Eileen Merriman’s first young adult novel, Pieces of You, was published in 2017, and was a finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and a Storylines Notable Book. Since then, she has published another nine novels for adults and young adults and received huge critical praise, with one reviewer saying: ‘Merriman is an instinctive storyteller with an innate sense of timing.’ In addition to being a regular finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, Merriman was a finalist in the 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and Moonlight Sonata was longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction 2020. Editions of some of her young adult novels have been released in Germany, Turkey and the UK and three have been optioned for film or TV, including the Black Spiral Trilogy. Her other awards include runner-up in the 2018 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award and third in the same award for three consecutive years previously. She works as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital.
Vaughan Rapatahana: Can you please briefly give us some background regarding your career as a writer. That is, what genre did/do you write and what successes have you had (including being published in Headland)? Perhaps some information about your journey from an 'emerging voice' to becoming a very successful fiction writer?
Eileen Merriman: I’ve always been a writer. I wrote from around eight years of age, stopping when I went away to university at 18. I picked it up again once I’d finished two degrees and all my specialist medical training, which was seventeen years later! I started off writing adult novels, usually featuring characters in their twenties to early thirties. However, after one of my short stories (featuring a pair of teenagers) came third in the Sunday Star Times competition, I decided to turn the story into a young adult novel. This was my first published novel, Pieces of You. After writing two more YA novels, I decided I’d like to write another adult novel. My first adult novel, Moonlight Sonata, is contemporary fiction and was long listed for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction 2020. My first three YA novels were all short-listed for the NZ Children’s and Young Adult Book Awards, and are all Storylines Notable books. My fourth YA book, A Trio of Sophies, has been published in Germany, and has also been short-listed for the 2021 Ngaio Marsh crime award. Three of my YA novels, including the recently released Black Spiral Trilogy, have been optioned for TV/film.
In regard to my writing journey, I completed a fiction writing course through Creative Hub in 2013. I’d had three adult novels rejected by all the major publishing houses prior to Pieces of You. Feeling a bit dejected, I decided that perhaps I should try to get some short stories published, partly to see my name in print and partly to try and build up a literary CV. I’d never really written a short story before, so it was gratifying to start having my short stories placed in short story competitions, including third place for three consecutive years in the Sunday Star Times Short Story competition, and runner-up in the same competition in 2018. I also started writing flash fiction and had several pieces placed or published, including in Flash Frontier, Headland and Smokelong Quarterly. My flash piece, This Is How They Drown, placed second in the inaugural Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2015.
Writing short stories and flash really helped hone my craft. The brevity of such pieces (especially with flash) means that every sentence, every word must earn its place — and yet, one must still retain that narrative arc. My short stories have also provided creative inspiration when I’ve been scratching around for an idea for my next novel, with three of my short stories having been turned into novels. The NZ Society of Authors has also helped me immensely. I received free manuscript assessments for two of my novels through their manuscript assessment programme, and then a mentorship the following year, where I was delighted to be able to work with Paula Morris. The mentorship resulted in my first published novel, Pieces of You.
Vaughan Rapatahana: What do you think a 'successful' short story requires? That is, what ingredients does it need to have a chance of being published?
Eileen Merriman: Originality. Some would say that all stories have been told before, and if you strip them back to their basic themes, of course that’s true. It’s how one tells that story that counts. Show don’t tell. Write a first line that draws the reader in, and a last line that lingers. Don’t overburden the reader with heavy description—more is less—but make the most of the words you do use. Create memorable characters: a short story only has room for a few characters, sometimes only one. Evoke the senses. Stir up emotion. Read it aloud to see if the prose flows (or not). Dialogue is not essential, but if you’re using dialogue, make it sound real. Again, reading aloud can help if you’re not sure. Most of all, write something that lingers long after the reader has read the last word.
Vaughan Rapatahana: Relatedly, is there such a thing as a specifically Kiwi short story? If so, what makes for a successful one?
Eileen Merriman: I guess a recognisable Kiwi short story is one that highlights elements specific to New Zealand—the volcanic-sand beaches in the north, the lush West Coast, the native flora and fauna—all embedded in our unique culture. It’s encouraging to see more Te Reo being used in our literature, without the need for translation. A successful Kiwi short story evokes a number of these elements in a ‘show don’t tell’ fashion. There is a certain earthiness to New Zealand short stories, often told with our own quirky humour and authenticity.
Vaughan Rapatahana: Do you also write creative non-fiction? What about flash fiction? Do these require especial skills that are different to writing a short story? Does writing these three genres perhaps lead on to writing longer fiction pieces?
Eileen Merriman: I have written some creative non-fiction, but this is not usual for me, as it feels too much like work. I prefer to immerse myself in fictional worlds, as I like the escapism! I have written a lot of flash fiction, although I have not written any new pieces in the past couple of years, because I’ve been so caught up in novel writing. They definitely use different parts of your brain (I find). It’s difficult to explain which skills are especial to these, but the art of writing a creative non-fiction piece (for me) is to bring ‘true’ event(s) to life while telling it as a story with a narrative arc, perhaps with fictional elements incorporated. Flash fiction is like a distilled short story, but it’s more than that too. To me, flash fiction is a starburst, a moment of brilliance, probably because every word is carefully chosen, which results in a very carefully crafted piece when done well. In contrast, novel writing is a journey, an opportunity to lose myself in a different world for several months. I do enjoy the brief intensity of writing short stories and flash, however, and as above, yes, my short story and flash writing have led on to longer fiction pieces. In fact, my flash piece, This Is They Drown, is incorporated into one of my adult novels.
Vaughan Rapatahana: What writing projects are you working on now, including possible short story and creative non-fiction ones, if any?
Eileen Merriman: I have just finished editing a young adult trilogy, but after suggestions from my publisher, have condensed three books into two. I am currently making slow progress on the initial chapters of my next adult novel – my main character is an unreliable narrator, who is lots of fun for me as a writer, and I’ve been researching personality disorders for this. I’ve recently written a satirical short story based on the pandemic but will let that ‘sit’ for a while before I edit and submit it somewhere. I’ve also written a creative non-fiction piece based on my brother’s suicide (at the age of 21 years) which is currently out on submission to a short story competition.