that Blue Willow Books is the beacon for author talks in Houston. They have many other big time authors that come to their store and my friends and I never even knew about it.
For info on events at Blue Willow Books, check out their website http://www.bluewillowbookshop.com/event