#LoveOzYA Q&A with Kay Kerr about SOCIAL QUEUE
Kay Kerr’s debut novel, PLEASE DON'T HUG ME, was released in 2020. She wrote the first draft when she received her autism diagnosis. It was shortlisted for the Book of the Year for Older Children for the Australian Book Industry Awards 2021 and was Commended for the CBCA Notable Books Older Readers 2021.
She spoke to #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about her second novel, SOCIAL QUEUE, which was released 28 September 2021.
How would you describe SOCIAL QUEUE?
I would say that it is a romantic, coming of age story. I would call it a YA, it’s right on the cusp. It has an 18-year-old protagonist called Zoe and she’s just finished high school and she's moving into the new phase of her life, going to uni, and she’s doing an internship at an online media organisation. The first piece she writes is about her lack of dating experience and it goes viral and she ends up hearing from all these people from her past saying that they did have romantic feelings towards her, but she’s just missed the social cues. So she goes back to reconnect with each of those people in a different way to find out what she missed and writes about each interaction.
I really loved reading it and being able to experience the world through Zoe's eyes, because at the heart of it, a lot of it is about her experiences as an autistic person. She's trying to navigate post school/first year uni, doing this internship at an online media company, and then trying to launch herself into the dating world and navigate the world of apps. She's known that she's autistic for quite a long time, whereas you were diagnosed when you were writing your first book, PLEASE DON'T HUG ME. Was this a way to revisit your high school experiences and process them through that lens and with this knowledge that you have about yourself, that you didn't have back then?
Yeah, I think with PLEASE DON'T HUG ME, my diagnosis was very much at the forefront because it was happening in real time as I was writing it. With SOCIAL QUEUE it was about 5 years between diagnosis and when I started writing it, so I had a different perspective, not necessary more right or wrong, but maybe with more understanding about the things in my life that I did to make my life easier and also the things in my life that made it harder, just with that new framework. With Zoe, it started with me wanting to explore bullying, because with PLEASE DON'T HUG ME, what I heard from autistic teenagers and their families was how much they struggled with bullying and there was a little of that in PLEASE DON'T HUG ME, but I really wanted, with SOCIAL QUEUE, to explore the aftermath of that, not necessarily to write scenes with an autistic person getting bullied, but more to unpack how that impacted her self-esteem, her self-worth and even her self-understanding because she spent so much of her high school experience masking her autistic traits. I think it’s a common experience for autistic people if they’re in a masking situation, like school or a job, for them to come away from that experience feeling like they don’t know themselves that well because so much of what they’ve been doing to keep up has been covering their real selves. I wanted to give Zoe the chance to explore that outside the framework of high school. She’s given the space and the time to reinvent herself, that’s how she starts, and that’s a process of getting to know herself a bit better and getting to set her boundaries with her friends and her family and work and university, and to carve out a life and a space that works for her.
Yeah, and she certainly does. There's a lot in the book about how she manages herself, I suppose, and references to her having seen a psychologist to process some of the bullying experiences that she's had. She certainly seems to have a bit of insight into what she needs to put in place to be able to navigate the neurotypical world. Rest was a really big theme that stood out for me. Zoe talks a lot about feeling exhausted by things and needing time to rest and to play Sims and to watch Netflix and her dad also has some difficulties with mental health issues, after an accident and being on a disability pension now. Whereas Zoe’s sister, Harriet, and her mother are very much go-go-go all the time kind of people, whereas Zoe and her dad are not. Can you tell us a bit more about the role that rest plays in your world and what can happen if an autistic person doesn't rest enough? Obviously, recognizing that that experience will be different for every person with autism.
Yes, of course, but I think a lot of autistic people will be very familiar with the idea of burn-out and how easy it can be to end up there, in a state of burn-out. Your ability to function in the world, the capacity of what you’re able to do, starts to decrease as you burn-out, and then it can be really hard to climb out of that. I gave Zoe a lot more self-awareness in this space than I probably have even now, around knowing when to rest, and knowing what her support needs are in order to be able to move through the world in a way that isn’t burning her out or emotionally stressing her, just trying to live a life that works for her autistic self, rather than trying to fit herself into neurotypical expectations or, you know, there's that kind of culture of hustle culture, like the more you’re doing the better. You’ve got a job and then when you're not at your job, you’ve got a side business. I think people value that more than they value rest. Maybe the pandemic is changing that, I’m not sure.
I wanted in their family unit to explore busy-ness as a self-motivator and a sense of pride, versus there’s two people in their family who are disabled, her and her father, so for them, rest needs to happen, it’s non-negotiable, I guess. That was a choice I made because I sometimes find myself comparing my output or my ability to keep up with other people’s standards of what they’re able to achieve, and not necessarily coming out of that feeling positive and then I realise that’s an internalised ableism of years of not knowing this about how my brain works and feeing guilty about needing rest, which defeats the purpose of rest. So yes, that was definitely on my mind as I was writing it and even more so as I edited it as we started a pandemic and it’s easier to feel like if you’re never alone, you never get a rest. That’s another thing I wanted to tackle - loneliness. Her best friend has moved to the other side of the world, she’s in a new environment with her internship and university, so she's feeling sort of out of place and lonely and just how that compares with the need to be alone as an autistic person, and that can exist at the same time as social loneliness and the desire for more connection and how those two things balance with each other.
At one point in the book, Zoe acts as a bit of a subject matter expert at the online media company, and one of the other writers gets her to read some of her work with the lens of writing about autism and disability. You've made a note at the back of the book that you've used the term disabled, and that's one that Zoe identifies with, but perhaps not everyone does. So can you tell us a bit more about that side of things.
Yeah, I think I’ve come at it in a couple of different ways. The first being my experience working as a journalist for a number of years and all my experiences as a cadet and the power imbalances that come to play in the newsroom when there are more senior people, so that was something I wanted to look at. And then, I guess, being an autistic adult and a disabled adult, who reads the news and sees the way disability reporting is done wrong or not done well. I chose to call Zoe disabled because that’s how she identifies with her autistic diagnosis. The note at the back of the book is about the social model of disability which basically says that a person is disabled by the environment that does not meets their support needs, so a wheelchair-user might be disabled because a building is not accessible, as opposed to them being disabled because they’re in a wheelchair. So I wanted to make a note of that and also I know that there are autistic people who wouldn’t use that label, but just to make a specific note about the reasons why I chose that and because I was exploring disability reporting in the media, so I wanted to be very conscious of my choices, in language and the way I looked at it and unpacked it because my understanding is so much more now than it was a few years ago, so I wanted anyone who picked up the book to see where I was coming from and where Zoe is on that journey.
To me, it's a great point to make about that social model, that it almost unifies us, that we could all be disabled if our world has not been engineered and created to meet our needs. I even think of left-handed people trying to write in notebooks that are made for right-handed people, it’s a small scale thing, but how much more so when you don't have ramps and you don't have the mobility aids that you need in order to navigate the world.
And I think because autism is not necessarily visible to the people around somebody, so in order to have your needs met, often you need to be a self-advocate or having people advocating for you. So there are going to be certain situations you're going to avoid because you know that they're going to be intolerable, whether that’s going to be really loud, really bright lights or too many people in an echoey space where it gets hard to process sound. A lot of young autistic people that I know, as well, are making big changes, whether it's in their school setting or their university or their work, where they're advocating for themselves and having the rules changed, so they suit everybody as opposed to rules that you read and you go, that knocks autistic people out of that setting, they’re not going to be able to do that. So it was really inspiring to me to see young people being active in getting those things changed for the next generation of people coming through.
Yeah, that is, it's really exciting. Recently I watched CRIP on Netflix, which is all about the advocacy that happened in the 70s, I think, in America, to actually get wheelchair accessible buildings and things like that, things that we take for granted now, that buildings are designed to be more accessible. I'm sure there's still plenty of obstacles and barriers for people accessing them still, but it amazed me to hear that it was so recent that, you know designers weren't taking that into consideration and weren't making buildings accessible for everyone. Yeah, so it's great to see that the world is more accessible, but it's a shame that it's not more accessible and we still have that need to continue to have to advocate just to be able to engage with the world.
I think I didn’t want to put Zoe in the position of authority on that matter either, in a way, because she’s very open about the fact that she knows what she knows because she’s learnt from disability advocates who do the work in educating the broader community and I feel that’s very much the space that I sit in where I get to listen and tune into people like Carly Findlay or a number of other advocates and activists who are doing the work to educate people and I get to reap the benefits of that or I get to spread that word a bit further by filtering it through to the community I’m in. I wanted Zoe to be teaching the other reporter, but she’s also going “you could learn this stuff too if you just put in a little bit of time”.
Yes, it’s so important for all of us to do that… Now, I wanted to ask you about you a bit more about writing SOCIAL QUEUE and how that was different from writing PLEASE DON'T HUG ME.
They feel like polar opposites in terms of writing experience, but they probably ended up having more thematic similarities than I thought when I started writing SOCIAL QUEUE. I think I started from just wanting to write something joyous and uplifting and escapist, I guess, because I started writing it during the bushfires of 2019/2020 and then into a pandemic and all I wanted to read and watch throughout that was romance stories because they were a little bit of an escape and a bubble. I started with this idea of wanting to write something really heartfelt and uplifting, but then as I got into it and bumped up against my early experiences, both dating and as a young reporter, there were other themes that came to the work that were maybe a little bit more real or maybe a little heavier or unexpected. Because it was a concept that came to me sort of fully formed about this girl going back and reconnecting with people in her past. Not that I’m a planner because I really am a pantser of a writer - I sit down and see what happens, but I had these checkpoints and I decided pretty early that it was going to be five people because I just really like the number 5. So, I knew I was going to be writing my way between these dates and that gave me a framework so that my first draft came out a lot cleaner than PLEASE DON'T HUG ME. And because I’d done it before, I guess, the editing process was a bit more familiar to me so I knew what to expect in terms of structure and a little bit more about what the final result was going to look like. Whereas with PLEASE DON'T HUG ME, I felt like I was trying to decode a foreign language or something, whereas this, I kind of knew a bit more. I feel like authors talk about their second books being a struggle and I feel like I lucked out with this one, but I definitely feel like my third book is going be that struggle so I don’t think I get to escape it, I just get to delay it for a bit. But it was a lot of fun, a lot of dreaming up cute moments or awkward moments or bad dates and that was just really enjoyable to me. I love rom-coms, reading them and watching them, so it was really good.
Yeah, it's definitely a very fun book. And it's definitely got a different feel to PLEASE DON'T HUG ME and yeah, a lot lighter and funnier, but it's interesting because you do have structures in both, so this one, as you say, you've structured it around the people that she goes back and meets and then writes articles about that, whereas the last one the structure was the letters. But do you have any tips for aspiring writers and especially aspiring autistic writers, things that you find work for you?
Yes, OK. I am lucky to be doing a writing group with young autistic writers and they blow me away with their work so I don’t know that I’d necessarily position myself as knowing what to do, but I think, as we’ve touched on, rest is really important creatively. I can have a tendency to want to push through and not listen to those signs that I might need to rest, especially when I read writing advice that is like, you must write every day or you must write 1000 words a day. It’s really easy for me to attach myself to those kind of rules and take them quite literally and feel like that’s the only way to write. Whereas with my writing, I can be in a zone where I’m hyperfocused and that can last for a few hours or a day or a week and the wordcount is ridiculously high and then I might have big periods where I don’t write at all. I think giving myself room to find what works for me is more useful than trying to stick to any kind of daily word limit or rules about the one right way to write my book. So I think finding what’s right for you and not holding yourself to other people’s standards is probably my best advice.
Yeah, that sounds like good advice. Every author that I interview does it a bit differently so there’s definitely no one right way to write, which is very freeing I think.
Yeah, but it doesn’t mean you can’t try all of those different ways too and see what does work. A piece of advice that I think Gabby Tozer said to me is that if you’re in a place where you’re struggling with the story, you should open a document and write down all the reasons why you started writing that book. Or maybe you do it at the start so that when you’re in that struggle of “I don’t know what I’m doing, why am I doing this?”, you can go back and read all the reasons why the project was important to you. I did that with SOCIAL QUEUE and I went back and had a look at it before this chat and I kind of went, yeah, I can see what I was trying to achieve starting out, was still at the forefront of my mind at the end of the project and that definitely helped to keep me on track, I think.
So do you feel like you achieved it, what you set out to do?
Well, they weren’t like “you must do this”, they were more like I wanted to explore autism and dating because I don’t think there are a lot of stories that explore that. Or I wanted to talk about autonomy within a family structure when somebody has support needs. Just goals like that and I think they were addressed in some way in the story. I think so.
I think so too.