A small group gathered in Spark Place on a fine, Sunday afternoon to hear Karen Healey and Eileen Merriman in conversation on her latest Young Adult novel A Trio of Sophies, how she explores sensitive and difficult themes in stories for teens, and how she manages life as an author and full-time haematologist.
Our host, Karen Healey, is the author of several young adult adult fantasy and science-fiction books including The Shattering and the When We Wake dulogy. As a full-time English teacher and part-time writer, she brought a fantastic perspective to the conversation.
Eileen Merriman’s latest book A Trio of Sophies is a complex story, told backwards in a series of diary entries, about a relationship between a student and a teacher. The narrator Sophie MacKenzie – Mac - last saw Sophie Abercombie kissing their English teacher, James, before she went missing. But Mac is much closer to James than she’s told the police and even her best friend Twiggy, the third Sophie in their tightknit trio.
Eileen Merriman has dealt with the topic of sexual assault in her stories before, previously in Pieces of You. She acknowledges it’s much easier to recognize abuse as abuse in that novel than in A Trio of Sophies where 17-year old Mac consents to a relationship between her and her teacher, alongside other acts of concealment. A Trio of Sophies is a grey and complex story with an unreliable narrator who discloses what she wants to remember – the romance rather than abusive, manipulative behaviour from a man eight years her senior.
Karen and Eileen are firm when stating – and reiterating to an audience member during Q&A – that the relationship depicted in this story is intrinsically abusive. Any relationship between a student and a teacher is abusive, Karen tells the audience, putting her teaching hat on. The teacher has more authority and the ability to directly affect the students’ education.
During Q&A, someone asks how Eileen how she felt about Catherine Woulfe’s review in The Spinoff in which she compared A Trio of Sophies to My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, and wrote that A Trio of Sophies “should not be in school libraries”. She replies that we should be having conversations about tough subjects with our teens, and chatting to our teens about what we’re reading. Fiction can be a safe place for teens to explore difficult topics. Unlike a film, a book is not nearly as in your face and parts of a story may even go over the reader’s head. Karen Healey’s students studied A Trio of Sophies and were “skeeved out” by the age gap between James and Mac – teens can and do read with a critical eye.
A lot of Eileen’s novels feature sex – something feared by many parents in a young adult novel. Both Eileen and Karen reflect on the ‘sexy’ novels which somehow always fell open on a particular page at their school – Clan of the Cave Bear and Flowers in the Attic. Books don’t encourage sex, Eileen argues, and should be a place to safely explore healthy, sexual relationships. The sex scenes in her books are never explicit, instead she wants to capture the emotion and the “awkwardness and doubt and first experiences” on exploring your sexuality. She always mentions condoms - reinforcing the safe sex message to teens is important to her.
Eileen Merriman is an avid researcher and consults with colleagues and medical professionals when writing her stories. With Catch Me When You Fall she drew on her experience in a Bone Marrow Unit and got updated on new techniques from colleagues. For Invisibly Breathing, after her publisher suggested writing a gay romance, she consulted a sexual health worker who works with teens to understand when teens’ experiences with sexuality and bullying is like. Alongside research into bipolar disorder, her own experiences witnessing her brother’s mental health issues informed the depiction of mental health crises in Catch me When You Fall. The hardest part about writing realistic health issues, Eileen tells us, is knowing when to drop the medical jargon.
Getting her head around NCEA for A trio of Sophies was a “headache”. Ensuring that the depiction of school is correct and the right language is used helps make a contemporary novel more realistic. She’s lucky to have teen readers – whether they’re friends’ kids and relatives or from her publisher – who can look over a draft and catch her out.
Eileen’s biggest piece of aspiring authors is to get feedback on your work. There’s no value in writing into the void. She encourages people to seek out creative writing groups like the Hagley Writers Institute, submit work into short story competitions, or apply for mentorship from the New Zealand Society of Authors, where she was mentored by Paula Morris. She gives her thanks to Nod Ghosh, an author in attendance, who she always goes to for advice and feedback including on which ending to use for a story!
There’s something incredibly special for New Zealand teens about being able to read a story set in a New Zealand school, rather than the typical American high-school setting. Karen Healey facilitates an LGBTQIA+ group who loved Invisibly Breathing and its depiction of a gay romance in New Zealand. When teens can find stories featuring characters like them, they don’t feel as alone in the world. A world in which whether we like it or not teens experience mental health crises, poverty, abuse and other issues first hand or see and hear about in their communities.