Q: Can you tell us a little about your debut?
Yes, of course! PAWS is the story of eleven-year-old Alex who is graduating from primary school next month. This means high school is just around the corner, and since he’s autistic, even small changes can be pretty terrifying. So this… this is major. But, Alex is convinced if he can make friends with the cool, popular kids now, the transition to high school will be easier, so he makes a plan. A three-step, foolproof plan. A plan that cannot possibly go wrong – yet, it does. Thankfully, he already has Kevin, a very special friend with four paws and curly fur, who is unknowingly putting his own plan for Alex into motion.
I’ve had some astounding industry reviews over here in Australia, as well as those from highly acclaimed children’s authors who provided blurbs for me. I never expected my quiet little book to be received and welcomed so positively!
Q: How did the very first idea for your story come to you?
I’m not sure if I can remember the very first idea for the story, or when it came, to be honest! I think that’s because so much of the emotion of the story was lived experience for many years, which had obviously been burrowing deep and weaving with memories in my subconscious to create a full book idea. But, I do recall when pieces started to fit together more firmly, and I knew there was an important story to tell.
I’d been writing kids’ horror for years, and most of my characters were gentle, quieter boys, usually with mental health issues, and I just loved that personal and deep connection I made with them. It became quickly apparent that I wrote my best work when I was delving into the more emotional, human content of writing, and this was reflected back by the, often quite astonishing, feedback from my regular beta readers. So, after wandering around for a while adding scene onto scene and putting the puzzle together, I started drafting while on submission with another project. PAWS didn’t take long to draft at all. And I’m sorry to tell you that there were next to no edits required either! The published version is extremely close to the first draft. I believe it goes to show that being in the right head and soul-space helps.
Q: Your book deals with autism, friendship and anxiety. Can you tell us a little about how autism and anxiety influence the characters and plot? Do you name diagnoses and explain what they mean? Why or why not did you make that choice?
My main character is autistic and has quite a lot of anxiety. It’s not uncommon for this to be the case for autistic people since society as a whole isn’t that friendly or accepting of us and can be pretty stressful to say the least. It’s tough navigating day-to-day life stuff as a neurodivergent. Alex’s thought processes, his understanding, or lack thereof, of his peers and what most see as simple interactions are fairly central to how the story plays out. His, I guess, over analytical mind can be a huge hindrance causing him a great deal of stress, but his innocence and open trust leave him vulnerable and impressionable at the same time.
In terms of including diagnoses and explanations, I didn’t take that path, no. The voice and style didn’t call for it. Ultimately it’s a story about a young boy wanting to find a friend before he heads off to a new school, and not an educational tool for readers to learn about autism as if they’re reading a non-fiction book. Alex is autistic, but since I wrote this in first person present tense, it was far more realistic that his diagnosis and any technical terms weren’t included because, for him at least, it wouldn’t be authentic. It wouldn’t fit with his voice. He’s a normal eleven-year-old boy and simply doesn’t think like this, always referring to his autism and anxiety, or thinking in terms of what psychologists or paediatricians would say to him or his family. Yes, he might recall words and phrases, looks and lessons, and in a couple of cases he does bring this up, but otherwise he’s just getting on with his life and wondering about running in races and playing on his computer or with his dog.
Q: Your main character, Alex, is autistic and you are an #ownvoices author. How do Alex’s experiences mirror your own? Was it important to you to keep close to your story or to differentiate it?
Well, there are similarities, but also many differences. It was impossible not to put a lot of me in Alex’s story, or any of my characters’ stories, but this was more in terms of his thought processes, that over-analysing, his emotional responses, and more often than not his naivety and confusion. I was a child many many years ago *cries*, so not in the digital age, which did lead to a whole different lifestyle. I didn’t have a diagnosis either, so wasn’t even aware of why I thought and acted and struggled with seemingly simple things the way I did. I knew I was different to other kids, but at the same thought maybe everyone thought like I did. Talk about complicated, confusing, and messy! And, since my diagnosis is still relatively new, I’m working through a lot of my childhood through these new, knowing eyes. Things are taking on a whole new meaning and it’s quite a lot to process. So much learning and readjusting to be done!
In Alex’s case, though he doesn’t think in diagnosis terms, he’s still aware that his brain is a little different and that his teachers and classmates know this. He’s been to see specialists and knows why, even if the details are a little lacking. He’s attended classes to learn more about managing emotions and feelings. Plus, he has a family who are also aware and knowledgeable, and thus supportive. They are learning, and they make accommodations for him where they can, which allows him to some degree to be himself and not hide how he really feels when at home.
I am also a mother of an autistic boy, so some of the experiences Alex has do have links to those my son’s had too. Though again, not exactly the same, more influences.
Q: How did you find a balance between writing authentically about mental health while still keeping your story entertaining and age appropriate?
This is quite a hard one to answer, as I just wrote a story about a boy who wanted to make a friend. Balancing content and elements relating to mental health wasn’t really on my mind throughout. Alex’s mental health issues as well as being autistic are simply part of him and the way he thinks – the way I think and react and process. They are part of our characters. Writing any character requires knowing them inside and out, so in the case of PAWS, I wanted to put an autistic child in a “regular” storyline, navigating “regular” life, and not make the focus on his autism or anxiety alone.
So, I don’t think this balancing act was ever a particularly conscious thing for me in this story. I wanted to entertain, make readers care, see this young boy and his adorable dog, go on their own important quest and root for them. I wanted them to make an emotional connection with Alex, to care about him, to go through every single thought process with him without being bogged down with technicalities and long words that are instantly forgettable or pull them out of the voice and story.
Q: Although you are #ownvoices, not everyone experiences life the same, of course! Did you feel the need to do additional research or get sensitivity readers?
Oh absolutely. I will always employ sensitivity readers who identity as autistic or who have mental health issues, depending on the content of my work. I am relatively new to the autistic community, I’d say only in the last six or seven years, so though of course my experiences are valid and mine to own and share, I also never want to appear as if I’m speaking for all of us, or maybe include references in my work that might be triggering or offensive, or even continue to build on harmful stereotyping.
I had several autistic readers for PAWS and I cannot thank them enough for their input and time. And even now that the book is out, I’d love to hear from autistic readers – young and old – who maybe share Alex’s experiences or have gone through similar. Or who even have a completely different story to tell. No story is incorrect or boring. We all should have a chance to share how we think and feel and be accepted and respected for doing so.
Q: Who is your favorite character and why?
Eek, how can I pick?! Okay, Ned. He’s Alex’s fourteen-year-old brother and an absolute sweetie. He’s a teenager, so up and down and all over the place – as is normal. Emotional, frustrated, trying to find his feet and path. Still a kid but also not little anymore and becoming more independent. But, Ned’s always there for Alex, even though he may contribute at times to Alex’s anxiety. He has these tender moments, where Alex and Alex’s needs are more important than anything, and he shows them without shame. Being a teen is so hard, but these kids are golden and sparkly and if you look hard enough you’ll find big hearts and souls.
Q: In the past several years, there has been an increase in childrens’ books with autistic characters. Is there a particular take-away you hope readers experience with your book?
There has indeed been an increase in autistic character leads, and this is wonderful. But there still aren’t enough! With my book, I’d love readers to learn and appreciate that making small adjustments and accommodations, often very minor changes and alterations to the way we think, speak, and react, can mean everything to a neurodivergent person. Just asking, is this okay, it this too loud, are you comfortable, and so on, can be the difference between them suffering internally, melting down, or shutting down, and them being able to participate and contribute in the way they can and should like everyone else. You don’t have to bend over backwards, shine a spotlight on us, or disrupt others to ensure we feel confident and accepted. Simply stop, think, and ask us if we’re okay and if we need anything. Allow us the comfort to say when things are overwhelming, let us step away without judgement, and encourage others to accept and do the same.
Q: In your journey to becoming a published author, were you influenced by any authors in particular?
Many! I have so many favourite authors and have read heaps since I was little. I think every author has had some impact on me in some capacity, back in the days of Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis, but more recently, a few authors in particular who I’ve felt have influenced my style and goals specifically as a writer, include Patrick Ness, David Almond, and Lisa Thompson. Each of these authors have taught me that making that connection with a character is everything when it comes to being a reader, and in turn how important this is in my writing.
Q: Tell us what’s next!
I can’t talk about some of what’s next *screams and squees internally* but please expect more dogs, more autistic characters, more mental health issues, always more tender, sweet, gentle, and heart-warming tales, and did I mention more dogs?!
Kate Foster writes children's books about friends, family, and dogs. Originally from the south east of England, she now lives on the beautiful Gold Coast in Australia with her family and rescue dogs. She loves eating cake, reading books, and watching cooking programs on TV! You can connect with her at www.kfosterbooks.com or on Twitter.