Nod Ghosh

Novels, short fiction & poetry

interview with eileen merriman

Eileen Merriman

Eileen Merriman

  • Here is an interview with EILEEN MERRIMAN. Eileen has been my critique partner for nearly three years. She is a talented writer and has enjoyed a great deal of success in recent competitions in New Zealand and beyond (30.11.15). We met in 2005, when she was working in Christchurch.
  • N: How long have you been writing, and what drew you to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, when you began?
  • E: I began writing when I was about eight years old. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I’d often be weaving a story in my head. When I went to sleep at night, I was often a character in one of the books I’d read, or a movie I’d watched. As I grew older, it was more and more likely that I’d be a character in one of my own stories. Putting pen to paper was natural for me. It took me a while to realise that not everyone wrote stories in their spare time! I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was a teenager (by this stage I’d progressed to writing on a computer) and sent it off to Penguin. They sent a very nice response back, to say while they thought parts of it were very good, that they would not be accepting it for publication.
  • Then I went to university, and for some reason I stopped writing. Perhaps I was just too busy learning, and using many of my spare hours studying. I completed a Bachelor of Medical Laboratory Science and then a Medical Degree, and then spent eight years specialising. But something was missing. One day, four years ago, I decided to try writing again, even though I probably wasn’t very good at it. I decided that I would write something every day, even if that only amounted to a few words. I’ve been writing ever since. I didn’t realise that I’d lost this essential part of myself until I started writing again. Writing gives me so much. It’s not just the escapism (from an often stressful work life), or of being able to provoke others to tears or laughter, or seeing my words in print that compels me. Writing, to me, is like breathing. I can’t be without it.
  • N: You are a Consultant Haematologist, working full-time, involved in various research and expert committee activities. You have two young children. How do you free your busy mind to apply it to writing?
  • E: It’s more the case that writing allows me to free my busy mind! My first few months as a junior consultant were very stressful. Writing allowed me to stop ruminating on various parts of my work day (what could I do better, what is lying in wait for me tomorrow, how am I going to cope with that work load) and heal my mind. Having a passion outside of work allows me to put the rest of my life in perspective.
  • Finding time is always a challenge. I usually write once my children are in bed. I sit in the lounge with my laptop on my knee so I am still there with my husband, although admittedly my brain is elsewhere! Some nights I write a lot, and some nights barely anything. Overall, I write a lot! I often travel overseas for work, and long distance flights are a great opportunity to have hours of uninterrupted writing time. If I can’t write then I definitely get withdrawal symptoms. There is nothing so calming (apart from running) as sitting down with my laptop with a blank page in front of me.
  • N: How do you feel when a piece is picked up for a publication or placed in a competition, given that you have had so many recent successes?
  • E: Before I started writing again, I would see the results of Sunday Star Times Short Story competition published every year and think ‘that could have been me, if I’d kept writing’. So to be informed, by phone, that I was short-listed for the 2014 Sunday Star Times Short Story award was one of the best days in my life. That was the first time I felt truly validated as a writer. Perhaps I’ll never win it, but I feel privileged to have been placed twice in our biggest national short story competition two years in a row (‘Pieces of You (In No Particular Order)’ 2014; ‘Double Helix’ 2015). This year I was also awarded second place in the Bath Flash Fiction award for my story ‘This is How They Drown’ (see link below) and commenced in the Bath Short Story award (‘Hummingbird Heart’). To know my stories rose to the top of a thousand entries really blows me away. The Bath Short Story Award and Bath Flash Fiction award have been really good at promoting me as well.
  • Bath Flash Fiction award
  • My first published piece of work was a flash piece published in Flash Frontiers. Since then I’ve been published in a variety of journals and anthologies, including the Sunday Star Times, the Bath Short Story anthology, Takahe, Headland, Blue Fifth Review and F(r)iction. Every piece of work is like a child and I love seeing it placed in a competition, or published. It’s a great incentive to keep writing. One day I’ll get that novel published, but if I don’t, then it doesn’t matter. Winning an international award would be the ultimate goal for me!
  • N: How do you deal with rejection?
  • E: At first I thought that meant the story I’d submitted wasn’t very good. After a while I realised that while that might be true, a piece that didn’t strike gold with one set of editors/judges may do quite well elsewhere. ‘Hummingbird Heart’, the short story that was commended in the 2015 Bath Short Story Award, had recently been submitted to a much smaller local short story competition. I’d removed 200-odd words to fit the word count for the Bath competition and resubmitted it. I’m now quite grateful it wasn’t short-listed for the smaller competition! If a piece is rejected then I look at it again with a critical eye, edit if need be, and then resubmit elsewhere. Most stories are picked up eventually.
  • N: You have provided critique for many fellow writers over the last few years. Can you talk about the role of feedback in writing? Are there some guiding principles you adhere to when reviewing other’s work?
  • E: Feedback is essential for any writer, especially when you first start submitting your work, as it is often difficult to get perspective on one’s own work. When reviewing other’s work, I adhere to the CRC (commendation, recommendation, commendation) technique that I was taught at the Creative Hub Writing School. You should always have something good to say about someone’s work, and it is good to start and end your critique with these positive comments. That makes it easier for the writer to accept the more critical comments in between.
  • N: Accepting critique, using it wisely and selectively is an important skill. Can you provide any pointers?
  • E: Considering the critique of others is important, but one doesn’t need to take on every single point. It is, after all, only one person’s opinion. It’s important to note that one reviewer’s critique may be different from another’s- but if they are all saying the same thing (e.g your character is two-dimensional) then you need to pay attention!
  • Having at least one critique partner is a valuable asset. I have been fortunate to have you, Nod, as a critique partner over the last three years. I trust your critique and nearly always make amendments to my work based on your recommendations. I’m sure this has played a large part in my success over the past couple of years.
  • It’s also important to seek critique from more than one person. I belong to a writing group and it’s valuable to have a piece of work critiqued by a group of fellow writers, who often have different perspectives according to their varying ages and different backgrounds. Sometimes they argue with each other and that’s good too. As I said above, if they are all saying the same thing, then I really do pay attention!
  • N: What are your writing goals for the next three years?
  • E: I am currently working on a YA novel, ‘Pieces of You’ under the NZSA mentorship scheme. I am very fortunate to be working with Paula Morris, who has been an outstanding mentor and is really helping me to take my work to the next level. I’d like to get this published. I’m also working on revising a novel for a slightly older audience about a character with bipolar disorder – I’d set it aside for a year but it’s calling to me again, and I’d also love to see this published. I’m continuing to write many short stories and flash fiction and am enjoying seeing how my work becomes more polished as time goes on. Publishing a novel may never happen in the current gloomy climate (especially in New Zealand) but to continue to publish my short stories and have them recognised in international awards is enough for me.
  • N: What’s your most embarrassing writing moment?
  • E: I’m not sure if this is the most embarrassing but it’s certainly quite memorable. This year I was fortunate to win the Franklin Writer’s Award. I travelled down to Pukekohe Library to accept my award and read my story. The judge was also there. It became quite obvious that although she thought my story was the winner, that she didn’t like it at all! I think it was too dark for her. That slightly took the shine off it, but I really respect her for expressing her honest opinion.
  • N: What are you reading at the moment?
  • E: I’ve just finished reading ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr. Every sentence was so elegantly crafted – beautiful. I’ve also recently enjoyed ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara. Some of my favourite authors are David Mitchell, Tim Winton, Christos Tsiolkas, A S Byatt, Alan Hollinghurst, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. All of those authors write beautifully, and have left a lasting impression on me.
  • N: What tips would you give to someone who’s recently started writing? Name some pitfalls to avoid, invaluable resources etc.
  • E: Keep writing. Don’t just think about writing – as Nike says, ‘just do it’. Practice really does make a better writer. Read, read and read. Join the New Zealand Society of Authors (or equivalent in your country) for news and opportunities e.g. mentorship programmes, competitions to enter, journals to submit work to. Consider enrolling in a writing course, even a short introductory course, to help set you on your way and make writer friends. Pitfalls to avoid – not writing! Many people say they’re too busy but if you really want to write, then you’ll find a way, even if you get up at 5 in the morning to do it. Oh, and finally, just write.
  • Thank you for giving me this opportunity, Nod! It’s been great to reflect on writing while answering these questions.
  • N: Thank you Eileen. I look forward to reading more of your work.

30.11.15

4.12.15 - Eileen Merriman awarded first prize in Graeme Lay short story competition for Primum Non Nocere.