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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2022 - Author talks (secondary) - 03. Kay Kerr
MICHELLE VIJAY: Hi, my name is Michelle Vijay, and I'm from Girraween High School. And I'm here today on Cammeraygal land at The Concourse in Chatswood for these-- as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival Secondary Schools' Day. And I'm so excited to be interviewing Kay Kerr. The author of 'Please Don't Hug Me' and 'Social Queue' for the NSW Premier's Reading Challenge. Hi, Kay. How are you today?
KAY KERR: I'm really good. Thanks for having me. How about you?
MICHELLE VIJAY: I'm pretty good too. The Premier's Reading Challenge always encourages students to pick up a passion and love for reading for fun. As a child, did you enjoy reading books? And do you recall any particular ones?
KAY KERR: Yeah. I was a huge reader as a kid from a really young age, and I always-- I think found myself drawn to fantasy, escapist reading. So, I was really into like 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Narnia', those kinds of books. I guess I didn't read as many Australian books as I do now, but definitely anything that could take me out of my life, and into something exciting and magical was something that I loved.
MICHELLE VIJAY: I relate to that.
KAY KERR: Yeah.
MICHELLE VIJAY: Really. How do you think your experiences as a reader contributed to the way that you write? And what you choose to focus on in your writing?
KAY KERR: Well, when I was writing my first novel 'Please Don't Hug Me', I definitely-- I read a little bit of YA and a little bit of Australian YA, but I made a real effort to-- to pick up a bunch of Australian YA that was contemporary, and of that moment to see what else was out there. Because I think you really need to get a feel for what else is on the shelf. And also for where your book fits on that shelf.
And just realising the calibre of writing in Australian YA and that it is its own-- its own scene, and its own genre, I guess. It was really exciting and to be able to add to that has been really great.
MICHELLE VIJAY: 'Please Don't Hug Me' is about Erin. A teenager who's grappling with the huge changes that the end of high school brings as well as the additional challenges she experiences as an autistic person. Can you tell us a bit about what your inspiration was behind writing this book?
KAY KERR: Yeah. So, 'Please Don't Hug Me', now that I look back on it, I can see that I was writing to try and figure out why it was that I struggled with that particular time in high school so much. When I-- it seemed like nobody else struggled with it to the same level. So, I was writing what I thought was this awkward, socially anxious, sensitive, introverted character. And then I wrote my way to getting my own autism diagnosis. And then I realised, once I knew that about myself, that that's actually what was going on with Erin.
So, I went back to the page. And there wasn't really that much that I needed to change to make her autistic. She already was. I just needed to add the language in there and in the framework. And the understanding of other characters and things like that. So, that was really such an amazing, life-changing experience for me, personally. But, it was also a really positive experience with writing.
MICHELLE VIJAY: So, like when it all clicks into place with the diagnosis and it's validating.
KAY KERR: Yeah, Yeah. And then I guess with 'Social Queue', it gave me a chance to have a little bit more distance and to be a little bit more celebratory about it as well.
MICHELLE VIJAY: That's awesome. Something that really stood out to me from 'Please Don't Hug Me' is the format in which you wrote it, which is a series of letters written by Erin to her brother. Why did you choose to write it in this way?
KAY KERR: Yeah. I think people have strong feelings about epistolary novels, they either love them or hate them I think. But to me, what it did was it felt like it gave me-- I'm not always the best in social situations, face to face. And I've struggled to process what I'm feeling in the moment, and to say the things that were the things that I want to say properly. So, for Erin, I think giving her the chance to go away from what she's experienced.
To process it, to have downtime, and then to-- to write it through these letters, I think that was a more authentic way for the reader to actually get a feel of how she's feeling rather than in the moment when there's all the sensory stuff that happens in the social challenges as well. So, that's why I like that format.
MICHELLE VIJAY: Yeah, I thought that format was a really powerful way to communicate without the masking of every day.
KAY KERR: Yeah. And I think I'm definitely a better writer than talker. So, that worked for me in that way.
MICHELLE VIJAY: Yeah.
KAY KERR: Yeah.
KAY KERR: Your book 'Social Queue' explores how love gets significantly more complicated when you're on the spectrum. And personally, I also have a lot of trouble navigating and exploring love and affection, romantic or otherwise on the spectrum as well. What is your advice to other autistic teens out there who are struggling with the same or similar thing?
KAY KERR: I would say, for a long time, I took in a lot of messages about what other people expected that love to look like? Whether that was love-- parental and child love. What a good child was supposed to do? Or what a good friend was supposed to do? Or what a good relationship was supposed to do-- was supposed to look like?
So, I think my advice would be that the sooner you can start to build a life and build accommodations around what actually works for you as opposed to what you think that other people expect of you then relationships can look so many different ways. And like you said, different kinds of love as well. So, I think as long as you're able to be true and authentic to yourself, and your feelings, and what you like, and what you don't like, and any of that is OK.
MICHELLE VIJAY: I'll be sure to use that advice. What is something in your books that you hoped audiences, especially autistic readers, would connect with and take away?
KAY KERR: I wanted-- with 'Social Queue', I wanted the romantic elements to be the little things that people do for each other. To show care as opposed to the big extravagant gestures. I wanted to explore what it looks like to be seen and understood, and to feel validated in that way. So, I hope that for autistic readers particularly, they can see that. Yeah, love doesn't have to look like the movies and the big extravagant things. It can be the smaller moments, and the quieter parts as well.
MICHELLE VIJAY: That's excellent. Your books deal with issues such as ableism and bullying. Did you find writing about those topics a bit challenging? And why did you think it was so important to highlight in your books? So, with bullying in particular-- once I had published 'Please Don't Hug Me', that was just the thing that I heard again, and again, and again from particularly young autistic readers of what they experienced at high school.
So, I just knew from that influence of talking and connecting with readers, that I wanted to include that as a theme. I didn't want to write a character being bullied because I felt like nobody needs to see that, people know what that feels like. I wanted to show a character rebuilding her life, and reclaiming her confidence in herself after having experienced that. When she has a little bit more autonomy, she's not in high school anymore, her life can look a little bit more how she wants it.
So, that was why I wanted to explore that. I think it definitely-- I still feel like those wounds of high school feel fresh. Even though it has been many years since I've been in high school. So, I guess, easy to tap into in that way, but I also had to be careful, to be gentle with myself but ableism is another one. I think because of my background as a journalist, I still just consume a lot of news, and so I find myself perpetually frustrated, angry, upset with the way disability and autism particularly is framed in media.
So, I think I didn't intend to write that. That's something that just spilled out when I was writing the book because I thought, if there's a young autistic journalist in a newsroom, what kinds of things that she's going to be experiencing, what kinds of things is she going to be thinking about, what kinds of things that she can be writing about? So, that was something that naturally came out I guess on the page.
And then once it was there, I realised you know, I haven't read that in books before. I haven't explored that as a reader, so it made me feel like it was important to explore as a writer.
MICHELLE VIJAY: I'm really glad that your books are out there as representation. Like, that's really good and easy to connect with for autistic teens now.
KAY KERR: Thank you.
MICHELLE VIJAY: Writing itself is a very challenging process, I understand, and do you have any advice for students out there watching for how to handle the more stressful parts of it?
KAY KERR: I think, something that I used to do was to take other people's writing process, or their writing advice very literally and very stringently. I sort of feel like you have to write every day, or you have to write like this, you have to-- your writing process has to look like X, Y and Z and I think it's taken me longer than I would have liked to realise that. Your process-- if you're given tips, they're good things to try but if they don't work for you, you don't have to hold on to them.
So, finding what works for you, like, write every day is something that I hear all the time, and it's not something that's possible. Like if I'm exhausted, if I'm in burnout, there's no way-- like anything I would write in that space would be pointless. It would not be of value, so it's-- it's better for me to rest in those times. And I think carving out a writing process that works with my life, and works with my energy levels, and where my mind is at has been-- and sometimes that can be like hyperfocus.
Like a whole block of time, and I look up, and I realise I've forgotten to go to the toilet, and I've forgotten to eat, and it's-- 4 hours has passed and that's amazing but, that-- it can also be days and even weeks of times not writing. So, I think it's just, yeah, letting-- letting what works for you come out.
MICHELLE VIJAY: That's excellent advice. Thank you. Thank you so much for letting me interview you today, Kay. It's been amazing talking with you. And I hope everyone watching out there enjoys reading your incredible novels as much as I did, while they work to complete the Premier's Reading Challenge.
KAY KERR: Thank you so much. Thank you-- thank you for your brilliant questions as well.
MICHELLE VIJAY: It's been amazing.
KAY KERR: Thank you.
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