An Interview with Melissa Yuan-Innes

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Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes pretends to be a normal emergency doctor.

However, she lives a secret life as a Writers of the Future and Aurora Award-winning author living outside Montreal, Canada. Since no one can pronounce her last name, she also writes Derringer-nominated mysteries under the pseudonym Melissa Yi. Her latest medical thriller, Stockholm Syndrome, explores a hostage-taking on an obstetrics ward.

Melissa has recently been interviewed on CTV and had syndicated interviews on the CBC. She has written numerous books such as Code Blues, Notorious D.O.C., Stockholm Syndrome and Terminally Ill as well as writing for mystery publication Sleuth Magazine. Her memoir, The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World, is also full of real life stories of being an ER doctor and the title is one you’re unlikely to forget. She recently released, “The Emergency Doctor’s Guide to A Pain-Free Back” on April 21, 2016. The factual resource book has been described as, “Fast, fact-based, funny, full of cartoons and fantastically written by an emergency room physician.”

She has an upcoming book to look forward to if you’ve devoured all her other work entitled, “Human Remains”.

As well as re-designing the obstetrics ward into an action movie, Melissa also has a Rottweiler named Roxy who attacks cameramen and T.V. hosts with doggy kisses.

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Contact Melissa through her website: http://melissayuaninnes.com/

And of course find her on twitter @dr_sassy

VCS: Thank you for visiting with StarkLight Press today, Melissa! The first thing I’ve got to say is that I love your twitter handle and was forced to immediately follow it as soon as I found it. How did you get the title, ‘Dr_Sassy’?

My friend called herself something like DizzyTart, so I thought dr_sassy was legit. I really am a medical doctor, and I’ve always been an outspoken, spirited sort of person. dr_sassy it is!

VCS: Do you work full time as a doctor? How do you find time for your writing with such an intense career?

No, I work part-time so I’ll have the energy for writing and for my kids, although sometimes it creeps up to almost full-time. And I still find it draining, to be honest. It’s a constant balancing act, because not only do you have to work the hours as a physician, but you have to keep up with the latest training and medical articles. Meanwhile, writing needs space and silence and contemplation, as well as time reading, marketing, and learning. And I have two young kids I’m always worried about neglecting. But in the end, I do like the edge, ideas, income, and camaraderie I get from medicine, so it’s a good trade-off.

VCS: How do your patients react to you once they find out that you’re an author? Have you ever had a patient recognize you as an author?

Some emergency room patients and their families recognize me, especially after I appeared on the CTV show Regional Contact. One of them kept nudging his partner and saying, “Ask her. Ask her.” A few days ago, I was working on the wards as a hospitalist (doctor looking after inpatients), and the charge nurse said, “You have a fan in the emergency department. He heard your name being paged overhead and said, ‘Is that the author? I’d like to meet her!’” That made up for an otherwise bleak day.

In general, I think they feel good that one of their doctors is getting recognized. At least, no one has every said, “I don’t want you as my doctor. You’re a writer!” A few times, a patient or family member has contacted me to buy a book after a positive experience in the emergency room, which feels good on both counts.

VCS: Your book ‘Terminally Ill” has had many glowing reviews, in fact, I found high praise for all your novels plastered all over the internet. The one that struck me the most was the following by Rich Horton of sfsite.com.

“Very fine work…Yuan-Innes deftly negotiates the creepy aspects, the affecting aspects, and the funny aspects of her tale, as complications result when other dead return with other diseases to battle. The ending is quite moving.”—Rich Horton sfsite.com

VCS:This quote was striking to me as I have recently become acquainted with the genre term ‘sic-lit’ to describe any literature that focuses on aspects and characters with illnesses, particularly terminal illnesses. Have you ever heard this phrase before and what’s you’re opinion of it?

Sic-lit! No, I never heard that before. But I guess I often write it. Even before I started writing straight up medical mysteries and medical memoir, I’d still mention diseases. For example, “The Dormitory of Friable Little Girls” focuses on a girl with hemophilia who meets a vampire. Would she rather become invulnerable like him, or stay human?

I don’t think much about catch phrases, one way or another. If some people find them helpful, that’s fine. I don’t judge. I’m just doing my work.

By the way, that particular Rich Horton quote was for my short story, “Skin Song,” which won second place in Writers of the Future. But Terminally Ill got some good reviews too, like from Publishers Weekly and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I’m glad you saw them!

VCS: How do you find your way through the landmines of dealing with such tough issues and still keep the story funny and enjoyable?

I think the challenge for everyone is how to get through life and stay fun. That’s my M.O., basically.

When you’re healthy, illness is something that other people have to deal with. It’s segregated away from you. You don’t have to deal with the ghetto of hospitals and clinics. But if you breach the wall, you’ll find great stories of truth and courage. It’s not as dark as you imagined it was. When I was a medical students, I got palpitations thinking that I was going on the psych ward. What was I going to see? But actually, the nurses smiled a lot more than on the medicine ward, and the patients mostly came up to the desk to ask if they could go out on a smoke break—a lot more mundane than you would think. Although I did ask to spend a day in a forensic psych ward with what used to be called the criminally insane. That was intense. I haven’t written a story about that yet.

Part of the reason I became a doctor is because I’m curious. It’s a gift that you can step into another world before you have to experience illness in your family or in yourself. I kept writing partly as a survival mechanism, as a way to expunge and imagine what had happened and what could happen.

Humour, for me, is non-negotiable. I’m not running around with a clown nose, although there was one Hallowe’en I wore a wig to the emerg. But when I think about all the crappy things that happen, I make sure to remember the good stuff, too. I write like that. And it must come through in medicine, because I had one patient comment, “I like that doctor. She smiles!”

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VCS:Do you plan out your stories when you work? How are you inspired and how much reality do you inject into your stories?

Always writing by the seat of my pants. Usually inspired by something that happened in real life or something crazy that I read about. It could be a combination, like after a patient escaped police custody and I ended up chasing after him into an empty stairwell, I belatedly realized that it was a stupid thing to do. I could have been taken hostage. So then I started researching hostage-taking in hospitals and came across the story of a man, armed with guns and dynamite, who stormed a Utah hospital and ended up kidnapping a woman in labour, her family, and two nurses. That was how I created my latest Hope Sze novel, Stockholm Syndrome.

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I drove back to the Montreal hospital where I did my residency and took a tour of the obstetrics wards, which have now been completely overhauled, but Dr. Severine Laplante was kind enough to point out all the details like a code rope by the incubator. In a code pink (neonatal code), you don’t have time to call for help. Just yank the rope and keep doing compressions. When Mary Ito interviewed me about Stockholm Syndrome for CBC’s Fresh Air, she said my novel was “very graphic.” I figured, job done. [link]

I’ve worked day-jobs before where my mind was constantly on my writing rather than my job, I was still competent and on the ball even though my mind was a million miles away. How does that work for you? Do you have a big divide in your mind between ‘Now I am doctoring’ and ‘Now I get to write however I want?’. How do the two aspects of being a doctor and writing about it intersect for you?

Yes, I have a big divide, both intellectual and emotional. For example, sometimes nurses call their kids from work, but I almost never contact my family at work. When I’m working, I’m working. When I’m home, I’m…trying to do a million things at home.

VCS: Truthfully Do you have a mental (or physical) filing cabinet where you see something at work and say, ‘That is SO going in my next book?’

Ah. I get that feeling no matter where I am. It’s more like a freezing up. My breathing stops for a second. And the next time I hit the computer, the words come out without a lot of conscious thought. When I was a hospitalist last week, one of the nurses, said, “So? When’s your next Hope book coming out?” I felt guilty because I’d put it aside to finish my non-fiction book, The Emergency Doctor’s Guide to a Pain-Free Back. But then she told me a story about how a woman had accidentally delivered a baby in the bathroom, and the next day, I’d started back on the fifth Hope book, Human Remains.

VCS: I have to ask you about the title of your memoir: The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World. Is that really you? Is this how you come across to others or how you feel or totally ironic?

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One patient yelled at me, “You. Are. The. Most. Unfeeling. Doctor. I’ve. Ever. Met!” I had another patient say, “You’re amazing. I can tell that what you do, you do from the heart.” But of course we remember the furious ones. So I wrote an essay for the Medical Post, and that became the title of my first memoir collection.

VCS: What is the most absurd thing someone has ever said to you in the emergency room and how did you cope with your human reaction to it (feel free to give us more than one example!)

See above. I keep a lid on my emotions in the emerg. I can seethe about it later, but if I can write about it and maybe even laugh about it later, then in the end, that’s a win.

VCS: Following along the same lines, I’m curious, if a penguin in a sombrero walked into the emergency room what would it say to you and what would its medical complaint be?

Little chirps, incomprehensible to my ear, so I’d make sure the penguin wasn’t in any obvious distress (bleeding, wing ripped off, sombrero askew) and call the vet or animal control.

VCS: Why did you decide to become a doctor? Has it been what you imagined it would be?

1. I wanted to save lives and have a challenging and respected career. 2. Somewhat. Most shifts are mundane. Sometimes you get slammed. When it’s non-stop patients, crises, no beds, everyone’s exhausted, and the Ontario’s Wynne government cuts your pay and blames doctors for everything, it’s no fun. But usually we squeeze a laugh out.

VCS: You have a ‘life resume’ that many would envy. You’re an award winning author as well as a physician, would you say that you have a sense of having succeeded?

I love this question because I like to ask it. I said to Kris Rusch the first time I met her, “You’ve won so many awards. Do you feel like a success?” She looked disgusted and said, “I haven’t done half the things I want to.” I feel the same way. I want to reach so many more readers. I have so many more books and stories and articles to write. Medicine is constantly demanding. And I can’t forget my children, who need my individual attention more than anyone else. But you asking me this question makes me feel more like a success!

VCS: If I give you the keys to my time machine, what’s one thing that you would go back and change in your life?

Our first baby died at 20 weeks of pregnancy. I would heal her first.

VCS: Now that I gave you the keys to my time machine, what’s one other thing you would do with it? Would you change something in history, meet a famous person or something else entirely? (You only have it for a little while, I have another time machine and a tracking device so I’ll catch up with you and tell you it’s back to the ER with you ;))

My dad died of brain cancer at the age of 57. I’d ask him if he wanted to come back, and if he did, I’d resurrect him with a healthy brain.

VCS: I’ve had an image painted of you in my mind of a strong woman who is funny, driven, smart and unafraid to speak her mind. How would you describe yourself to fill in this picture?

All of them make sense to me. Thanks and back at you!

VCS: How would you say that your early life impacted your decisions to have your dual careers?

My parents taught me to rely on myself. So even though I would have liked to write full time, and I’m lucky enough to have married someone who would have supported me, I always planned to have a my own breadwinning career as well as writing.

VCS: What do you see yourself doing next?

Writing-wise, I’m on the train back from an appearance at the Brantford library on Stockholm Syndrome. I’m working on Human Remains, the fifth Hope Sze novel. At the end of May, I’m flying down to Los Angeles as a finalist for the Roswell Award. In June, I’m appearing at the Champlain Library, and I’ve just been shortlisted for a Canadian Business Media Award for my columns in the Medical Post, but I can’t go to that ceremony—I’m working as a hospitalist again as well as my emergency shifts. I’m getting the word out on my back pain book. I’ve just sworn I’ll submit some more short stories. Family-wise, my son turns ten this month, and my daughter has demanded a play date with her own friends.

VCS: Only one more question: Can you tell us one thing that you’ve never told anyone ever before?

Baby, this whole interview are things I’ve never told anyone before. I can see your creativity and imagination in every question. Thanks for this!

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