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Interview: Eileen Merriman talks about Invisibly Breathing

Eileen Merriman works as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital. Her writing has appeared in a number of national and international journals and anthologies. Her first novel, Pieces of You, was a Best First Book nominee at the 2018 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and a Storylines Notable Book Award winner, with reviewers calling it ‘compulsively readable’ and ‘compelling, challenging, and heartbreaking’.

Eileen’s second novel, Catch Me When You Fall, was also a Storylines Notable Book Award winner and was nominated for the Copyright Licensing NZ Award For Young Adult Fiction in 2018. Her other awards include runner-up in the 2018 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award, third for three consecutive years in the 2014-2016 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Awards, second in the 2015 Bath Flash Fiction Award, commended in the 2015 Bath Short Story Competition, and first place in the 2015 Graeme Lay Short Story Competition.

Invisibly Breathing is her third young adult novel and she has an adult novel, Moonlight Sonata, publishing in July. Eileen Merriman talks to NZ Booklovers about Invisibly Breathing.

Tell us a little about your new novel Invisibly Breathing.

Invisibly Breathing centres on a pair of sixteen-year-old boys, Felix and Bailey. Felix finds it easier to relate to numbers than people, loves the rock band Green Day, and is finding home life difficult, as his parents’ marriage is disintegrating. Bailey has just moved to Wellington from Auckland and is good at judo and making friends, but he has a stutter and his home life is also very unsettled.

The two find themselves drawn to one another, both emotionally and physically. Bullying, both verbally and via socia media, feature strongly in this novel, as does family violence. Dark topics, but, unfortunately, neither are uncommon in today’s society . . . but there is humour, compassion and hope in there too.

What inspired you to write this book?

Initially, I conceived the character Felix by thinking about the introverted parts of my personality and then magnifying those. I’d always wanted to write a book about a same-sex relationship. Since I’m a heterosexual female, at first I wasn’t sure I could do this credibly but then I read books such as A Little Life by Hanya Yanagahara and realised that wasn’t necessarily true. Finally, I wanted to write about a character from ‘the other side of the tracks’ (i.e. Bailey). I spent my teenage years in Naenae, which is far from affluent, and saw the devastating effects of poverty and family violence on some of my classmates. I wanted to write a YA book that wasn’t about youth from middle-class families where both parents were still together because, for many, that is definitely not the case.

What research was involved?

I was a keen judoka from the ages of 14-18 years and earned a blue belt in judo, so that part was easy. I spoke to gay friends, both male and female, and also a team worker from Auckland Sexual Health. The sexual health worker advised me that, unfortunately, bullying of LGBTI youth is still a big problem in some schools. She told me of stories of bullying via social media and of kids leaving school early because of harassment and ostracism. I was pleased to learn that not all schools are like that, however, so things are improving –– but evidently we still have a long way to go. I also sought advice from a friend who works for the NZ police about the family violence aspects, in particular relating to restraining orders and protection of children/youth who have been subject to family violence.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

This book went through three major drafts. In the first draft, my main character was actually female (her name was Sophie). I wrote several chapters from the first-person point of view of Sophie, but I couldn’t get into the head of Bailey, her romantic interest, and I couldn’t resolve the last third of the book. So, I changed to an alternating point of view, which resolved that problem. Then, after someone at Penguin Random House asked whether I’d ever considered writing an LGBTI book, I decided to give Sophie a sex change –– and Felix was born!

As always, I wrote a little bit every day, mostly in the evenings after work and in my spare time on the weekends (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot –– so anywhere between an hour and three hours). I completed the novel in about three months, which is pretty standard for me –– something I put it down to my obsessiveness. When in the process of writing a novel, the characters take up residence in my head. I just can’t leave them alone until it’s finished. I go to sleep thinking about them, and wake up thinking about them. I think about them while driving to work and in the shower. So even when I’m not writing, I’m continually planning lines of dialogue and plotting! All that subconscious activity makes a big difference.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Green Day’s ‘Long View’, and ‘Time of Your Life’.

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Under the Bridge’, and ‘Scar Tissue’.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

That’s a hard one . . . but probably Jack Dylan Grazer for Felix, and Jacob Hopkins or David Mazouz for Bailey.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I really enjoyed writing from a male point of view –– it felt as though I was stepping outside of myself –– and writing from alternate points of view made the novel feel much stronger.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

It was my birthday and I’d taken the day off work (as I always do on my birthday). After sending the book to my publisher to see what she thought, I went for a run (which is a great way of winding down for me!). Later that evening, I had a glass of wine . . . and started thinking about the next book . . .

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I’ve just finished reading Carl Shuker’s A Mistake. Once I’d started, it was hard to put down, and I finished it in less than two days. I could really relate to it as it was about an NZ female specialist doctor (although this character was a surgeon, and I’m a haematologist). The plot was very topical, and the prose was scalpel-sharp. I could definitely recognise this character among colleagues I’ve worked with in the past (and some aspects of myself too!).

What’s next on the agenda for you?

My first adult book, Moonlight Sonata, will be released in early July. I’ve just signed the contract for my next YA book, which will be released next year, and my second adult book will also be released in the second half of 2020. I am writing a new novel at the moment but it’s all a bit embryonic and I’m not sure if it’s working. Meanwhile, I have been finding light relief in writing some flash fiction and short stories. I always tell myself that I’ll take a break from writing when I finish a book, but it usually only lasts a few days. It’s like a dopamine hit every time I finish a story, or chapter –– so very addictive.


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