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Interview: Eileen Merriman talks about The Silence of Snow

Eileen Merriman’s three young adult novels, Pieces of You, Catch Me When You Fall, and Invisibly Breathing, were finalists in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2018 and 2019, and all three were Storylines Notable Books. Her fourth young adult novel A Trio of Sophies was published in 2020 to huge critical praise and was also published in Germany.

Her first adult novel, Moonlight Sonata, was released in July 2019, with reviewers calling it ‘skilfully crafted’, and a ‘carefully layered and thoughtful drama, with beautifully observed and believable Kiwi characters’. It was longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction 2020. Her other awards include runner-up in the 2018 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award and third for three consecutive years in the 2014-2016 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Awards. She works full-time as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital. The Silence of Snow is shortlisted for the NZ Booklovers Fiction Award for 2021.

Tell us a little about your novel.

The Silence of Snow centres around two junior doctors: Rory McBride and Jodi Waterstone, who are both new to Nelson Hospital. Jodi is struggling to come to grips with her first job as a doctor, while Rory is battling much bigger demons. Since a routine procedure went horribly wrong, Rory has been plagued by flashbacks and panic attacks, and starts taking sedatives and sleeping pills . . . but before long, those aren’t enough and he starts looking for something stronger. There is a love story at the heart of this novel, but the overarching themes are the pressures doctors face, the multifaceted nature of mistakes (they are never just one person’s fault), and the cruel nature of addiction.

What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted people to know what it is like to be a doctor, especially a junior doctor, and the pressure associated with the job (although fortunately I don’t have firsthand experience of addiction). Many doctors have a love-hate relationship with medicine – it’s interesting, intellectually stimulating and often very rewarding, but can also be both physically and emotionally exhausting. It’s a very specialised, often strange world that we work in, and we can usually only share our work stories with fellow doctors and nurses. Through fiction, I was able to give a realistic account of something that could happen to any doctor. Since the book’s release, I’ve had several messages from doctors who have known someone in the same predicament as Rory . . . which is very sad, but not uexpected.

What research was involved? I read blogs on addiction to anaesthetic agents and interviewed an anaesthetist about other anaesthetic aspects. I asked a psychiatrist friend for advice on treatment of addiction in doctors, which was very helpful. And of course I was able to draw heavily on my experiences when working as a junior doctor.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I’m not much of a plotter. For me, characters always come first and I’ve often fleshed out the whole main characters in my head and breathed life into them before I even know what the plot will be. I knew what the climax would be when I started writing this, however, but I didn’t know how it would end. I had to see where the characters took me for that, work out their trajectories. For me, writing is like peeling back the layers of an onion: I never know quite what lies beneath and have to feel my way there. I’ve tried plotting out books in the past and it inevitably gives me writer’s block!

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

I guess it would have to include the classic insomnia song Green Day’s Brain Stew, along with Zayn and Sia’s Dusk Till Dawn, U2’s Desire, Aerosmith’s Don’t Want To Miss a Thing, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Radiohead’s Creep.

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

For Rory, someone along the lines of Zac Efron would be perfect. For Jodi, someone recently suggested the actress Kimberly Crossman (who has appeared on Shortland Street), and I tend to agree.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I really enjoyed writing Rory’s character and exploring the background to his addiction. I also love injecting humour into my books, no matter how serious the subject; writing the banter between the junior doctors both when at work and when at parties/tramping, etc, was a lot of fun.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Hmm, I probably had a glass of wine and then started editing it the very next day, as once I’ve finished a book, I can’t leave it alone until I press send to my agent/publisher!

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

The Tally Stick by Carl Nixon has been my favourite so far: great pace, wonderful prose and lots of twists and turns – Carl Nixon at his best.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

My next young adult book, Violet Black, will be released in May and is the first book in the Black Spiral Trilogy, my first attempt at a fantasy/sci-fi series. Double Helix, my next adult book, will be released in the second half of this year, and I am now working on another YA trilogy to follow on from Black Spiral (and am up to book two in that series). It’s all go!


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