Eileen Merriman doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the angst, humour and drama for her award-winning novels.
Her early years, as one of three children, were a bit of a roller coaster: the family moved cities, which meant frequent changes of primary school; her parents split up; and, tragically, she lost a brother to suicide.
At the recent launch of Merriman’s third young adult novel, Invisibly Breathing, someone joked that she must have an implanted nuclear chip that keeps her going. By the end of 2020, and within barely two years, she will have produced four young adult novels and two adult novels as well as some short stories and flash fiction. Pieces of You and Catch Me When You Fall were finalists in the 2018 New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, and in 2015, Merriman won the Graeme Lay Short Story Competition.
And that’s what she achieves in her “spare time”. By day, she is a haematologist at North Shore Hospital. She has two children, Lachie, 11, and Maisie, 5, and attributes much of her success to her scientist-turned-house-husband, Grant. Almost as an afterthought, Merriman mentions she’s just completed a PhD.
You set a cracking pace. How do you balance competing demands of the writing, the family and being a full-time doctor and a part-time student?
One of my nurses says I am an active relaxer. I can’t very easily sit still and blob in front of the TV. I always want to be doing something. My brain’s always working and so, if I’m waiting for an appointment with somebody, I will probably be writing on my phone. I wrote a third of one of my books by a pool in Thailand. The words were flowing and we were just lounging by the pool, watching the kids. That is relaxing for me.
Tell me about your early years, some of which are reflected in the Invisibly Breathing storyline.
There were two years when I was at about five different primary schools because of a lot of moving around between Auckland and Wellington. My parents broke up when I was 11. Things became more stable after that. I didn’t say exactly where in Wellington Invisibly Breathing was set, but it’s pretty much Lower Hutt and Naenae, and that’s where I moved to once my mother got together with my stepfather. I moved to Naenae halfway through my Form 2 year, and it was quite hard being the new kid all over again. But my years at Naenae College were enjoyable.
The theme of being an outsider features in at least two of your books.
Yes, Pieces of You and Invisibly Breathing have it. I was always the new kid, which is partly why I always read a lot. I seem to gravitate towards that outsider theme.
Have you found your place in the world, or is there still an element of being an outsider?
When I started as a consultant in Auckland in 2010, I didn’t know anyone. Being a consultant is stressful and I needed to find a way to unwind, so I took up running. I started to feel a bit better. I hadn’t written since my teens, but 18 or so years later, I started writing again.
You seem to easily get into the heads and language of young people in your writing. How do you do it?
In terms of how they think, I remember that vividly from when I was a teenager. I’ve always been fascinated by the transition to becoming a young adult. You’ve got all these firsts: the first time you get drunk, the first time you’re kissed. You’re exploring your world, trying to learn who you are.
And what about the way they talk, the teenage vernacular?
I’ve got a million – well, not quite – nieces and I see how they talk to each other on Facebook. Sometimes I’ve checked [details] with them because they are older than my children. For Pieces of You, I asked one of my nieces if they still said “french kissing”, and she said, “No, what’s that? We just say kissing.”
Despite some troubles at home and school, you must have done well enough to get into medical school. How was that?
I didn’t get into med school the first time; I had a bit of a turbulent first year, during which I battled depression and anxiety. So, I did a medical laboratory science degree, which was four years in total. I took subjects I thought I could get good marks in, because at med school there are places for graduate entry. I got in with my averages of A and A minus. It’s quite a high bar. Some of the people who get in are very studious, but don’t necessarily make good doctors. I tend to be an anxious person, so I think it was probably good that I was a bit more mature when I went to med school.
So, how has medicine worked out?
As a haematologist, I deal with everything to do with blood. We service about 600,000 patients and I am the head of the thrombosis unit at North Shore Hospital. That is going well, and I am also the president of the Thrombosis & Haemostasis Society of Australia and New Zealand. I’ve got quite a lot on my plate, so I am trying to negotiate to work just four days a week at the moment. My writing happens anyway, but there are things that go with it, such as requests to prepare a workshop or attend writers’ festivals.
You mentioned books were a refuge and great enjoyment as a child. What did you like?
When I was a kid, my mum went to the librarian at the community library and asked if I could start borrowing adult books. I was about 12 and I was bored with the children’s and young adult section. The selection wasn’t that big in those days. I just read everything – they didn’t censor my reading.
And I don’t censor my kids’ reading, either. You don’t need to, you just censor yourself. If my son starts reading something he’s uncomfortable with, he will put it down. I gave him Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, which I really enjoyed, and I thought it would be okay for him, but he said, “Mum, it’s too dark for me, I don’t like it”, and that is pretty wise. He read my first book, Pieces of You, two years ago, although some of it went over his head. And then he started to read the next one, but I think it was too old for him. He said he wasn’t ready yet.
Do you read to your children?
I do, and I really enjoy it. I still read to both of them, even though my son’s 11½ and perfectly capable, obviously, of reading himself, but it’s part of our time together. I’m reading him The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which he’s enjoying a lot. It’s probably slightly above what he would read to himself, but it’s quite nice that we can talk about it. With Maisie, it is just whatever she asks me to read, sometimes even cookbooks, because she likes the pictures. I started reading her The BFG [a children’s book by Roald Dahl] and she got a bit scared that the BFG [Big Friendly Giant} might come and look for her, because we hadn’t got up to the good bit. But my son had been reading it, so she knows the BFG is not bad. We went to the library the other day and she selected 14 books. She loves having her nose in a book; they both do. A favourite of theirs and mine is Charlie and Lola, by Lauren Child. The characters are just like my two; they’ve got the same sort of relationship.
So, what do you like to read?
A little bit of everything. I love literary fiction: Tim Winton, David Mitchell and lots of New Zealand writers. I’ve just read Fiona Kidman and Tina Makereti’s latest novels. And Charlotte Grimshaw is amazing. Very occasionally I’ll read fantasy, and quite often I’ll pick up a young adult book. I didn’t start out writing young adult books. I was writing adult books, but I’ve always quite enjoyed some young adult books, and I think they do cross over.
Can you describe the feeling you get when you hit the keyboard and start writing after a day’s work at the hospital?
It is like meditating. At night, after work, I used to mull over my patients and get really stressed, although there is nothing you can do when you come home. But once I start writing, my head is in a completely different space, it is my therapy. Keeping busy keeps me happy.
This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.