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19 June 2023

NZ Book Awards Q&A: Eileen Merriman

Writer, sci-fi/fantasy fan and keen Hooked on NZ Books He Ao Ano reviewer Kyra Johnson chats with Eileen Merriman about Indigo Moon, which is a finalist for the Young Adult Fiction Award in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Kyra: Kia ora, Eileen! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and briefly describe your journey to becoming an author?

Eileen: I started writing around the age of 8 years old. There were always exercise books with my stories lying all around the house. I was an avid reader, so it seemed natural to start creating my own stories. However I was also very interested in medicine. I wrote a novella before I left high school and sent it off to Penguin, which is when I got my first rejection letter. Then I stopped writing for about eighteen years, as I was so busy doing degrees and specialising in my field of medicine (haematology – blood disorders). When I got my first consultant job at North Shore Hospital, I realised I had time for hobbies again. I started writing at the end of that year, wondering why I was bothering as I thought I had missed my window of opportunity to be an author – and then realised I’d forgotten how good it made me feel!

After getting another novel rejected by all the major publishing houses, I decided to do a writing course. I completed the 30-week Fiction Writing course at Creative Hub. I also wrote a number of short stories, and was short listed and placed in a number of awards, including four times in the Sunday Star Times awards! After having another couple of novels rejected, I wrote ‘Pieces of You’ under the guidance of Paula Morris through the NZSA Mentorship programme. That was the first time I’d written for young adults, and my first published novel. I haven’t looked back since – I’ve now had twelve novels published since 2017, and another one is due out soon.

What inspired you to write Indigo Moon, the first book in the Eternity Loop series?

I really enjoyed the process of world-building with the Black Spiral trilogy, as well as the characters I’d created. So I thought, I wonder how the next generation of the virally optimised teenagers would be like, and what sort of challenges they might have to face? I created Indigo Moon and the story took off from there!

Do you find it difficult to balance your writing with your other career as a consultant haematologist?

    Not usually. I write faster than my publisher can publish the books, so that’s not an issue. Generally I can attend most of the writing events I’m invited to if I’m given enough notice, so it’s not often I have to say that I can’t because I’m working. Every now and then there is a ‘perfect storm’ of busy-ness in both my careers and once e.g. when I was editing two books at once and writing up my PhD! But generally it works out.

    Did you enjoy writing Indigo Moon - or specific aspects of it - more than the books from your previous trilogy?

      I really enjoyed the new addition of time travel – that created a whole new layer of complexity and fun, especially with the creation of Billy Raven, the time vampire. Also, parts of the book were set in 2088, so it was fun to imagine what the world would look like by then e.g. cloned waiters, a restaurant in a very high building with individual dining capsules that docked around the outside.

      What was the specific message or theme you were trying to communicate to readers?

        That’s a hard one – I’m not sure I was specifically trying to convey a message, other than, nothing is as it seems. I enjoyed the unpredictability of the story, and the twists and turns that time travel afforded. Don’t take anything for granted, I guess! Also, don’t give up, even if it seems all hope is lost. Perseverance is everything.

        Was there a particular age group this message was aimed at?

          This book is largely aimed at 14 years and up.

          “When I write, I often enter a state that others term ‘flow’, where I lose track of time and sense of the world around me. ”

          What is the best part about writing for you?

            When I write, I often enter a state that others term ‘flow’, where I lose track of time and sense of the world around me. When I finish, I find I’m both relaxed and energised – it’s like meditating, or the dopamine rush you get after intense exercise. I also love that so many people have read and enjoyed my work – getting feedback about that gold! And getting to mix with other writers is also such a buzz; they’re such a special, talented group of people.

            What advice would you give to aspiring writers trying to overcome certain struggles of writing, for example writer’s block or lack of motivation?

              Just keep going. No one ever became good at anything without lots of practice. Writing courses are helpful, but not essential. Read a lot, and think about how the writer crafted their story – what makes it work (or not?). Write what you would want to read. Even just writing a little bit every day adds up when you are short on time. Sometimes, if I have writer’s block, I sit down and make myself write just one page, stream of consciousness style, without worrying about the quality of the writing, which can free up your thoughts. Other times I’ll take a break by going for a walk on the beach, reading a book or hanging out with friends, because sometimes you need more of life to feed your writing.

              How do you plan your writing? Do you plan out the entire story, just key parts you want to include, a few chapters before, etc.?

                I have a tentative plan. My main characters are really important so I jot down lots of notes about them. I have some idea of the climax I’m building towards, but not necessarily how the book will be resolved. And then I just sit down and start writing, chapter by chapter, knowing the climax should come about two-thirds of the way through the book – for my young adult books, that’s around 50,000 words in general. I’m not that good at plotting ahead of time. My story needs to unfurl, and echo back on itself, if that makes sense.

                Would you like to see Indigo Moon, or any of your other books, made into a movie or series at some point?

                  Absolutely. In fact, the Black Spiral trilogy (which are the books preceding Indigo Moon, although not essential pre-reading) has been optioned for a TV series by South Pacific Pictures so I’m crossing my fingers they get their funding. I’ve also had two books optioned for movies by an Australian producer – Invisibly Breathing and Catch Me When You Fall. It’s very exciting to hear what other’s vision of my book may be when translated for the screen, and I can’t imagine how it feels to actually see that come to fruition.

                  And finally, do you as the author personally relate to any of your characters in Indigo Moon?

                    I think I relate to all my characters in some way. No one is purely good or evil, so even the villains have some redeeming features, or at least they may have started off with good intentions. But I have a really soft spot for Rigel (AKA Hunter Blue), who is Indigo’s best friend and also the offspring of a virally optimised couple. He’s quite moralistic but not above breaking the rules to put his friends and family before duty, if need be. Indigo Moon is quite feisty, a bit of a bad girl at the start but she has an interesting character arc and grows a lot throughout the course of the book. And Billy Raven is so charismatic that it’s hard not to love him, even when he’s being bad (but I’ll try not to drop any spoilers in there!).

                    About the interviewer

                    Kia ora! My name is Kyra Johnson and I'm a Year 12 student at John Paul II High School in Greymouth. I love to read fantasy and science fiction, but I also like writing this genre, too. In my spare time I try to work on my own book, with the help of English teachers from my school. Eileen Merriman's books were captivating and entertaining, and she is certainly one of my favourite authors!

                    About the writer

                    Eileen Merriman is both a full-time Clinical Director of Haematology at North Shore Hospital and a very successful writer. You can learn more about Eileen on her Writer's File.