Interview with Melissa Yi

Interview with Melissa Yi

May 28, 2018 Off By C.S. O'Cinneide

Melissa Yi is an emergency physician and award-winning writer. The Globe and Mail recently recommended HUMAN REMAINS as one of the best Canadian suspense novels, and she has also been recognized by CBC’s The Current and The Next Chapter. Publishers Weekly hailed her work as “impressive” and “moving.” Yi was recently a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime story in Canada and was shortlisted for the Derringer Award for the best short mystery fiction in the English language.
Under the name Melissa Yuan-Innes, she has won awards for speculative fiction, poetry, and children’s literature. She has one husband, two small children, and one large Rottweiler.
Connect with her on Facebook (, Twitter (@dr_sassy), or best of all,

You are an ER doctor, a mother of two small children, and an author of dozens of books and short stories shortlisted for awards. How do you make time for writing, and do you ever sleep?
I just woke up from a nap! In surgery, the motto is “Never stand when you can sit down, never sit down when you can lie down, and never lie down when you can sleep.” The ER isn’t as intense, but it does mean working evenings, nights, and weekends, when sane people would be resting. So sleep when you can.
I try to make writing a daily habit, like flossing. Five hundred words a day if I’m working at the hospital, a thousand words a day if I’m not. And I limit medicine, so I can have energy for my kids and my writing. But it’s definitely not easy. I used to be very strict about word count, and write up to 2000 words a day, but I prefer my sanity.

Your Dr. Hope Sze series is a medical thriller, but with its comedic moments. What has been your most comic experience as real-life doctor in the ER?
Gosh. I laugh every day in the ER. I’m friends with a lot of the people I work with. Some of the stuff wasn’t funny at the time, though. The genesis of The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World and Other True Tales From the Emerency Room started off with a patient yelling across the department, “You are the most unfeeling doctor I’ve ever met!” As a physician, no matter what patients say to you, you’re not allowed to respond in kind, so there’s no way to blow off steam. It wasn’t until I told my book club, and a few of them burst out laughing, that I realized it might be funny instead of infuriating.

If you want a quick yuk, once I had to examine a guy’s equipment because his girlfriend accidentally bit him during oral sex. I wrote about that one in Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anatomy.

Tell us about DEATH FLIGHT, your next book in the Dr. Hope Sze series. Will it take place entirely in the air? Will Hope join the mile-high club?
DEATH FLIGHT starts off in Los Angeles and ends up with terror at 30,000 feet, as Dr. Hope Sze and Dr. John Tucker struggling to save lives mid-air. You jest about the mile high cub, but I did research it. They did a survey on airplane travellers, and I polled my flight attendant friends. (FYI: it used to be more common in some airplane models with more luxurious bathrooms.) Hope’s love triangle with her colleague, Tucker, and Ryan, her engineer boyfriend, is a serious engine for the series. #TeamTucker is a hashtag, but Ryan has a small yet loyal following. So I won’t give any spoilers, but DEATH FLIGHT has thrills of all kinds!

You write in numerous genres, science fiction, romance, young adult, as well as thrillers and noir. What genre do you feel the most comfortable in?
It depends on the day. If I’m tired from medicine, non-fiction is the easiest. I write articles for the Medical Post or just decompress about my day by writing about a tough case. If I can’t stand the world as it is, I love fantasy and science fiction and romance. I relate to young adult and children’s literature because I never grew up and our kids love to read. I enjoy thrillers and noir because part of me likes nosing around a crime scene—I recently did a forensics tour in Toronto, headed by Sgt. Ed Adach and accompanied by bestselling author Carolyn Arnold, budding author Andrea Adair-Tippins and Kobo merchandising intern Emily Tippins—and it’s very satisfying to write the truth (noir), generate a page-turner (thriller), and end with a form of justice (mystery and thriller).

How do you think your writing in the thriller and noir genre differs from male writers? Or do you think it differs at all?
A few male readers made a point of telling me that Hope’s love triangle is more important to female readers, but I can’t help wondering if they doth protest too much. Other XY readers didn’t comment on the love triangle, and a favourite super-reader who happens to be male quietly bought my romances too, so you don’t want to get caught in the squeaky wheel phenomenon, where you only hear the opinions of the loud people.

For sure only women come up to me and say, “Hope should be with Ryan!”, “No, Hope should be with Tucker,” or tell me to hurry up and write the next one so they can see what happens with her and her men, but that may change in the future. I always think of Stephen Jay Gould, who said that the variation between populations is less than the variation within populations, which means that when we say, “Dutch people are tall,” that may be true on average, but until recently, the tallest living men in the world were China’s Yao Ming and then Mongolia’s Bao Xishun, even though we stereotype Asians as short.

All that to say, probably the biggest difference between me and a male thriller author is not that I’m a woman, but that I will bring up an American paleontologist and a star Chinese former NBA player in the same sentence without blinking. I like to “think different” and to challenge readers’ expectations as well as my own.

If you could be any kind of a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
Well, I don’t want to die, so how ‘bout the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine? One of them is the oldest in the world (5067 years old). It’s considered medium-sized (5 to 15 metres), and I’m not huge. Some of their leaves stay green for 45 years! The bristlecone pine burns easily, but it tends not to live in areas with large-scale fires, and its population will swiftly re-establish itself after a fire. At high altitudes, they do end up looking short and gnarled, but I’ll take that over death.

In other words, they know how to survive by avoiding fire, they can spring back after a disaster, and they live so long that one Great Basin bristlecone pine is named Methuselah. I’ll take that as a metaphor for my writing career, too. I’d love to have my career skyrocket like a poplar tree, but right now, since I balance it with medicine and my kids, I’ll concentrate on quality writing and longevity.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay, right after my book club did it, and now I wish I had someone to talk to about it! She has so many vicious lines, like, “There’s no mystery to keeping a man…you do whatever sick thing he wants, when he wants, and you’ll never have a problem.” True or false? (I’d say mostly true. There will always be some outliers who want what they can’t have and will still cast you aside, but most of them would realize how lucky they are.)
I’m also devouring an advance copy of the fantasy novel Cat and Amber, which is part of an upcoming epic fantasy series by Richard Quarry. It’s like Game of Thrones, mostly from a female point of view, with battles so real that you can feel the horses’ panic, but also questions magic and spirituality and abuse of power. I love a book that can make you think and feel at the same time.
Plus, my daughter and I are finishing Harry Potter together. She sobbed over the ending of the Order of the Phoenix and said she wished she’d never read the series. I felt like the Bad Mom, letting her be exposed to such heartache, but she recovered, and now she’s on the Deathly Hallows, the last book. It’s so fun to lie in bed, surrounded by fluffy duvets, and read together. My son and I read “HP” together last year, so now it’s her turn.
Mystery-wise, I’m a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award this year for my story “The Sin Eaters,” in Montreal Noir. I juuuuust managed to switch my ER shift so I can attend the banquet. Now I’ll try to read the other finalists’ work so I can talk to them intelligently at the banquet. A few years ago, I thought these ceremonies were strictly a win/lose proposition, but now I realize that getting together with other writers is more about friendship and community and recognition of excellence instead of a binary win or lose situation. I’ve also decided that envy is not adaptable and that the Dalai Lama was right when he pointed out that if you’re happy for other people, it increases your own chances of happiness by seven billion.