Flash Frontier

Book: Eileen Merriman, Invisibly Breathing

Interviews and Features

Author commentary

Invisibly Breathing is told from the point of view of two sixteen-year-old protagonists: Felix Catalan, who feels more comfortable with numbers than people, and Bailey Hunter, who has recently moved to Wellington, and has a stutter but is good at judo. The boys are soon drawn to each other, both emotionally and physically. Both are subject to bullying, in the classroom, on social media, and for Bailey, at home.

Invisibly Breathing wasn’t easy to write. Initially I began writing the book from the first person point of view of a female protagonist, who later became Felix. I couldn’t get into the head of her love interest, Bailey, so I changed the novel to an alternating point of view. That worked better, but then I couldn’t resolve the novel. Something wasn’t working. Then someone asked if I’d ever considered writing an LGBTI novel, and I thought, well, yes I have – I’d originally considered having a same-sex relationship in my second novel, Catch Me When You Fall, but at the time wasn’t sure if a straight female could write credibly about a same-sex relationship between two males. However, I’ve since read novels such as A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara, and realised it’s entirely possible. Love is universal, after all. It turned out to be just the extra angle I needed – and hence Invisibly Breathing was born.

I hadn’t originally planned for the bullying to feature so strongly in the novel. However, as part of my research, I contacted a team worker from the Auckland Sexual Health Clinic to discuss how LGBTI youth are faring in schools. It had been my impression that life was much easier for LGBTI youth than when I was a teenager in the late eighties and early nineties. The team worker told me that while that was true in some schools, sadly, in others, LGBTI youth were still facing stigmatisation and bullying. He told me stories of young people leaving school early; of a young person who came out on Facebook and then had to close down their account because of all the nasty comments. Sadly, we still have a long way to go. But I think things are improving, slowly but surely.

It’s never my intention to convey moral messages to youth when I write YA books, but I do like to think that some young people will read my books and say, ‘hey, me too’, and know they are not alone.


Chapter 1 Felix: A Solitary Moon

A prime number is divisible only by itself and by one. If I were a prime number, I’d want to be a five. Five is also a Catalan number, which is another sequence of numbers, that can be used to solve certain counting problems. Being a Catalan number is perfect, because I like the idea of being part of a solution, but also because that’s my surname. When I looked up ‘five’ on the net, I learned it was also the first safe prime, the third Sophie Germain prime, and the third Mersenne prime exponent. If I said that out loud at school most people would call me a nerd or try to trip me up or something. But I like the way numbers can have secret superpowers.

If I were five, I’d be shaped like a pentagon, with sharp, perfect edges and rules that can’t be changed. A solid two-pronged base, with a pointy roof that reached for the sky. There’d be magic in my walls, safety in my angles.

I wish I were a five. I wish I wasn’t the weirdest sixteen-year-old guy in the universe.
There are one thousand steps between my house and school if I stick to my normal stride. Taking my usual pace, especially if I listen to the right music, I can time it exactly to arrive at school just before the bell goes. Since I discovered Green Day, the most hard-core punk-rock band in the whole world, I haven’t really listened to anything else.

I can’t sing along when I’m walking to school, though, because I’m too busy counting. Usually I only sing when I’m alone in my room. I don’t sing in the shower, like my little brother Alfie. I can’t stand listening to the drumming of water and the music at the same time, a riot in my skull.

Today is the third week of February, the second week of the school year. I’m scuffing my shoes through the grass, watching how the sunlight refracts off the dew. I’m so taken with the dew-spheres that I don’t see them until they’re streaming around me, like tadpoles, or sperm. I flip my headphones off so they’re hanging around my neck, not because I want to hear what they’re saying, but so I can defend myself if I have to.

‘Hey, Catalan,’ Sam Birch drawls. ‘Whatcha listening to? The Wiggles?’ I want to punch his freckly face, but I got in major trouble when I did that last year, so I keep walking.

Henry Teoh, walking two steps behind him, emits a raspy laugh. I stick my headphones back on in a screw-you gesture, and let Billie Joe Armstrong soothe me with ‘Give Me Novacaine’. Sam, Henry and a couple of year-twelve girls are nothing I can’t handle. I start walking faster, knowing they’re calling me ‘Freak-out Felix’ and ‘punk’ behind my back.

Which is so unfair, because I haven’t freaked out since last year.

Punk isn’t an insult anyway. Over summer I dyed my hair black and grew it longer so I could wear it mussed-up and semi-spiky, like Billie Joe from Green Day. His poster hangs on the wall above my bed.

Just saying.

I try to start counting again, but I’ve lost count, and my thousand-steps-exactly is ruined. If I arrive at school and I’ve miscounted, my day is doomed to be crappy.

‘Damn it,’ I whisper. I’m going to be late, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

After looking left-right-left-right-left, I cross the road and walk back home fast, six hundred and three steps. When I reach our letterbox, I pause for a moment to look at the creek snaking along the bottom of our property, shiny like tinfoil, then our beige split-level house, the curtains flung open to the morning sun.

I take a deep breath, turn to face the street and start walking again.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

What people are saying

“Eileen Merriman is at the top of her game as a writer. Her descriptive prose is a delight and the dialogue between the characters is totally believable. She deals with a sensitive subject with aplomb and knowledge. I couldn’t put it down and nor will you. Definitely senior fiction but anybody out there agonising over their sexuality be assured this is the book for you.”


“There is a lyrical beauty to her work that doesn’t condescend to her audience, painting bold images and treating the romance at the heart of the story with sophistication and respect.”

NZ Herald

“How on Earth is Eileen Merriman writing a book a year and making each one better than the previous one?! This tale of two troubled 16-year-olds finding in each other an oasis from everyday chaos is extremely well-executed. The story is told in alternating voices, and it is smoothly done – you never lose sense of time passing. In fact, it is so well done I ignored my family and finished it in a matter of hours. . . . Is Bailey the first bisexual person in New Zealand mainstream YA? I think this may be the case. How ridiculous is that – and how awesome is Merriman for changing it. . . . I think, as with her other two books, the emotional truth is what really pulls the reader in. . . . Merriman has a knack for keeping those pages turning, with short, snappy sentences and perfectly pitched chapter endings. The ending is fast-paced and explosive – and very satisfying. I recommend this for any teen who enjoys contemporary love stories, and books set in their own reality.”

Sarah Foster, The Sapling

For more details and links to buy Invisibly Breathing in paperback or ebook, see Penguin New Zealand

All three of Eileen Merriman’s YA novels, Pieces of You, Catch Me When you Fall and Invisibly Breathing, have been shortlisted for the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and Pieces of You and Catch Me When You Fall were Storylines Notable Books in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Her other awards include runner-up in the 2018 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award, third for three consecutive years in the 2014-2016 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Awards, second in the 2015 Bath Flash Fiction Award, commended in the 2015 Bath Short Story Competition, and first place in the 2015 Graeme Lay Short Story Competition. Her first adult novel, Moonlight Sonata, will be released in July 2019.
Share this:

You may also like