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Interview: Eileen Merriman on Pieces of You

Eileen Merriman is an Auckland-based award-winning author. Her accolades include first place in the 2015 Graeme Lay Short Story competition, second in the 2015 Bath Flash Fiction Award, commended in the 2015 Bath Short Story competition and third place three times (2014-2016) in the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award.

Eileen is a frequent contributor to Flash Frontier and received the 2015 Winter Writing Award.

We discuss her recently published young adult (YA) novel Pieces of You, launched recently in Auckland.

Flash Frontier: Thanks, Eileen, for agreeing to talk about Pieces of You. The story is described as wise, tough, heartbreaking and funny. Your novel evolved from a short story placed in the 2014 Sunday Star Times competition. How did you adapt it to suit a novel format?

Eileen Merriman: I kept the essence of the story the same, with the central characters, Becs and Cory, and a similar climax. However, whereas a short story is a compression of events, the novel had to expand on these, like stretching out a spring and filling in the gaps.

These included the background to Becs’ and Cory’s turbulent emotions, the triggers for their often self-destructive behaviours. I needed to know what music they liked, where they came from, their family structures and the people that helped shape their lives.

Becs needed to have a character arc, so she grew or changed in some way by the end of the novel.

Hopefully I’ve managed to achieve all of these goals! Although the story is mainly about Becs and Cory, I introduced secondary characters that I became quite fond of too.

FF: Pieces of You is your first published novel, though you have written others. What novels/novellas have you previously submitted to publishers? What words of encouragement can you offer to those starting out?

EM: I submitted my first manuscript to a publisher (Penguin, funnily enough) when I was seventeen – a fantasy novella set in an alternative world. It was rejected, but they nicely said ‘some parts were very good’.

Then I went to university/medical school and didn’t write another word until 2011! I submitted my first novel in 2013, after I’d had an assessment through the NZSA manuscript assessment programme. It was rejected by all publishing houses I submitted it to. In retrospect, there were too many dramatic events in the one novel, and I was grappling with too many themes. I’d started writing the novel with no clear idea of what the climax, or end, should be.

Since then, I’ve had another novel assessed through this programme, and then worked on ‘Pieces of You’ through the NZSA mentorship programme with Paula Morris. Each time, I have learnt a lot about writing novels, in terms of plot, characterisation, building suspense and style.

My advice to those starting out is: apply for manuscript assessment and mentorship schemes.

Attend a creative writing course (I attended a 30-week fiction writing course).

Find a critique partner, if you can. My critique partner has offered honest, constructive critique over the years – it’s worth its weight in gold.

Read, read, read. Although I stopped writing for nearly twenty years, I have always read extensively – you can pick up a lot this way. Think about the techniques your favourite writers use: foreshadowing, suspense, unreliable narrators, descriptions, dialogue, etc. And of course, just write. A lot. I try to write every day, even if it’s only a couple of sentences. Writing is like anything – you need to put in the hours.

FF: Your language is accessible yet richly figurative with bursts of humour:

… the odour had lingered ever since the night of the party – beer and rotting seaweed and the scent of my own fear.

… that golden feeling in the air as summer drifts into autumn.

… It smelt like old people … as if they turned seventy and the Queen automatically sent them mothballs.

… the absence of darkness that comes right on the cusp of dawn, the grey space that appears between night and day …

How has your writing style developed? What were the particular considerations for this novel? How did you research ‘youth speak’, which you use so well?

EM: When I first started writing, it was mostly dialogue with little in between… I’ve never had much trouble with dialogue, fortunately. Then I did my writing course, and learnt about concrete markers, how to anchor a story in space and time, and how to evoke the senses by incorporating taste, smell, etc. I also started paying more attention to the novels, short stories, flash and poetry I was reading, and in this way my own style has developed.

When writing for a YA audience, one needs to keep up the pace – a young adult generally won’t keep reading if you bore them with excessive background and description.

In terms of researching ‘youth speak’ – I read a lot of YA, and I am lucky enough to have several teenage nieces to draw on, two of whom read the book in its entirety. Three teenagers unrelated to me also read the book, and their feedback was really helpful. One of my nieces asked what ‘French kissing’ was – no teenager uses that term anymore! Another teenager said, ‘what’s with the abbreviated text speak’? With the advent of smart phones, of course no one uses text-speak anymore.

FF: How did you research youth culture, school curriculum and environment?

EM: For youth culture – again, through my extensive YA reading and contact with young people. For the school curriculum, I looked up the NCEA curriculum and past exam papers on the Internet.

FF: Do you think people who have been school bullies would identify with the protagonist or persecutors on reading Pieces of You?

EM: I think everyone would have been subject to, participated in or at least witnessed bullying to some degree. So I would hope that those who have been bullied would identify with Becs, and those that have witnessed or participated in bullying might be compelled to think twice about their actions if they see how it makes the bullied person feel.

FF: In its simplest terms Pieces of You can be viewed as a Bildungsroman, or a coming of age ‘boy meets girl’ story. But your novel is so much more than that.

I didn’t really want to kill myself. Just, a lot of the time, I didn’t know how to cope with being alive. There was a difference.

Without giving too much away, can you discuss some of the issues you cover and why you chose them?

EM: It’s no secret to reveal that, at the start of the novel, Becs is cutting herself. This is more common among teens than adults may realise… but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the teen is seriously disturbed. It’s a phase that some go through, from inflicting scratches on themselves to more serious wounds. For many, it’s a distraction, a way of blotting out emotional pain.

There are other themes that are difficult for many teens (or adults) to talk about, but I’m hoping the message that will emerge is that one can work through these… there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That light is often within oneself, but you may need others to help you find it. There’s a list of links such as Youthline at the end of the book to aid with this.

FF: As the relationship between Becs and Cory develops, you illustrate intimacy between the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old characters very well.

… kissed the taut muscles of his belly, until Cory groaned and tangled his fingers in my hair. I knew if I wanted to go further then he wouldn’t stop me …

YA is frequently read by people younger than the protagonists. Were there any constraints compared with when you write for adults because of this?

EM: I was given, and have read, such conflicting advice! Some say to avoid sex and to a lesser degree, swearing, as that will restrict the market i.e. school libraries will avoid it, and some parents won’t want their children to read the book. I’ll leave the reader to find out how I dealt with that.

I find writing the young adult intimacy scenes (whether they include sex or not) fascinating – because it’s usually a journey of ‘firsts’. No one will ever forget their first kiss, or the first time they went ‘all the way’. They will never forget the first person they fell in love with. I love writing about those moments. It’s such a great opportunity to try and put the emotions around those first moments into words. That’s what I love about YA fiction.

FF: With her ‘porcelain-pale skin, ginger hair, pale eyelashes’, Becs is of European origin, yet the story does not come across as Eurocentric:

His skin was a lot darker, as if he had Maori or Indian blood in him. I wished I had skin like that, smooth and warm, like caramel.

… an Asian guy with spiky hair and an earring in his left ear.
Great. Of course Cory would be walking to school with his cool friends.

What were your thoughts behind giving her these perspectives?

EM: We live in an increasingly multicultural society, and it would be wrong not to reflect this in a novel set in contemporary New Zealand. With successive generations, I think we are becoming far less Eurocentric, and leaving our prejudices behind.

FF: Pieces of You has at its heart a love of literature. It’s how Becs and Cory fall in love. The chapter titles are taken from classic novels. How important do you think the role of YA fiction is in literacy?

EM: Funny, I’ve read forums suggesting YA fiction may be ‘dumbing down’ the variety of literature that youth are exposed to. I think it’s the opposite. You need to interest youth in reading in the first place. If your novels inspire them to read on, to seek variety in their reading, then all the better.

One of the teens who critiqued my book asked her mother to order some titles mentioned in it, e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird. That was a great compliment! I also think YA literature is important to show teenagers they are not alone, that many others struggle with the same issues they do.

FF: What are your hopes for Pieces of You after the NZ launch? Has there been interest in marketing the novel farther afield since it was showcased at the Bologna Book Fair?

EM: This book will be simultaneously launched in Australia, and is available for pre-order on Amazon, Kindle, eKobo and Book Depository, among others. There was some interest at the Bologna Book Fair, but I’ll have to wait to see if there are any offers from overseas publishers. Fingers crossed!

FF: Your next novel Catch Me When You Fall is scheduled for release by Penguin Random House in 2018. Are there parallels in the characters’ drives and motivations, or does the new story have a different emphasis?

EM: The theme of the book is dealing with uncertainty, rather than internal demons. The protagonist is very different from Becs – Alex is much more confident, but she has her own challenges to face, many of which are out of her control.

FF: What are your YA reading influences?

EM: When I was a young adult, they included: Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, S.E. Hinton, and J.D. Salinger.

Some YA novelists I’ve been reading, and admiring, lately are: John Green, Jennifer Niven, Veronica Roth and David Levithan.

FF: You completed fiction-writing courses at John Cranna’s The Creative Hub. What crucial things did you learn?

EM: The first draft is crap. (It’s true.)

If everyone in your critique group has the same opinion about your excerpt, it’s true. (It is.)

Everyone gets better with practice.

A core group of our class met up regularly for three years after our 30-week course. We’d take turns critiquing each other’s work, which provided much valuable feedback on the early chapters of Pieces of You.

The Creative Hub director, John Cranna, has been wonderful at helping to promote my work.

FF: What are you currently reading?

EM: I’ve just finished Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – a fantastic debut YA novel that has been made into a movie. I’m now subjecting myself to A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara again. I read it a couple of years ago, and both loved and was emotionally traumatised by it. It’s a very strong, character-driven novel – if you want to know how to build convincing characters, then this is the way to do it. But be prepared to cry!

FF: You work full time, have a young family and are also working towards a PhD. Any tips on good time management?

EM: I try to separate my life into compartments. So, I try never to bring work home (apart from when I am on call). If I’m very busy at work, then I will go in early rather than leave late, as it’s important to make it home for dinner with my young family.

I write in the evenings, once my three-year old is in bed. I sit in an armchair in the lounge, because I’d feel bad shutting myself away in a separate room from my husband and son!

I don’t watch TV (apart from ‘Game of Thrones’), and I’m pretty bad at keeping up with the news. But you can’t do everything! As for the PhD, I’m taking a two-month sabbatical later this year to write up… we’ll see!

FF: What do your children like to read?

EM: My nine-year old, Lachie, is currently enjoying The Hunger Games, and Percy Jackson books. He also likes Roald Dahl, David Walliams and Dav Pilkey. My three-year old, Maisie, is enjoying The Entertainment Book (seriously!), The Gruffalo, Maisy books and Lynley Dodd books. Actually, she pretty much likes all books. My children love being read to (what child doesn’t?) and we have a ridiculous number of books in our house, which is wonderful.

FF: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?

EM: Yes – People who critiqued the novel were a big factor in my success with Pieces of You.

Paula Morris was an amazing mentor, from whom I learnt a lot – unfailingly honest and wise, and such a generous person. I have been very fortunate.

Eileen Merriman’s work has been published in a number of national and international anthologies and journals, including the Bath Short Story anthology, the Bath Flash Fiction anthology, the Sunday Star Times, Flash Frontier, Headland, Takahē, F(r)iction, Digging Through the Fat, Smokelong Quarterly, Blue Fifth Review and Literary Orphans.

Eileen works as a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital, NZ, and enjoys running, live music and sea swimming.

https://eileenmerriman.co.nz/

 

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