Eileen Merriman: clinical approach to writing
4 November 2021
Author Eileen Merriman says working full-time as a doctor is just the tonic for cranking out novels.
Eileen Merriman is a consultant haematologist at North Shore Hospital and also an award-winning author of medical dramas.
She balances her complementary careers and her role as honorary lecturer in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences with raising two children, a feat she partly credits to her “stay-at-home husband”.
Eileen’s eighth novel, Double Helix, is the third book the full-time doctor has published in the past year.
“I couldn’t be successful in one career without the other. You need life to fuel your writing. I couldn’t just sit at home writing all day or I’d run out of ideas. And the writing is how I unwind from a day at the hospital. I need both.”
When she’s on duty, Eileen deals with diseases of the blood. Her patients could have anaemia, or cancer. They could be terminally ill. And while she doesn’t write her patients into her books, her experiences often inspire her plot-lines.
Her specialty is revealing how ethical dilemmas might play out in real life and she is often likened to Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper), with the added advantage of insider knowledge.
“I don’t have to do a lot of research for my books or, if I need to, I know immediately who to go to,” Eileen says.
She’s not afraid of tricky subject matter and her books have delved into topics such as incest, self-harm and, in 2020’s top-selling The Silence of Snow, doctors who self-medicate.
I couldn’t be successful in one career without the other. You need life to fuel your writing. I couldn’t just sit at home writing all day or I’d run out of ideas.
She also pens young-adult books. The second in her Black Spiral Trilogy, Black Wolf, was released in September, at the same time as Double Helix. Her three previous YA novels were all short-listed for the NZ Children’s and Young Adult Book awards, and her first adult novel, Moonlight Sonata, was long-listed for the Ockham Book Awards.
In Double Helix, Eileen explores the inherited gene mutation Huntington’s Disease, and the complicated ethics of assisted dying and gene editing. While she hasn’t treated anyone with Huntington’s, the book does reflect some of her own experiences, including the intense anxiety of training to be a doctor, which she is reminded of when supervising University of Auckland medical students.
Double Helix is the story of Jake and Emily, med students from different worlds. Jake may have Huntington’s Disease and must eventually face this, while Emily disappoints when she doesn’t live up to her surgeon father’s expectations.
An interesting subplot plays out about equity in access to medical school – will Jake return to his native Northland to practise? As his cousin points out, “our people need their own doctors”.
“I like to write about things that aren’t black and white, and that comes up a lot in healthcare,” Eileen says.
“I’ve always wanted to write about Huntington’s, because in someone diagnosed with it, 50 percent of their genetic offspring will get it.
“I wondered what a character would do if they knew that, would they get the test or not? What difference would it make?”
Story by Danelle Clayton
Black Wolf, $20; Double Helix, $36 Both Penguin Random House
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Ingenio magazine.