by Timothy Pike
Award-winning author and emergency physician Melissa Yi admits that from time to time, she wonders what life would be like if she’d focused on writing instead of becoming a doctor.
But knowing how tough the writing business could be, the Ottawa, Ontario, native forged ahead with her medical career. “I always wanted to write,” she tells me, “but had zero interest in starving to death.”
It’s a good thing it happened that way, because I have a feeling the exciting tales of murder, mystery, and romance she tells in her medical crime series—whose protagonist is also a doctor—wouldn’t exist otherwise.
The star of the series, Dr. Hope Sze, is like Melissa in many ways, except that Hope tends to find herself knee-deep in murder cases seemingly everywhere she goes.
And on a pretty regular basis. “Dr. Hope Sze solved her first murder case a week ago,” the teaser for the second book in the series, Notorious D.O.C., starts out. “No more Sherlock Holmes-ing for Hope. Ever. Until her first psych patient says, ‘My daughter is dead. And somebody killed her.'” And so begins Hope’s next hair-raising adventure in that highly praised installment.
Melissa has been honing her writing skills practically her whole life. “I’ve written ever since I held a pencil,” she says. “Reading and writing are two of my favorite things in the world.”
Two more of Melissa’s favorite things made a career in medicine feel like a logical choice. “I like people and I like science,” she says, “so I figured I’d become a doctor and write and have kids in my spare time. And I did, although it was harder than I imagined.”
But Melissa clearly used that spare time well, because she’s won numerous awards and her books have met with plenty of critical acclaim. “It feels good to have our national broadcaster, the CBC, and our national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, recommend my novels,” she says. “And if I meet readers who read my work and instantly connect, that’s best of all.”
When life as she knew it suddenly stopped for Melissa, she found herself exploring one of the last places she thought she’d turn for answers: religion.
Over the years Melissa has penned a large but rather eclectic body of work, writing in a variety of genres, among them science fiction, humor, and picture books. A colorful medley of themes have found their way into her stories, too, like travel, love, and even yoga.
And perhaps most significantly, grief. When life as she knew it suddenly stopped for Melissa, she found herself turning to supportive friends, seeking comfort in creative pursuits other than writing, and exploring one of the last places she thought she’d turn for answers: religion.
“If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you know that you don’t want to write anymore,” Melissa says, “and it’s very difficult to submit your work and receive rejections. I leaned on my friends, read about spirituality and Buddhism, and gradually started baking and drawing—creative tasks in the place of writing—before I finally wrote the book Buddhish: Exploring Buddhism in a Time of Grief: One Doctor’s Story.”
Here’s how she describes that book:
Melissa married her high school sweetheart, launched her career as an emergency doctor, rescued a Golden Retriever, and best of all, expected a baby in July.
Then she delivered a stillborn baby girl.
What do you do when your heart shatters, and you’ve always relied on science instead of religion? What if your friends have no words for you, and you feel absolutely alone in the darkness?
Melissa’s courage and perseverance in the face of that heart-wrenching grief played a key role in overcoming it. “As Robert Frost wrote, ‘The only way out is through,'” Melissa says. “Writing is wonderful, but it’s only one part of you. Take care of yourself first.”
While self-care is essential, Melissa also knows she can rely on the people in her life. “My husband was the first person to believe in me and my writing,” she says. “We met in high school, so it’s not like I had a huge body of work. But he said, ‘If you want to write, write,’ which felt like freedom compared to my school-obsessed Asian parents.”
“While there are surgeons who laugh,” Melissa says, “some of them are only one small step away from murder.”
“I also have a secret weapon, a writer gamer friend who can analyze my plots and make suggestions,” Melissa tells me. “I’ve used him for White Lightning and for my work-in-progress, which helps tremendously. My M.D. colleagues generously answer my questions, too.”
When one of those colleagues, who also happened to be an artisan distiller, offered to create a special gin just for the character Hope Sze, the wheels started turning in Melissa’s author mind.
“I don’t really drink, so neither does Hope, but I loved the idea, and started researching crime and alcohol,” Melissa says. “This led me to Prohibition, Al Capone, and Canada’s role in supplying Americans with a steady stream of alcohol. So in White Lightning, Hope heads for a romantic getaway at a Prohibition-era hotel across the Detroit River and ends up trying to solve three murders and wrongful deaths that occurred during three different centuries: now, Prohibition, and nineteenth-century England.”
Of course, the stories don’t write themselves, so Melissa remains disciplined about her routine. “Every day, I try to write a thousand words if I’m not working in the ER, and five hundred words if I am,” she explains. “If I have a harrowing bunch of shifts, like recently, I stockpile words. But if I miss a day, I don’t beat myself up about it and make up the words the way I used to. Writing shouldn’t be a punishment.”
All of Melissa’s hard work means it won’t be long before we can enjoy the first book in her next series.
“The Shapes of Wrath will debut at the end of 2022,” Melissa tells me. “It’s a brand-new, seven-part series for Hope Sze where she confronts each of the seven sins, starting with wrath on general surgery. Because while there are surgeons who laugh, some of them are the most furious, damaged people you’ll ever meet, only one small step away from murder.”
I’ll file that last part under things I wish I didn’t know—but truthfully, it only makes me look forward to that next series even more.
Melissa Yi is an emergency physician and award-winning writer. In her recent crime novel Scorpion Scheme, Dr. Hope Sze lands in Cairo and discovers a man with a nail through his skull who might hold the key to millions in buried gold. Previous Hope Sze thrillers were recommended by the Globe and Mail, CBC Books, and The Next Chapter as some of the best Canadian suspense novels. Melissa was shortlisted for the Derringer Award for the world’s best short mystery fiction. Under the name Melissa Yuan-Innes, she also writes medical humor and has won speculative fiction awards.
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