May is Asian Heritage Month!
I thought I’d kick it off by introducing an author I met last summer in Ottawa at a book festival called Prose in the Park (read the post here.) Melissa Yuan-Innes, a.k.a. Melissa Yi, is an emergency doctor and the author of a doctor-detective series that is set right here in Montreal. I purchased the first book Code Blues and enjoyed it so much I bought the second, Notorious D.O.C. I’m officially hooked. It’s no surprise to me that Stockholm Syndrome was picked by the CBC in 2016 as one of the season’s best crime fiction. Her latest book, Human Remains, a Derringer Award Finalist, is just out.
What gave you the idea of writing a detective-doctor series?
As Emily Dickinson advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Moving to Montreal from medical school in London, Ontario was a shock. I not only had to deal with the usual death and disease like any medical resident, but I saw patients lining up and down the hallways. No diapers for babies in the emergency department (BYOD). No running water in the family medicine examining rooms. Carpet held down by duct tape. Writing requisitions by hand because they said it cost too much money to buy an addressograph, so they’d rather we spent half an hour on paperwork than seeing patients. And so on.
When I finally wrote about medicine in Montreal, I was thinking about murder. Creating Dr. Hope Sze, the doctor who would combat both disease and murder, seemed like a logical choice.
As a practicing doctor, how do you make time to write?
The first thing is just making it a line item of something to do every day. I couldn’t do it when I was on call for 24 hours in the ICU, so I’d stock up words the day before or after. I wrote up to 2000 words a day, but found that left me with no energy to send stories or novels to publishers, so I backed down to 500 words per day if I have a shift and 1000 words if I have no shift.
I got burned out before writing Human Remains, though, so right now, I’m on hiatus, working on publicity and publication details instead. I like to write in other genres to cleanse my palate after writing a novel. I just finished up a ghost story.
Do you see a bit of yourself in the main character, Dr. Hope Sze?
No, I see almost 100 percent of myself in Hope. 😉 It’s funny because sometimes editors or readers will question me, i.e. “She shouldn’t speak like that to someone who has more seniority!” and I think, Nope, that’s how I talk. Not disrespectfully, since I believe in community, but if I have questions, I will ask. I don’t feel embarrassed about it. She’s a smart doctor, not infallible, ready to run into danger, not sure how to deal with male attention, constantly aware of her family over her shoulder…yep, c’est moi.
Did any real life incidences inspire any of the stories?
Yes, a lot of medical vignettes get twisted and amalgamated to make it into my books. I won’t tell you which ones, because of patient privacy, but we see so many things. For example, I finished an evening shift and came back for the day shift, and I asked the night doctor, “How was your night?” She replied, “I delivered a baby.” That’s unusual in an emergency department, but it happens.
What advice to you have for anyone who wants to write a series?
It’s daunting if you think of a whole series. Just start with a character and a situation that works for you. In my case, I knew Hope Sze would start a different rotation in each book, because medical residents often change specialties every month. It turned out that the specialty would reflect the theme of each novel, but I didn’t consciously realize it at the time.
I knew that every book would contain a mystery that she would solve, so that each novel could be read independently. As a reader, I want to have the option to jump in and out of a series, although as author/Kobo director Mark Leslie points out, if you want to follow the relationships, you have to start at the beginning
Speaking of relationships, I didn’t know Hope would get tangled in a love triangle, but it I’m intrigued by them. I’ve been with the same guy since I was 18; gotta live vicariously. And, as one of my friends pointed out, it’s so good to have an Asian girl with at least two hot guys chasing after her. Who wouldn’t want that?
A lot of my readers are drawn in to the series by the relationship and tell me flat out which guy they want her to end up with, #TeamTucker or #TeamRyan. Bestselling author Jennifer Crusie says you have to be careful with love triangles, because readers get very upset if the author chooses the “wrong” one. Charlaine Harris enraged a lot of fans, for example.
But I’m not the kind of writer who plans everything out. As Grace Paley wrote, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” I’d say grab something and run with it. Writing is freedom.