Please Don’t Hug Me by Kay Kerr

“You see the world in a different way, Erin, and I think people might be interested in hearing about it.” (Please Don’t Hug Me)

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Kay.

Thank you for having me, Joy.

Your title, Please Don’t Hug Me (Text Publishing) is eye-catching and memorable. Why have you chosen it?

I had a really hard time committing to a title and Please Don’t Hug Me was called Book 1 for a long time. The title came about when I was working on a part of the book where the protagonist Erin is contemplating the politics and rules around hugging, and how they are different for every person. She spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to navigate the social expectation and ensuing awkwardness, and Please Don’t Hug Me seemed to capture the balance of seriousness and humour of that moment, and the rest of the book. I love the positive response the title is getting, especially in the context of the pandemic.

Where is the narrative set?

It is set in Cleveland, which is a coastal suburb in the Redlands, southeast of Brisbane. It is where I spent most of my childhood years. Setting my debut novel in my hometown felt like a natural choice and allowed me to draw on the strong sense of place that comes from spending your formative years somewhere. It also gave me the chance to include Minjerribah, the island that sits in the bay and is visible from the mainland, which is an incredibly special place. And I got to include a scene with the nightmare-inducing giant roundabout that scares the heck out of everyone doing their driving exam in Cleveland, so that was fun.

Why is the cover covered in donuts?

Because the cover designer Jessica Horrocks is incredible! She managed to use elements from the story without giving too much away, and I think the result is beautiful. I particularly like the scrunched paper effect that makes it look like a letter that Erin maybe started writing to her brother Rudy, and discarded midway through. The donuts come from a ritual in the book, where Erin’s best friend Dee brings her donuts when she has had a bad day. They eat them together, not saying much, because Erin is not usually able to process and verbalise straight away, and it’s this lovely little sign of their friendship. It also means I’ve been given lots of delicious donuts since the book came out, so I have Jess to thank for that.

Your book is being launched during coronavirus social distancing. How apt is this timing? How are you launching it and getting the word out?

While the timing of the title of my book and the social distancing rules is quite funny, I definitely wish I wasn’t launching a book during a global pandemic. It’s a stressful time and people are going through so much at the moment, including grief, financial insecurity and uncertainty about the future. It feels strange to be talking about my book when that is all going on. But I’m turning to books and movies and music to help me cope, and I think other people are as well. I’ve been very fortunate that book people, including everyone at Text Publishing, the wider LoveOzYA and writing community, booksellers, bloggers and readers have supported me through my debut launch despite the current circumstances. People have been quite innovative and quick to create digital alternatives.

Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane hosted an incredible digital launch event for me, and they have been running great events every week. And OzAuthorsOnline is another new initiative, run by some wonderful people, that gave me a chance to hold a digital event with Nina Kenwood. So there have been some really big positives to come from this time, and the book community is showing its colours again, pulling together and supporting everyone.

We can’t ignore the newfound accessibility of events either, and I hope digital events stay even when we are allowed to host in-person launches again. They make attendance possible for disabled people, people who live regionally or people who otherwise could not attend events in the major cities.

Erin has a strong, distinctive voice. Why have you chosen letters as the forum to share her thoughts?

I didn’t make a conscious choice to sit down and write an epistolary book when I started writing, it just came out like that. Actually, I think the very first draft began as diary entries and I quickly realised Erin was actually writing to someone else, so that is how it morphed into letters to her older brother Rudy.

My experience with being autistic is that I am not great at communicating what I mean and what I think in the moment. There is too much going on and I’m usually struggling to process sensory input and all the social rules and cues I need to remember. I wanted to explore that same idea with Erin, who is autistic as well. Writing is the truest way for her to express herself, which is something I delved a little deeper into throughout the book. She is able to figure out how she feels and to reflect on how she acts, and the kind of person she wants to be.

How has Erin’s older brother Rudy influenced her?

Where Erin is trying to be the person everyone seems to want her to be, her older brother Rudy has always done exactly what he wants, when he wants. Sometimes that can have destructive or chaotic results, but Erin admires his confidence and covets his freedom. They haven’t always had the closest sibling relationship, because they are so different and going through very different things, but Erin finds a closeness and connection through writing letters to him. She also gets the chance to look back and appreciate all the times in the past where Rudy had actually been on her side, vouching for her, and she hadn’t realised. I love exploring sibling dynamics in my writing, and this was a special one.

Could you tell us a little about Erin’s friends?

Erin’s best friend is Dee, and they have been friends since primary school. They have a shorthand that comes from knowing each other so well, but Erin can’t help but notice they are growing in different directions towards the end of high school. That’s a struggle for her, because she has a hard time with change, and so much is already changing in her life at that time. Dee is trying to be a supportive friend, but she also has her own stuff going on, and I don’t think she or Erin are always great friends to one another. They have a deep love for each another though, which I hope shines through.

Erin makes a new friend, Aggie, during the course of the book, and she brings a wonderful new energy to the story. They meet working together at the elderly womens’ clothing shop Robins, where Erin begrudgingly ends up after losing her job at the surf shop. Aggie is a singer and a uni student, so she is removed from the social constructs of high school, and doesn’t place any importance on the hierarchy that Erin is so determined to fit into. She is bright and sensitive and open with Erin, which is exactly the kind of friendship Erin is seeking, and they have a lot of fun together mucking around in the shop when there are no customers. Seeing someone so wholly themselves definitely opens Erin’s eyes a little bit as to what is possible. Aggie is a young Quandamooka woman, with strong ties to family and culture, which was really important to get right on the page. Using sensitivity, or ‘authenticity’ readers was one step in the process I felt was helpful and necessary.   

How have you incorporated humour into your story?

My favourite books to read are the ones that strike a balance between serious and funny, so I suppose I tried to write a book like that. Erin struggles so much through this story, so it was important to me to find moments of humour, whether they are intentional or unintentional on her behalf. She is funny without realising it, and her observations about human behaviour were some of the best parts to write.

How important is encouragement?

I think everyone wants to feel like they are on the right track, or doing the right thing. I certainly do anyway. Erin probably needed a little more encouragement throughout Please Don’t Hug Me than she got, but she manages to find her way towards the end. Sometimes having one person in your corner is all you need to get through a hard time, so I wanted to pay tribute to some of the friendships I’ve had in my life for that reason.

Why is forgiveness important?

There are a lot of admirable characters out there in books who always do the right thing, and make the morally right choices, even if it means going against their friends or being ostracised. And I’m sure there are lots of young people who do that too. But that wasn’t my experience of high school, and I wanted to explore with Erin this idea of what happens when someone is making all their choices off the idea of wanting to fit in, or wanting to be liked. It’s not going to end well for them. Erin’s choices affect the people around her, and she has to apologise and try to make things right when she does the wrong thing. I think forgiveness is part of that, but I think apologising and acknowledging the ways you have hurt people is the important thing, whether the other person chooses to forgive you or not.

What one thing do you most want people to know about autism?

I think it would be useful to know that autism is MORE than most people understand. The interactions and experiences (or lack thereof) that people have with autistic people might shape their understanding of it, but I think there is more to be learnt. Autism doesn’t exist as a sliding scale from ‘low functioning’ to ‘high functioning’ and as the saying goes, if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. It is truly a spectrum. My book is never going to represent ALL autistic people, because every one is different. We just need more. More accurate representation in books and movies and television will help, as will more studies that centre autistic people and their experiences.

What book/s are you reading at the moment and would like to recommend?

I haven’t had a huge amount of reading time lately, but I am working my way through some excellent LoveOzYA in every spare minute I can steal. I would recommend Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley, which is another Australian YA book that has just come out, with an autistic protagonist. I think it’s really exciting that both of these books came out at the same time, and are so different in form.

I’ve also recently read and loved Deep Water by Sarah Epstein, Taking Down Evelyn Tait by Poppy Nwosu and Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller.

How can your readers contact you?

Kay Kerr (photo Text Publishing)

I am on Twitter @kaymariek and Instagram @kaykerr_ and readers are always welcome to drop me a line through the contact page on my website kaykerr.com. Hearing from readers is such a special part of this publishing experience.

YA readers and others need to hear Erin’s story and it is a bonus that Kay has told it so well. It is refreshing, funny, moving and important.

All the very best with Please Don’t Hug Me, Kay.

Thank you so much for your time and the wonderful questions.

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