The Mahy Questionnaire: Eileen Merriman

Here’s a fresh bit of your Margaret Mahy Questionnaire goodness, featuring award-winning novelist, short story, and flash fiction writer Eileen Merriman! Read on to find out her takes on shadow-sitting, barefoot beach walks, and pleasant-smelling, elegant giraffes. And when you’re done, be sure to pre-order her epic new book Violet Black, the first instalment in the fast-paced Black Spiral trilogy – due out from Penguin NZ in early May.

Eileen Merriman [Photo credit: © Colleen Lenihan], and a picture of her forthcoming release Violet Black [#1 Black Spiral Trilogy] (Penguin NZ).

1. Describe yourself in three words

Quick. Obsessed. Dreamer.

2. During the height of adolescence, was it good changeover?

It was simultaneously fraught, weird, and hilarious. I read a lot of Sylvia Plath and Salinger, wrote my first book, swooned over Patrick Swayze and River Phoenix (poor River), earned a blue belt in judo, and swore I’d never go near dark spirits again (which you can take whichever way you like!).

3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

I was born without a sense of direction, something I didn’t truly realise until I tried to enrol for my pre-med papers at Otago University. It took me at least two hours to find the right room, after walking all around the campus, being misdirected by a group of senior students, and driving myself crazy trying to figure out the map on the board by the front entrance—or was that the back entrance? Since then, I’ve been lost all over the world, usually when trying to go for my morning run—which is great for one’s fitness, but not so great when running at five a.m. in Liverpool while jet-lagged, when drunk Liverpuddlians are still coming back from the pub.

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The Haunting by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1982)

4. MM: ‘Imagination is the creative use of reality.’ Is this true for you?

Absolutely. I find my own imagination a great escape, with reality as its launchpad to send me off on all sorts of weird trajectories. I started writing my latest YA novel, Violet Black, soon after the measles epidemic a few years ago by asking several ‘what if?’ questions i.e. ‘What if the measles virus mutated, so that it not only became deadlier, but so that is permanently changed the minds of the survivors? What if they developed a form of collective consciousness? What if they could project their consciousness outside of themselves, sending it roaming all around New Zealand, and even the world? What if the powers-that-be wanted to exploit their talents?’ And so it went from there until several months later, I realised I’d written my first sci-fi/fantasy trilogy!

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

My fiancé (now husband) gave me his yellow Toyota Corolla when he got his first job and could afford something fancier for himself. I was at medical school in Dunedin and he was in Christchurch, so for two years I spent many weekends travelling back and forth between the two cities. I used to lean forward when I planted my foot on the accelerator to pass slow cars on the Kilmog Hill because obviously, that helps immensely.

6. Which witch? Identify a favourite one from literature.

We had a conversation about this at the dinner table tonight and all came up with a different witch! My favourite is the White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, with her cold beauty and the tantalising Turkish Delight she liked to feed her victims.

7. ‘Come dance all around the world. And see all the beauty that surrounds us.’ Words for a romantic or just being mindful?

Both, I think. I love a full moon rising, in all its golden glory, purple jacaranda blossoms against a slate sky, frothy waves, rain drumming on the roof, the roll of thunder… nature is fierce and beautiful and wonderful, and all you have to do is stop to watch and listen.

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The Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (F. Watts, 1989)

8. A lion in the broom cupboard or a lion in the meadow?

A lion in the broom cupboard, which probably ties in with me wanting to find Narnia in my parents’ wardrobe when I was younger. All I ever found were shoes and handbags, and once, the unwrapped Christmas presents that I tried not to look at as I hate spoiling surprises.

9. When have you been at your most discombobulated?

After working seven nights in a row of night-shift at the hospital, which feels a lot like getting off a long-distance flight—dehydrated, bleary-eyed, slightly smelly, and not sure if you’re hungry or not.

10. What is your most favourite thing to do on a summery Saturday morning?

Going for a barefoot walk on the beach with my family and geriatric dog, holding a coffee, and watching the sparkle of the sun across the water.

11. In what way might you be a trickster?

I’m at my trickster-best when I employ an unreliable narrator, such as in A Trio of Sophiesso much fun!

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1986)

12. Have you ever been rewarded when looking down the back of the chair?

I once found my laptop there, which was a big relief, as I was experiencing separation anxiety. Losing my laptop features in my nightmare sometimes.

13. A pirate for a mother or a jester for a father?

I’d like to sail the seven seas with a pirate mother—more fun than Dad jokes!

14. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow?

Only if it promised not to eat my ready salted chips (which, contrary to popular opinion in my family, are the BEST flavour).

The Boy With Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (J.M. Dent, 1971)

15. ‘Horrakapotchkin,’ said the cat. ‘I want to write a poem.’ Is that how it works for you?

Horrakapotchkin, I need to write a book! Once I’ve finished my latest work in progress, I will always tell myself that I am going to have a break from writing, which generally lasts about three days before my imagination gets restless and my fingers get itchy.

16. What I like for dinner when I am on my own is…

When in foreign cities on my own (for work), I love going to a café or bistro and indulging in a glass of Syrah, best consumed while lost in my own imagination (working on a novel on my laptop), followed by a mushroom risotto or something equally carb-heavy.

17. If you find yourself nose to nose with a shark, the only thing to do is to…

Put a stick between its jaws and bore it to death by reading aloud from a Thomas the Tank Engine book.

The Great White Man-Eating Shark by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jonathan Allen (J.M. Dent, 1982)

18. MM: ‘If things were fair, all stories would be anonymous…set free from the faults that go with its author’s name.’ Would you set your stories free in the name of anonymity?

I’d rather write whatever I feel like writing and live with the consequences, which are usually good rather than bad! However, sometimes I wonder if my books (more so my adult books) would be received differently if I used a gender-neutral pen-name. Now, THAT would be an interesting experiment. As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.’

19. You’re at a party and someone finds out what you do. What is the question they invariably ask?

Where do you get your ideas from? (Answer: you!).

20. Who do you go to be entertained by linguistic pyrotechnics? Or entertained by sonsense nongs?

Linguistic pyrotechnics: anything written by Oscar Wilde—so witty, so cutting, so clever. Songsense nongs: The BFG by Roald Dahl.

21. Which way does your heart lie: between the stars or anchored to the trapeze?

On a trapeze, swinging between the stars (yeah, OK, I want it all!).

The Wind Between the Stars by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Brian Froud (J.M. Dent, 1976)

22. Would you rather be followed home by hippos or giraffes?

Definitely giraffes—less smelly, decidedly more elegant, and more likely to get on with our four chickens and demented dog.

23. Never mind a baby in the bubble. Would you rather – rice bubbles, bubble gum, bubble ‘o’ bill ice cream or Michael Bublé?

I’d take the ice cream any day (sorry Michael).

Eileen Merriman
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Eileen Merriman is a doctor (haematologist) by day, and a writer by night. She lives on the North Shore in Auckland, New Zealand. Her work has previously been published or is forthcoming in the Sunday Star Times, Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Orphans, the 2015 Bath Short Story Anthology, The Island Review, Blue Fifth Review, Takahe, Headland, Flash Frontiers and F(r)iction. She has published three YA novels, Catch Me When You Fall, Pieces of You, and Invisibly Breathing, and her adult fiction debut, Moonlight Sonata, comes out in July. All of her novels are published with Penguin NZ.