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Eileen Merriman’s novels… so far (Image: Tina Tiller)
Eileen Merriman’s novels… so far (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksMarch 20, 2024

How does a full-time doctor and parent find the time to write so many books?

Eileen Merriman’s novels… so far (Image: Tina Tiller)
Eileen Merriman’s novels… so far (Image: Tina Tiller)

Eileen Merriman answers the most frequently asked question about her side-hustle as a remarkably prolific author.

A few years ago, my then five-year-old daughter and I had a conversation that went like this:

Maisie: Mummy, you are a doctor.
Me: Yes, I am.
Maisie: And you are a writer.
Me: That’s right.
Maisie: I think you are like a sandwich.

Not many people are fortunate enough to fulfil their childhood dreams, but somehow I managed to achieve both. I’m often asked how I find time to write books while working as a full-time haematologist. My answer to that is that writing is as essential to me as regular exercise or a healthy diet. It’s my sustenance, my guilty pleasure, my addiction. It’s always there for me, no matter where in the world I am or what time of day it is. And as with all addicts, I find ways to get my fix no matter what.

I started writing again in 2011, when in my mid-30s. I say “again”, because I’d written throughout my childhood, but stopped when I left home to go to university. That was when I realised that writing was my comfort food. Not just that, but my dopamine rush when it was going really well. I couldn’t believe I’d stopped doing something which made me feel so good. From that day on, I vowed never to let a day go by without writing something, even if it was only one sentence. 

For about 10 years, I did exactly that. As I was already a mother with a full-time job, this meant I had to utilise every spare minute. I’d been well trained during my time as a junior doctor, when I’d had to study for my specialist medical exams while working up to 70 hours a week. I stopped watching TV. I wrote on the plane, which meant long-haul flights turned into a fun activity — no emails, no phone calls, no social media — great! I even wrote a third of a book (The Silence of Snow) on my phone while sitting poolside in Thailand. Never one to miss a writing opportunity, I wrote the day after my second caesarean section, while my newborn baby slept. I thought about my plots and characters while falling asleep, when I woke in the middle of the night, when I woke up in the morning. 

Eileen Merriman and her latest novel (Photo: Supplied)

I’m often asked about my writing process. The Night She Fell is my second thriller, the first being my YA novel A Trio of Sophies. Switching between writing young adult and adult fiction is refreshing for me, as is changing genres. I don’t usually plot too much in advance when writing, but for thrillers one does need to have more of an idea of how things will transpire — and yet, there’s still a lot to be said about letting the story unfold in unexpected ways. When I started writing The Night She Fell, all I knew was that it started with a student falling to her death from a window. I didn’t know exactly how it would end, or how exactly I was going to get there … but I knew that if I kept writing then page by page, chapter by chapter, it would turn into a complete novel.

My research included soliciting advice from a forensic pathologist in Christchurch and a detective in Wellington, along with some very dodgy internet searches. I got some fascinating answers and also the phone number of a man who works with drug sniffer dogs (I’m sure there must be a more official name for these canines). The first draft took about six months, which is average for me, although I wrote A Trio of Sophies in ten weeks. I revised the manuscript according to my publisher’s suggestions over four to six weeks.

It’s often embarrassing trying to explain why I’m so productive. (“Are any of your authors as prolific as Eileen?” someone asked my editor, Harriet Allan, at a dinner a few years ago. Her reply: “Well, actually….no.”) In my defence, it’s only because once I get my teeth into a project then I need to follow it through to completion as fast as possible because, well, you never know what might happen.

I’m no longer quite as dedicated to my craft. I’ve started watching TV again (including, to my son’s disgust, two seasons of Naked and Afraid XL), have taken up taekwondo, and no longer write every day. Despite that, I’ve produced two further manuscripts since The Night She Fell and am working on a third. Somehow the ideas and books still keep coming, even when I think I’m never going to have an original idea again. Also, it’s what I do, who I am. There is no answer more simple than that.

The Night She Fell by Eileen Merriman ($37, Penguin NZ) is available now from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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