An Interview with Melissa Yi

Tell us a little about your books. How many have you written, a short look at your protagonist(s), major themes, etc.

Hoo boy. I don’t actually count my books. I’ve probably written about a dozen novels and collections. My most popular novels are the four Hope Sze medical mysteries about a crime-fighting resident doctor in Montreal.

You may think that health care is uniform across Canada, but actually, the provinces manage health care, and the province of Quebec has fewer services compared to Ontario. I was shocked that they didn’t seem to have phlebotomists, so nurses would draw blood, and if there weren’t enough nurses, the residents and medical students would have to do it in between all our other duties. The buildings were in poor shape: I was running down the stairs while I was on call, and plaster had literally fallen off the wall on to the steps. Shortly after I relinquished my privileges at one hospital, a patient died after waiting for hours in the waiting room. (The last one can happen anywhere, but it does feel terrible.) Surrounded by death and a dearth of resources, I started writing about a doctor who investigates murders. And so Hope Sze was born.

I’ve also got the idea of an assassin school in Italy, so I wrote two “killer school” mysteries about an amateur sleuth, Octavia Ling, mild-mannered government worker by day, who gets dragged into an international web of crime and meets a dashing Italian man on the side. The Italian School for Assassins (http://melissayuaninnes.com/books/the-italian-school-for-assassins/) and The Goa Yoga School of Slayers (http://melissayuaninnes.com/books/the-goa-yoga-school-of-slayers/) are more light-hearted books. I’ve also written romance, speculative fiction, and books for young readers.

What inspires you to write?

Sometimes I like to tell stories straight up, like in my columns for the Medical Post. But usually, life doesn’t unfold exactly the way I want it to, darn it. So I have to imagine a world where criminals are brought to justice (the Hope Sze and Killer School mystery series), or fabulous men are swooning over a smart, funny woman of colour (The List http://melissayuaninnes.com/books/the-list/), or aliens just want to sell hot dogs (Humans ‘n’ Hot Dogs).

How have you grown as a writer, what would you say has improved most in your writing?

Information flow. I did a two-week writing master class with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, and she told me years later that she’d looked up from one of my stories and said to Dean, “She’s brilliant,” and he’d said he didn’t understand my writing at all. I could write character and emotion and plot with cool ideas, but I’d hint at things so as not to spoil the ending. That meant the readers would miss my hints and end up feeling bamboozled. I had to learn how to leave bread crumbs and clues and red herrings without bashing people over the head.

I also had to learn how to hook the reader in by adding tension to every scene.

I still have to graft in setting. I live inside my head a lot, so it’s a conscious effort to build the physical world my characters live in.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

The book I’m working on right now—the latest Hope mystery, Human Remains! It’s what author Kate Moretti calls a “book monster.” The Hope Sze books are mentally and emotionally draining for me anyway. I read a lot about crime when I’m writing them. Then, at my “day job” as an emergency doctor, I’m stressed by difficult patients and an increasingly difficult work environment. As a writer, I feel pressure to surprise the reader, so I’m constantly trying to best myself.

On the upside, I love Hope, her family, and her friends. And it’s always a privilege to write and have people read my work. So I keep banging away at it.

How important is research for your writing?

Essential. For Stockholm Syndrome, I was interviewing Ontario Provincial Police officers and touring obstetrics wards. As a gun virgin, I had no idea how guns felt or smelled or if the barrel got hot after shooting, so I got a tour of the Cornwall Gun Club and learned the basics of how to shoot there and on a friend’s property.

This summer, I attended Writers Police Academy, and I recently met Debra Komar, the talented writer and forensic scientist, and have connected to a forensic police officer through Capital Crime Writers. I’m not shy about working my connections. The head of the trauma program came to one of my hospitals on a rural trauma course, and now I’m e-mailing her questions about shooting.

It’s gotten to the point that I have to restrict my research and just start making stuff up. As bestselling author Lee Goldberg pointed out, research is the seasoning. You have to start with the story.

Can you recall an incident while you were doing research that stands out as frightening or funny?

It wasn’t meant to be research, but a patient escaped from police custody and I chased after him. Afterward, I realized that I could have been taken hostage. That was the inspiration for Stockholm Syndrome (http://melissayuaninnes.com/books/stockholm-syndrome/) which was selected as one of the best crime novels of the season by CBC Radio, the national Canadian public radio broadcaster.

Which is more difficult to write: the “good guys” or the villains?

The villains. Since Hope is me, her perspective comes naturally, and the cool thing about a series is that you know your characters super well. The villains change every time, though.

Some writers create a bubble around themselves until they’re finished with their project – how true is that in your case?

My Medical Post editor asked if I took time off to finish Terminally Ill (http://melissayuaninnes.com/books/terminally-ill/), and I laughed and said no. But I have to admit, the balancing act is getting harder. Because I’m buckling down on my book monster, I’m not volunteering to write new short stories right now. But my kids are often crawling on top of me, and work sucks a lot of my energy. I should get better at that bubble!

What factors, other than characters, play an important role in your books, e.g. the weather, music, locale (city, country, suburbs)?

Montreal is the second leading lady of my Hope Sze series. When I moved there, I was gobsmacked by the chaos: people driving the wrong way down one-way streets; glass falling out of school windows while the parents are taking a tour; a woman was literally killed while eating sushi when part of a building sheered off and crushed her.

And yet I’ve never lived in a place so crammed with art, delicious food, and interesting people. For example, I was riding the subway and a tall man had a Post-It note bobby-pinned to his hair. He leaned over so I could read it: “Il n’y a pas de moments ordinaires.” There are no ordinary moments. And it’s absolutely true.

What is special about the mystery genre for you as a writer?

I love getting to know a character and knowing that somehow, justice will prevail.

Why do you think readers are fascinated by mysteries?

Some are drawn by an intellectual puzzle. I remember reading Agatha Christies when I was twelve and racing to see how quickly I could figure out the murderer. But some may be more like me now, where it’s more important that the protagonist is a friend who can see you through the darkness.

Outside the type of mystery you write, which mystery sub-genres do you enjoy most?

I don’t stick to genres, but I’ll tell you that right now, I’m re-reading all of Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books. Kate, Mutt, their friends, and the Alaskan wilderness are alive inside my brain, alongside Harry Potter. My son and I are in the midst of the Deathly Hallows, and part of me never wants to finish curling up under the duvet and reading “HP.” I’m also a big fan of Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, and Kris Nelscott.

Do you have favorites among the characters you have created?

Hope Sze and her two men, John Tucker and Ryan Wu.

I also have a soft spot for Jimmy Wightman, a fourteen-year-old Mohawk kid whose secret skill of talking to animals makes him a reluctant hero in High School Hit List (http://melissayuaninnes.com/books/high-school-hit-list/). Jimmy doesn’t talk much, keeps things close to his chest, was adopted by his grandmother, and doesn’t have much money. His life is so different from mine. He taught me about Mohawk culture, and I listened to music groups I’d never heard before, like Mastodon and Lordi (“Hard Rock Hallelujah” is a good song!).

Which of your characters could you share an apartment with?

Most of them. I try to write about people I like. In fact, it would be pretty cool to live with someone like Julia Sharpe, a twelve-year-old who can tell the future using popcorn kernels instead of tea leaves (The Popcorn Prophecies (http://melissayuaninnes.com/portfolio/the-popcorn-prophecies/) and Popcorn Girl in Like (http://melissayuaninnes.com/portfolio/popcorn-girl-in-like/).

Which characters could you not live with?

The villains. I’d never be able to sleep!

What books have influenced your life the most?

I re-read a lot of children’s books during residency. I found them very comforting. When I caught the stomach flu during my pediatrics rotation, all I could do was lie down and read Harry Potter.

Who are the authors you admire most, or who inspire you?

Kris Rusch (http://kriswrites.com/) has been my writing mentor, and I admire her writing as Kris Nelscott.

Robert Jeschonek *http://www.thefictioneer.com/) is an absolutely brilliant, twisted writer. My favourite of his is A Pinstriped Finger’s My Only Friend. The first word is Tomorrow. He’s starting the book in tomorrow. How can you do that? When would you think of doing that? But he does!

I’m also very excited about my friend Richard Quarry’s (https://www.amazon.com/Richard-Quarry/e/B00IX40H76) upcoming fantasy novel, The Dance of Sword and Heron. One of my complaints about fantasy is that it’s not realistic. I know that escapism is the point, but Richard can write brave yet flawed characters under the threat of war, and the limits of magic, in a way that I’ve never seen.

What other genres do you enjoy reading?

Every genre! I’ve never met a genre I don’t like. I’m happy combing through non-fiction, mainstream, speculative fiction, graphic novels, romance, kids’ books…Tell me a good story, and I’ll die happy.

Of favorite books you have read, which is the one you keep going back to again and again?

I usually refuse to answer this question. Why must you make me choose just one? However, I do reread Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray. I love a story about a woman taking control of her life through cake.

Hope basically is me: we’re both from Ottawa, we graduated from medical school in London, Ontario, and then swung over to Montreal for a residency in family medicine with sub-specialization in emergency medicine.

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