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Feeling seen: Kay Kerr on ‘Please Don’t Hug Me’

Kay Kerr’s YA novel Please Don’t Hug Me (Text, May) follows 17-year-old Erin as she relays life as a teenager with autism in letters to her brother. Reviewer Charlotte Guest says Kerr’s debut ‘deftly balances the serious and the light’ and she ‘can’t wait to recommend [it] to a host of sharp and curious minds’. She spoke with the author about autism in girls, ‘being seen’ and documenting the writing process online.

Please Don’t Hug Me is your debut novel, which depicts a difficult time in the life of a teenage girl with autism. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you received your own diagnosis of autism as an adult, so what made you decide to write a character who is diagnosed much earlier?

Receiving my autism diagnosis as an adult gave me a new lens through which to look at my teenage years. I really struggled with certain social and sensorial parts of high school so it was cathartic, in a way, to write this character who is going through similar experiences armed with that knowledge of herself. It was also quite an emotionally exhausting process. The understanding and acceptance of self that Erin is working towards in Please Don’t Hug Me is something that took me a lot longer to identify and start striving for in my real life. I hope it’s something that young autistic people might recognise, and in that recognition, feel a little less alone. It can be really isolating to feel as though your experience of moving through the world doesn’t align with other people’s.

In a video introducing Please Don’t Hug Me you say that autism in girls is under-diagnosed and that girls are underrepresented in depictions of autism. Why do you think this is? And how did you explore this reality in the book?

I was probably a little simplistic in my earlier explanations of receiving an autism diagnosis as a woman. Certainly, girls and women are under-diagnosed and underrepresented. But it would be more accurate to say that there is gender bias at play, and that gender stereotypes are harmful to all people on the spectrum (and in the world). There is no ‘one way’ to be autistic, but the traits that are commonly assigned to young boys aren’t necessarily the ways in which people of other genders present. Some people might internalize and shut down, rather than melt down. Some people’s special interests might be more likely to fly under the radar (it wasn’t such a strange thing when I was a young girl obsessed with Harry Potter). And of course I’m only talking from my own experience and privilege, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. I tried to depict what it can be like as a girl on the spectrum, because it’s not an experience I’ve seen or read much of in pop culture. That’s starting to change though, which is great.

What do you hope readers will take away from Erin’s story?

Firstly, I hope readers enjoy the book! That’s my main aim: I want people to laugh and cry and feel all the big awkward feelings that Erin feels. I still cringe reading certain passages, in the same way I cringe at particular memories of my own teen years. I’d love young autistic people to feel seen, like a little part of their own life is being reflected back in some way or another. I’d love everyone else to see the similarities but also the differences in their experiences from Erin’s. We are not ‘all a little bit autistic’ but there are definitely some universal feelings that cross over, like how it can feel not fitting in. I hope there are some takeaways for people on how to best support the autistic people in their lives, or for autistic people to feel confident in accessing the support they need. I hope, on a bigger scale, stories like this will move our society towards being more inclusive.

Please Don’t Hug Me is an epistolary novel, written as a series of letters from Erin to her brother Rudy. Why did you choose this form for the novel?

I played around with the format a lot when I was first writing it and I think the reason I ended up with these letters is because communication (and miscommunication) is such a big theme in my life, and I think it can be for other people on the spectrum as well. Writing things down has always been my way of processing my feelings. In the moment I’m never going to have a clear response or a ‘hot take’; I need time to work it out. Being autistic can mean going through life being told you’re overreacting, or underreacting, or not communicating in an acceptable way. It’s a constant level of self-assessment that impacts how you communicate face to face. And of course, sensory input also affects this. So to get the most truthful version of what Erin is thinking and how she is feeling, it had to be through writing letters.

You’ve documented much of the editing and publishing process on your website and blog, and a reoccurring theme is vulnerability. What has this whole experience taught you about vulnerability?

Oof, yeah. Spending 27-odd years not knowing this key thing about myself definitely gave me some unhealthy coping mechanisms. Compartmentalising, pushing the hard stuff down and not allowing anyone to really know how much I was struggling was how I handled a lot of my life, until it didn’t work anymore. Since my diagnosis and since I started writing this book, it’s been an ongoing process of stripping back and rebuilding my identity and my self-esteem. Vulnerability is the key component of that process. I don’t advocate for people needing to lay themselves bare to be accepted, but for me, stepping towards vulnerability and opening myself up to people has been a positive experience. It has brought me to a place where my relationships are better, my mental health is better and I feel so ready to put Erin’s story out into the world.

One of the posts on your website was a Please Don’t Hug Me mood board; it evokes a certain feeling, captures a mood. Would you recommend creating mood boards as a writing prompt? What other things did you do during the drafting of your novel to develop character, atmosphere or plot?

I’m not sure if a mood board is a marvelous writing prompt or a way to procrastinate from actually doing the writing—maybe a little of both. Either way, I love making them. If I was craftier I’d make a real-life version on a pin board, but Pinterest works well for me. Playlists are something I’m trying and loving with new work. Otherwise I just keep a notepad close by for when the plot, character or dialogue ideas spill out. It’s usually when I’m trying to fall asleep. If I’m feeling stuck I find walks and time in nature to be the biggest help in getting things moving again.

What was the last book you read and loved?

I’m about halfway through Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller (UQP) and loving it. I’m at the stage where I want to cancel plans to spend time with this book and see how things end up. I’ve read so many incredible #LoveOzYA books recently, I feel a little bit spoiled for choice. This is How We Change The Ending by Vikki Wakefield (Text) definitely warrants a mention. It’s the perfect distillation of everything I love about Vikki’s books and about Australian young adult fiction.


Category: Junior newsletter Interview