In 2018, British author and editor Bridget Lawless founded a prize for excellence in thrillers that do not portray violence against women.
In 2020, I have been longlisted for the Staunch Prize for short fiction for my story, “My Two-Legs.”
The heroine of my story is a golden retriever named Star who’s locked in a car when her owner (her “two-legs”) disappears. I enjoyed the challenge of a protagonist who couldn’t talk and who has no opposable thumbs, trying to escape a car, find her “two-legs,” and figure out who tried to kill him.
It’s a huge honour for me to join the long list of authors, chosen from hundreds of submissions around the world.
I believe in a prize that aims for a better world, namely a world that doesn’t rely on female victims for entertainment. You can still write those stories, as I have myself, but I’m fiercely glad there is a prize for those of us who choose to avoid it.
Introducing…S! My latest Hope Sze thriller, Graveyard Shift, was inspired by a local police officer who stopped a massive medication theft. But I needed both his and the police department’s permission to talk about that, and I didn’t know the officer’s last name. Then this happened: “Oh, it’s Dr. Yuan-Innes!” I ran into Constable Michael Ménard, who recognized me and said, “You’re one of our favourite doctors.” Gosh. I shook his hand, thanked him for making my day (turns out that part of their criteria is “doctors who don’t make us wait around in the department forever”), and explained my dilemma about how to find one of his officers post-theft.
Now some quick real talk. I didn’t blog about Graveyard Shift because I always figured I had time. I’d do it later.
Well, now we’re at the beginning of the Canadian COVID-19 pandemic. I have to work in the ER tomorrow. We’re an hour away from Ottawa, where public health has warned of community spread. I work in a tiny hospital with no CT, no portable chest X-ray, and bare minimum labs after hours.
Health care workers have more than 10 times the risk of catching COVID-19. We don’t exactly know why but assume it’s because we get exposed repeatedly over and over while exhausted and under-protected. American M.D.’s have to rewear their N95 masks post-intubation or have none at all, and we’ve learned of Italian doctors who died with no protective equipment, not even gloves.
So I started a petition two days ago that was immediately signed by 62 physicians and had the support of many more. We need to protect our workers NOW. Don’t wait until we run out of masks and gloves. Let’s go! This is the time for war-like measures. Our colleagues are dying around the world, and we have only a tiny window of time before it happens here.
“I hope we get to 1000 signatures in the morning,” said one of my new friends.
“I want thousands,” I replied. Dream big. You may not win, but you might as well try. To my astonishment, http://change.org/COVID19frontline has hit 64,000 signatures as we speak. Dr. Carol Loffelmann and Dr. Michelle Cohen and I have spoken to the media. We’ve been in discussion with entrepreneurs, puzzling out how to get that equipment made.
However, I will relax more when we’ve covered everything in this petition. We want the PPE not only ordered but available to our front line workers, with masks and gloves accessible for the police and other essential services. We want to test patients properly and care for you with enough doctors, nurses, respiratory technicians, and other crucial personnel, using the correct medications and equipment. And we want everyone else to stay home and healthy.
So thank you, each and every one of you, for signing this petition and bringing us one step closer.
As Winston Churchill wrote, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Melissa Yi: Welcome, Joanne. You fell in love with cozy mysteries during chemotherapy. Do you mind telling that story?
Joanne Guidoccio: On the cusp of my fiftieth birthday, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer and forced to take a leave of absence. While undergoing chemotherapy, I searched for light and entertaining novels that would provide a healthy diversion. I was grateful for the bags of books dropped off by friends but couldn’t get into any of the storylines. I found the spiritual books too intense and the comedic books unsatisfying.
Instead, I gravitated toward cozies, those delightful murder mysteries that include a bloodless crime and contain little violence, sex, or coarse language. I was familiar with Agatha Christie’s novels and pleasantly surprised to discover more authors in the genre, among them Susan Wittig Albert, MC Beaton, Mary Jane Maffini, and Denise Swanson. I read voraciously, often finishing a cozy in one or two sittings.
Toward the end of treatments, I decided to experiment with the genre and considered the following scenario: What if a woman wins a major lottery, returns to her hometown, and then finds herself embroiled in a murder investigation involving four blondes? Can she prove her innocence and solve this case before it’s too late?
MY: Great hook! My only problem is that I felt guilty because you’ve read at least two Hope Sze novels, and Graveyard Shift is much darker. Do you have trouble identifying with more gritty thrillers?
JG: While I do read the occasional psychological thriller, I don’t think I could ever write that “dark” …it just isn’t in me. A fan of riveting medical drama, I enjoyed reading several novels in the Hope Sze series. I didn’t pick up on an extreme grittiness factor.
Would you like to comment on the division between cozies and noir? I had no idea this was a “thing” until I attended my first conference, Bloody Words, but it seems like there are two separate camps and for some, “never the twain shall meet.”
To be truthful, I am not too familiar with noir literature. In some of the articles, it has been described as a “disturbing mix of sex and violence.” Not something I would care to read or write.
I prefer more light-hearted mysteries, aptly call cozies. The crime takes place “off-stage,” and very few graphic details are provided. By the end of the story, the criminal is punished, and order is restored to the community.
I agree…” never the twain shall meet.”
One of the things I admire about you is that you’ve created a real community on your website and, I suspect, in your life. One of your heroines, Gilda Greco, is a career counsellor. The tagline for your website s “On the Road to Reinvention,” and you invite authors to blog about their “Second Acts,” where we talk about careers or lives we had before. Why this passion for reinvention? How important is friendship in your writing career and in your life?
Reinvention is a core theme of my own life. A cancer diagnosis at age 49 and a decision to retire at age 53 prompted me to reassess my life goals. An avid reader, I searched for fiction and nonfiction literature that would help me navigate these uncertain waters. And then I decided to write the books I wanted to read.
As for friendships—both IRL and online—I cherish all of them. I am grateful to all the friends who have supported me on my cancer and writing journeys. They have enriched my life beyond measure.
You wanted to be a writer in grade 13, but chose to go into teaching first. Yet A Different Kind of Reunion is dedicated to your former students, and the plot is clearly inspired by your teaching. What are the advantages and disadvantages of pursing a “safe” career before your dream career?
Pursuing a “safe” career made economic sense. I received a regular salary and qualified for health benefits. Throughout those 31 years, I toyed with writing a novel during weekends and vacations but never followed through. I enjoyed teaching but found it to be a very demanding career. I simply didn’t have the time and energy for much else.
That being said, I have no regrets about selecting the “safe” career. In retirement, I now have the time and space to pursue a creative second act.
You called Between Land and Sea “a paranormal romance about a middle-aged ex-mermaid.” I find that your middle-aged heroines, both ex-mermaid and human, help expand diversity and representation. Is that important to you?
In my late forties, I realized that I no longer enjoyed reading novels with 20something and 30something protagonists. It felt like poking into the heads and hearts of young women who could easily be former students. While searching for novels featuring an older crowd, I discovered several late-blooming authors who had launched successful second acts. I was inspired and decided to populate my novels with Boomer women and their older sisters
How do you continue to improve your writing after five novels?
I take online courses and attend writing workshops. I also enjoy reading craft books. Two recent favorites: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and Writing with Quiet Hands by Paula Munier.
I enjoyed A Season for Killing Blondes. Then I picked up A Different Kind of Reunion, which starts off describing three different Barbie-like students, and the constable quizzes her about the email she missed from “Moody Barbie!” Do you have something against blondes? 🙂
For some reason—that’s unexplainable—I visualize certain characters as blondes. At some level, I may be trying to balance the brunette/blonde ratio in my novels. Most of the Italian characters in the Gilda Greco Series have dark hair. So, it makes practical sense to add more diversity with the new characters. Also, I like to have one Ken/Barbie couple in each book.
I do love the Italian characters–and the Italian food, family, and friendships. Thanks for coming on my blog, Joanne, and sharing your stories and your mysteries!
About the Gilda Greco Mystery Series
A cross between Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, and Cher (Moonstruck), protagonist Gilda Greco brings a unique perspective to the amateur female sleuth.
The teacher-turned-lottery winner returns to her hometown, only to find herself embroiled in a series of murder investigations. Before you start imaging thrillers with high stakes and police chases, pause and take a yoga breath. The three novels in the series—A Season for Killing Blondes, Too Many Women in the Room, A Different Kind of Reunion—are cozy mysteries, written in the Agatha Christie tradition. All the crimes take place “off stage” with very few graphic details provided.
While the pace may be more relaxed than that of thrillers and police procedurals, there are no steaming cups of herbal teas, overstuffed chairs, or purring cats in these contemporary cozies. Prepare yourself for interfering relatives who don’t always respect boundaries, adult mean girls, deserving and undeserving men, multiple suspects, and lots of Italian food.
A member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America, Joanne Guidoccio writes cozy mysteries, paranormal romances, and inspirational literature from her home base of Guelph, Ontario.
Judy Penz Sheluk and I first met at the Ontario Library Association’s annual conference, where were both part of a presentation by author members of Crime Writers of Canada. She introduced herself to me and invited me on her blog, so of course I fell for her immediately. But since I’m not half as organized, it’s taken me this long for me to land her on my own blog. Read all the way through for a surprise at the end!
Q: One of your heroines, Callie Barnstable, spends a lot of time organizing her thoughts and writing down details of her meetings. Her father’s manta is “A dull pencil is sharper than the sharpest mind.” Sherlock Holmes’s instant evaluations seem brilliant, but I suspect true investigations involve a lot of legwork and note taking. What do you think?
A: I’m personally hopeless without writing things down. I have a notebook next to my bedside table, along with an LED pen (so I can write in the dark when flashes of brilliance come to me in the middle of the night), and I have a separate notebook for every current work-in-progress, where I jot down things that occur to me as I’m writing in Word. That might be possible character names or timelines or ages of characters (including year of birth, how old they were at certain years, etc.) I even have a “promo notes” notebook. I’m not Callie, but a lot of her quirks are my quirks.
Q: Tattoos! The Medical Post ran an article on doctors with tattoos and patients’ reactions. If it’s not too much of a spoiler or too much of a personal question, Callie visits a tattoo parlour in A Fool’s Journey. Do you have any tattoos?
A: I don’t have any tattoos and no plans to get one, because, like Callie, there is nothing in this world that I can imagine wanting permanently inked on my body. I think back to my late teens, when, after breaking up with my boyfriend, I became obsessed with butterflies — “Butterflies are free.” I had butterfly earrings, necklaces…you get the idea. Well, fast forward a few (and I won’t say how many) decades and I have absolutely no affinity towards butterflies. But had tattoos been in vogue at the time, I’m sure I’d have at least one or more butterflies somewhere on my body.
Q: I was excited that the book opens with Callie inheriting $365,000 from her grandmother conditional on her investigating the disappearance of 20-year-old Brandon Colbeck. Now I have to go back and start with book #1, Skeletons in the Attic, where Callie inherits a house from her father, conditional on her investigating her mother’s murder 30 years ago. It seems like Callie’s family keeps dying and giving her big-ticket items with strings attached. As an author, what attracts you to the idea of a mysterious inheritance?
A: Ha! Yes, Callie’s been lucky with her inheritances, hasn’t she? In the case of Skeletons, the idea came to me while my husband and I were at my lawyer’s office to redo our wills. Our lawyer was delayed in court and while Mike read back issues of Bicycling magazine, I started jotting down notes (of course I have a notebook in my purse!): “What if I was here to inherit vs. write a will? And what if there were strings attached? And what if…” By the time our lawyer arrived, I’d written chapter one. In fact, a large part of the opening scenes are directly culled from that experience. With A Fool’s Journey, I wanted to show Callie coming full circle: she’s no longer the Toronto city kid/fish out of suburban water that she was in book 1. Another inheritance, and how she handles the case, demonstrates how much she’s grown.
Q: The case in Past and Present, book #2, involves a grandmother who met a “bad end” in 1956. Do you also enjoy researching mysteries set in the past, since all three books’ cases take place 20-60 years ago?
A: I was really struggling for an idea for book 2 in the series. At the time, my mom was very ill (COPD and related health issues). Going through her closet after she passed away, there was a small 1950s train case. Inside were her immigration papers from England to Canada on the TSS Canberra in 1952, her German passport (she moved to England after the war), her mother’s (my grandmother’s) and my father’s death certificates, as well as some photographs and postcards. I’d never seen any of these things and she never spoke of her life “Before Canada” and marrying my father. I started by researching the Canberra through Pier 21, the Canadian Immigration Museum, and also through a friend of mine who collects ocean liner memorabilia. Before long, I was viewing things as if I was Callie, and honestly, that story just seemed to write itself after that. It was as if my mom were with me. The book was published Sept. 21, 2018, exactly two years after her death, and it’s dedicated to her memory.
Q: What made you decide to set your books in the fictional town of Marketville instead of the town of Newmarket?
A: Some of the landmarks are similar to Newmarket, but I’ve taken a lot of liberties with the location. It just seemed better to give it a fictional name. I did the same with my Glass Dolphin series, where Lount’s Landing is loosely based on Holland Landing, where I lived for 25 years.
Q: I liked the hint of romance in A Fool’s Journey. Do you like adding a bit of personal relationships to your fiction?
A: Gosh, no. I’m the least romantic person on the planet (just ask my husband) and I tend to skip over romantic scenes in books I’m reading. As a result, I really struggle with adding romantic elements to my books. But in real life, people have relationships, and so my characters do, too. I will say, however, that I love the relationship between Arabella Carpenter and her ex-husband, Levon Larroquette (Glass Dolphin series) because they’re so clearly meant for each other and refuse to admit it.
Q: Very sorry to hear that your traditional publisher, Barking Rain Press (BRP), closed on July 7th. When you received the news, you were on vacation, and A Fool’s Journey, was slated to release August 21st. I understand that you poured yourself some very expensive Chardonnay. And then what did you do?
Q: What do you foresee for the future of writing and publishing, and your own journey in particular?
A: I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do think as more small press publishers open, with little idea of the amount of work or capitol outlay involved, and the razor thin profit margins, there will continue to be more authors “orphaned” as those same presses shutter their doors after a handful of years. I also think more authors will self-publish, but unfortunately, many of those will look at it as a “fast track” to getting published and won’t invest in professional editing, proofreading, and cover art, all of which, to my mind, are essential, at least if you want to cultivate a following. As for medium-to-large presses, there will continue to be mergers and acquisitions. Publishing is a tough business.
As for my future, I need only look at my past. I spent years working in the corporate world in management positions. I walked away in 2003, took a huge pay cut, and started freelance writing/editing, loved it, and never looked back. In 2018, I walked away from my last freelance gig to concentrate of writing books fulltime. Erica Jong said, “When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend one’s life.” I couldn’t agree more.
Judy Penz Sheluk is the bestselling author of the Glass Dolphin Mystery and Marketville Mystery series, and the editor of The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery & Suspense. Her short stories can be found in several collections. Judy is also a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Vice Chair on the Board of Directors. Find her at http://www.judypenzsheluk.com and on Amazon.
Melissa Yi: I have to ask you what inspired you to write such an unusual debut novel. For those of you who haven’t yet devoured PETRA’S GHOST, an Irish expatriate named Daniel gathers his wife’s ashes and intends to spread them as he walks the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage through Spain. He follows in the same footsteps of a woman who disappeared while walking the Camino. The missing woman and his wife’s death weigh on Daniel even as he tries to establish a relationship with another pilgrim, an outspoken California librarian named Ginny.
Ginny says “Everyone has a story.” Is this, somehow, your story? Even if it’s only in a metaphorical sense, as with resurrected chickens in Capilla de la Magdalena? C.S. O’Cinneide: To a large extent, the story in Petra’s Ghost is very much my story of when I walked the Camino Frances in 2015. If you check out the blog entries from my trip (https://www.shekillslit.com/camino/) you will recognize many of the places and experiences contained in the book. What you won’t see in my blog entries is the fact that a woman did indeed go missing off the pilgrimage when I was walking. Her real-life story did not end well. With the exception of one sketchier stretch of the trail, I felt extremely safe walking on my own in Spain, but this poor woman was never far from my mind. So, it was not surprising that when I came home to write that she found her way into my novel. The Camino, much like life in general, has its dark and its light aspects, and I have always enjoyed contrasting those two elements in my writing.
MY: Honestly, as the author of the witty SheKillsLit.com blog, I expected a hilarious, satirical thriller, more like how you describe your next book, The Starr Sting Scale, featuring a six foot three hitwoman. I would call Petra’s Ghost more literary horror. What made you decide to tackle death, guilt, abuse, family, Dante, and the supernatural? CSO: Yes, The Starr Sting Scale is a very different book! More than one editor has been caught laughing out loud at their desks while working on it. Petra’s Ghost does have humour in it (I can’t seem to write without it), but it has been promoted as literary. The horror label came as a surprise to me (and my publisher) and made me question what horror is and how we assign genre. Do people consider Victorian ghost stories like A Christmas Carol horror? Is The Notebook a romance novel? In any case, I am honoured to have been pegged in the same genre as Shirley Jackson, my writing idol. As far as how these more horrific elements made it into Petra’s Ghost, I can only say that I don’t seem to have control over that in my writing. One time I tried to write a short story about a woman baking brown bread during the height of the suffragette movement and by the end of it she had poisoned her own children. My writing always seems to go to dark places. It must be a cathartic of some kind. But it is always used as a literary device to look at larger issues, like the economic vulnerability of women in the early 1900’s in the case of the brown bread short story, or in Petra’s Ghost as a vehicle to examine the hell we can make for ourselves when we pair the sisters of guilt and grief.
I was also surprised that there was very little Canada, except for a French Canadian woman hitting on Daniel. When I’ve read other novels by Canadian authors and publishers, they tend to wave the maple leaf. What made you and Dundurn decide to take it in a more international direction? CSO: Don’t forget the Dutchman’s sister-friend who is Canadian too!
MY: Yes, all hail the flirty Canadian contingent! Kidding.
CSO: The book was completed by the time my publisher got their hands on it, so they had no say on the Canadian content or lack thereof. I love books that feature Canadian places and people. It is so refreshing to read about the things we know and recognize. But I think Canadians are capable of writing books about far more than just Canada. The Camino is a very international experience and it lends itself to an international cast of characters. Most pilgrims are usually from another country other than Spain, but they all become citizens of the Camino when they come to walk it. In that way I suppose it is a Canadian story, since we live in a country peopled for the most part by those who have come from somewhere else.
MY: These are my favourite lines, and they’re a description of Petra’s teaching. She tended to each pupil as she did to her painting, with appreciation for the different textures and hues. He can remember her laugh as she recalled the pranksters and her furrowed brow as she felt for the shy ones. I feel the wealth of empathy and could sense her visual art and her art of teaching, all at once. Any comments? I am the poorest visual artist you will find, having never progressed beyond the passable stick figure. And I am not a teacher. But I think my love and empathy for children comes out in these lines. I have four kids and have unofficially adopted some more into my life over the years. They have all brought me a great deal of joy (and furrowed brows) with their “different textures and hues.”
MY:Four kids plus. Wow!
When I attended Bloody Words and Bouchercon, I noticed a divide between cozy writers and noir writers in that cozies preferred to puzzle out the murder intellectually and avoid any description of blood. Tanis Mallow gave an impassioned defence of gritty crime scenes because that kind of description makes you feel the horror of murder instead of treating it as entertainment. Petra’s Ghost comes down on the descriptive side. Thoughts on this? CSO: Hmm. I think it comes down to what you like to write (and read) rather than a defence of one or the other. I think all good mysteries had better give you an intellectual puzzle so I’m not sure if that is really a distinguishing factor. I believe the real question is, do you want the murder in a mystery to be described with the same detail that might be used to describe a sunset in the same story? Once again, I think that just comes down to personal taste. In Petra’s Ghost, the landscapes and architecture as well as the frightening things Daniel sees are described just as evocatively. That’s the way I write. I don’t think I could do it differently. For those who don’t like that amount of detail when it comes to frightening things, this could be jarring. And they can stick with the cozy mysteries and enjoy the sunset. I won’t be offended. Except honestly, they will miss a really good book. : )
MY:I want to ask you about your pen name. Does it have a special meaning to you? CSO: The initials are my own (my first name is Carole), and O’Cinneide (oh-ki-nay-da) is my last name, Kennedy, in Irish. This is the original version of the surname before it was anglicized by the British. Many people in Ireland still use it. There were so many Carole Kennedy authors out there when I first started publishing, I wanted to differentiate myself. And of course, Ireland holds a very special place in my heart, as you can probably guess from the wonderful Irish ex-pat character of Daniel in Petra’s Ghost.
MY: Yes Congrats on the rave reviews, the critical acclaim and film/TV rights battle for Petra’s Ghost! How are you enjoying this journey so far? It is a little surreal to tell you the truth. It seems to come in spurts that attention. I am still not sure how it will translate in terms of sales. But I must say I was pretty shocked when I found half a dozen emails in my in-basket inquiring after film rights. That was definitely not something I expected. But I suppose in all that, the most meaningful moment in this debut novel journey was the personal note a reader sent me via Goodreads. She told me that Petra’s Ghost had moved her deeply with its message about guilt, grief and ultimately redemption — and that she had cried while describing the story to her husband. I could get dozens of five-star reviews in the major media and they couldn’t possibly mean as much to me as that.
MY: There you have it. Proof that your personal reviews matter. Thank you for giving such an intelligent, gracious interview, C.S. I hope my friends enjoy Petra’s Ghost as much as I do!
I was absolutely delighted to discover this program where, in order to nurture new writers and create fresh theatre, six artists would be chosen to work with dramaturg Catherine Ballachey and assistant dramaturg, Matt Hertendy.
A dramaturg reads and analyses your script to help you present it most effectively as a play, which is a tremendous help, especially to someone like me who is used to the page. Some people describe dramaturgs as a literary editor for plays.
The six artists would meet six times and then perform a reading open to the public.
There would be no charge for this workshop. It would be absolutely free for the six chosen ones. In fact, the artists would get paid for the reading. This is mindbending in the cash-strapped world of theatre.
All funded by the City of Ottawa and the Ottawa Acting Company.
Holy cow. I could not get my application in fast enough.
And then I won a spot!
We get together at the Acting Company on Bank Street every other Sunday. We review each others’ work and make gentle suggestions if the writer is ready for them.
It’s the opposite of medical school, which is still very sink or swim. It’s even different from my other writing workshops, where I’m often surrounded by extremely competitive, award-winning writers from around the globe.
Sidebar on those competitive writers: most are cool and generous, but one woman reported that she would elbow her own grandmother out of the way if it meant she’d have a better chance at authorship; another one’s husband described her as a Formula One driver of writing. Writing is taken Very Seriously.
So it felt different to take part in a local, thoughtful group where people are encouraged to turn in material every two weeks, but there’s no punishment and no harsh words if you’re late. Then, when you do write, everyone tends to be super encouraging and talk about shows their work reminded you of, or visual things or smells they imagined while reading your work.
You’re supposed to give the group questions to answer as they analyze your work. They asked, am I allowed to write about this ethnic or social group? Was it funny enough? Did you need a visual aid?
A lot of the time, they boiled down to, “Is this okay?”
Maybe that’s what we always want to know, as writers. Is this all right?
But I do find that most of the people who are most worried about offending, or about appropriating voice, about getting permission, about being exact—those are the people who are the most respectful and should not be silenced.
They should be writing, and singing, and dancing.
Do you see Donald Trump asking if it’s okay?
Author Natalie Goldberg says that every writer seeks permission to write. It’s not necessarily a conscious thing, but we want someone to put a hand on our shoulder and say, Yes. Keep going.
Catherine Ballachey built a safe place for us to create. Isn’t that wonderful? In an age of cutbacks, when the only headlines about art tend to be “cut again” or “can’t believe they wasted money on that monstrosity,” she and Matt and directing consultant Ludmylla Reis quietly constructed a haven for new writers and performers, using funding from the City of Ottawa and the Ottawa Acting Company.
I’m going to be in the 2019 Ottawa Fringe!
I’m going to write, direct, act, sing, and dance on stage, risking humiliation and tragedy.
Why would I do this? As my brother once put it, “Mel, you’re a doctor. Why don’t you just be a doctor.”
When I think of a femme fatale, I think of an alluring yet dangerous female. Like a black widow spider, only sexier.
I read an anthology of the century’s best mystery stories, and I was struck by the portrayal of women. Most of the stories had been written by men, and an awful lot of the protagonists were males drawn to that mysterious woman who might be the death of them, but they kept walking toward her anyway.
When O’Neil de Noux, a Shamus award-winning writer, invited me to participate in a Storybundle of femme fatales, I felt like the antithesis of a femme fatale. First of all, as a doctor, my job is to heal, not kill. And because I spend so much energy on studying and working, I end up wearing scrubs (“Yay! I get to wear pyjamas to work!” said my friend and fellow ER doctor, Mai-Anh). I usually wear zero makeup. This is not universal—one of my French female colleagues reapplies her lipstick at 3 a.m. on a night shift—but let’s face it, most of the French are much more femme than I am.
Of course, I could react to the sexlessness of medicine by dolling myself up in my off hours and in my fiction, but I don’t. My brain just doesn’t work that way.
O’Neil helpfully sent me two definitions of a femme fatale.
An attractive and seductive woman, especially one who will ultimately bring disaster to a man who becomes involved with her. -Oxford Dictionary
A beautiful, seductive, and usually evil female character in drama and literature. She is usually shown as a cruel, man-eating seductress. Men fall victim to her beauty and are eventually brought to ruin by her. -Urban Dictionary
O’Neil added, “If she’s a ‘kick ass’ woman going around shooting people, it doesn’t fit.”
Luckily, my characters and I don’t go around shooting people. See “healer,” above.
It wasn’t supposed to be this easy, watching life seep out of a body. Knowing you were the cause of it. Standing in the motel room, fingers against the carotid, feeling the pulse dwindle to a weak, irregular tremor. Smiling, as his skin became translucent, a bluish tinge to his lips. Not so hard, now, to understand that doctor who helped people die. And sometimes stuck around to watch. Hadn’t someone said at the moment of death, he’d shout at his patients, imploring them to tell him what it was like?
Today he’d prove them all wrong. He wasn’t, as The Boss had said on more than one occasion, “the second or third dumbest fuck in the universe.” Bubba Winslow didn’t think he was even in the top twenty.
They popped him in Alabama that last time, and the first thing Forest did when he got out— after he got drunk and laid— was call his buddy Roy. Roy was out in East Jesus, Florida this time— Forest didn’t quite know where, but it didn’t make much of a damn. It was somewhere to go.
Roy was so tickled to hear from him, he hollered at the phone like it was Forest himself. “Hey, ol’ buddy. Get your ass on over here. Where the hell are you, anyhow?”
“It’s where I ain’t that I’m callin’ about. I ain’t in jail in Alabama.”
“Hey, congratulations, ol’. buddy. Where in Alabama ain’t you.in jail?”
She said to meet him in a train station lot. Jay drove there and waited, listening to an AC/DC mix tape Tony had left in the Challenger until a blue Aston Martin DB9 pulled nose to nose with him.
Ramona grinned above the wheel from behind black shades.
On the highway, she winced at the red marks on his nose and cheek. “If I wanted to help you, I should’ve gone to med school.” She weaved through traffic and drafted behind a box truck, the spy-car’s nose to the bumper.
“Way you drive, it’s good you’re a lawyer,” Jay said. “Maybe you can teach me sometime.”
Ramona wore navy slacks and lipstick that gave her the prim air of a strict schoolteacher. “I trained on the Nürburgring,” she said. “Driving here’s easy. Just expect everyone to behave like a complete jerk or a total idiot.”
I said I’d talk about it in December. But the holidays were so busy. I put it off until January.
Then January ebbed away. On the very last day, after an emergency room shift, I finally sent a message to my newsletter:
I’ve been wanting to connect, but not knowing how to do it.
Last year, I received a very touching message from someone who had lost his father and found solace in my book, Buddhish.
He sent that message within hours of one of my friends losing her baby at 30 weeks.
I couldn’t bring their father or baby back, but I thought, If this book can help one more person, I need to let folks know. But I’m having trouble talking about it because I wrote it at the darkest time in my life, when our first pregnancy ended at twenty weeks with a tiny little girl we named Isadora.
What do you do when someone dies, and you love that being more than you love your own life?
After my family and friends returned to their normal lives, I did what I always do. I read. And part of what I read was about Buddhism, which helped me a lot, because basically, it told me that life contains suffering. I wasn’t alone and isolated in my tragedy. We will all experience both horror and joy.
For the first year, I wanted to talk about Isadora all the time. I didn’t want to overwhelm people with my grief, but I needed to share it. I found wise and helpful friends everywhere. But now that I finally have two healthy children, it’s easier not to talk about tragedy and to pretend everything is fine.
It’s easier for me to say, “Hey, CBC Books recommended Human Remains as its top mystery for the holidays, along with Louise Penny!” than it is to say, “Did you know what happened to me before these two kids?”
On the other hand, as JK Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore pointed out, “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
It’s not easy for me to talk about Isadora, but I believe the world needs more honest conversation, so I’m telling you about Buddhish. It’s part of the way I honour her. And I do have friends who care.
One of my writer friends, Lisa Silverthorne, told me that she circled February 26th (Isadora’s birthday/death day) on her calendar, and that she thinks of her every year. Another friend asked to see pictures of her and said that she was beautiful.
Thanks for listening.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I don’t necessarily “know” most people who subscribe to my newsletter. I’m terrible about sending it out, and when I do, I might get a few messages back, but it’s mostly throwing a bottle of words into the ocean of the Internet.
There are a lot of “shoulds” for newsletters. How often to send them out, the best kind of content, how to engage. Not one of them says, “Make sure you talk about the worst thing that ever happened to you.”
I sent it anyway, and I fell asleep. It was just before midnight.
When I woke up, I had messages from all over the world. People had lost their own babies. People had lost spouses. Some of them wanted to pray for me, or with me. Some friends who wanted to show support, even if they hadn’t lost anyone. The Cornwall Library and Champlain Library each bought a copy of Buddhish, and Lisa Henderson bought two for the Hillcrest Funeral Home.
Women in Medicine (WIM) 2018 Pre-conference Session
Writers in Medicine. Marketing in Writing.
Do you want to publish your writing, traditionally or through the new world of independent publishing?
Do want tips on marketing, whether it’s boosting your online presence, media appearances, or hand-selling?
Are you overwhelmed and have no idea where to begin, beyond picking up your pen or booting up your laptop?
Come on down! As part of the Women in Medicine pre-conference, I’m offering a special class for doctors who want to get their writing in front of eager readers. Think of it as matchmaking between your words and book lovers.
I’m Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes, the emergency doctor who writes the popular Hope Sze Medical Crime Series, twice nominated as the best mysteries of the summer by CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter (here and here). I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, and winning awards across genres since medical school.
Please add your e-mail and phone number so I can contact you in case of last-minute shenanigans.
After WIM MIW with me, you’re welcome to join a separate, special writing class with Dr. Saroo Sharda at 2 p.m.
Message me ahead of time if you have specific questions, so that I can tailor this workshop for you. And if you’re not a woman, or not in medicine, contact me anyway. I’ll see if I can arrange a separate class for you.
melissa [dot] yuaninnes [at] gmail.com is best, and works beautifully for e-transfers (better than Paypal!).
I also hang out part-time on Facebook and, more rarely, Twitter (@dr_sassy).
Top: Joseline Beaulieu. Bottom: Darlene Novosad. Aren’t they phenomenal?
Want proof that this will be fun? Check out these two yoginis, who appeared on the front page of the Standard Freeholder newspaper with my books.
When I write, and when I’m in the ER, I’m always taking risks.
In the ER, it’s obvious. Anyone could crash at any time. But I’m surrounded by a good team.
When I’m writing, it’s more private. Most of the time, no one sees me succeed or fail.
Except at a book launch.
“The average book launch has two people, and one of them is a friend of the author,” said Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Kobo director.
Clockwise from top: Dr. Yi, Dr. Adams, Maria, Su, Dr. Wein, Day’s
In Montreal, I was.afraid I wouldn’t have two.
I graduated from Montreal over a decade ago. I don’t have that many friends left in the city, and most of them are doctors with families. “I’m on call.” “I can’t go out in the evening.” “Who are you, again?” (Okay, not quite.)
Dr. Adams and Maria
Librairie Bertrand is this gorgeous bookstore in old Montreal. They have a garden in the back. Horses clip by on cobblestone streets. I had the best chicken sandwich of my life around the corner. But would anyone come to my launch?
I’ve learned two things about launches: bring as many people as possible–bribe them if you have to–and make sure your hosts are happy. If it’s a bookstore, people must buy books.
Then artists Jessica Sarrazin and Jason de Graafwalked in; he had to go to his gallery in Montreal that week, so they coordinated with my launch. “We didn’t tell you in case we couldn’t come.”
Author Su J. Sokol opened the door, fresh off her super-successful Blue Met Panel (sold out. Not even standing room). Better grab her book, Cycling to Asylum!
Mayday, mayday! Dr. Yi & Sophia
And another author, Day’s Lee, a multi-talented writer of not only YA and children’s books, but also plays and films–check out my interview here or her own website. A powerhouse of a writer and a good person. Check her out!
Help! ABC’s! Sophia & Dr. Yi
Dr. Ted Wein stepped through the door. I was shocked. I haven’t seen him since he teased me about my pregnancy belly with my son Max. Since then he has set up a comprehensive Stroke Prevention Unit at MUHC, the first of its kind in Canada, which is tragically being closed.
Next, Dr. Chryssi Paraskevopoulos managed to come despite an onslaught of “red phones.” (They call you on a special red phone when then big cases come in.) I haven’t seen her since I graduated!
Fun fact: both these doctors were incorporated into St. Joseph’s Hospital, Hope Sze’s Montreal hospital, under different names. If you know them, see if you can spot them in Code Blues.
Maria Davila, a member of the Glengarry Book Club, dashed in after a hard day’s work.
Dr. Rob Adams of Alexandria made it as well! By this point, during the ebb and flow, someone asked, “How many people are doctors?”
“Half,” I realized aloud. “Hey, why don’t the civilians pretend to be human remains, and the doctors can resuscitate them?”
Most attendees were puzzled, but they’d met me before and were aware of my general insanity. I ushered them into place. Don’t they look lovely? The bookstore staff was laughing away.
Last, but certainly not least, Sophia Petritsis showed up and was the most enthusiastic corpse of all!
Plus, we ran into Dr. Ed Hargassner on the way out.
I’m very excited about this. Richard King, the CBC Homerun reviewer-author, called Human Remains“a great medical mystery. Wonderful characters and plot.” He was so impressed that he gave a copy to a physician friend. Hooray!
Want some Human Remains? I’ll be in Ottawa chairing the Emerging Crime Panel at Prose in the Park on Saturday, June 10th, at 16:00 (Parkdale).
I will also be signing my books at Louise Penny’s Ottawa International Writers Festival event June 16th. Although of course the focus will be on this New York Times bestseller and lovely human being, she’s graciously allowing the judges and the winners from the Capital Crime Writers Audrey Jessup Writing Contest to share a little of her spotlight.
2. Would anyone show up for my launch in Cornwall?
This dredges up bad memories, like being picked last for a baseball team, times a thousand. I never thought I’d play for the Major Leagues. However, I want to not suck at writing and getting my books into the hands of people who like to read them.
Hi, Amazon! Thanks for getting me to #1 in Medical Thrillers!
Kobo even does a map to show where your buyers are, world-wide. Thanks, Kobo!
So that was hurdle #1. Yay, people bought my book around the world!
#2: I drove to Cornwall, quite exhausted, not knowing who would show up. I was pretty assertive about asking people, even handing flyers to both an American and a Canadian border agent (hi, T!). But you never know who will actually take the time to haul their carcass to the Cornwall Library on a Tuesday evening.
Hooray, people came!
I wasn’t late! Good thing, too, because the usual elevator was broken, and I had to come up the freight elevator to get set up.
My launch was part of DNA Day, the only Canadian place to celebrate the discovery of the double helix structure and completing the Human Genome Project. I have to say that, when asked, at least two people named not only Watson and Crick but also Rosalind Franklin. I handed out DNA origami and played my interview with Dr. Bill Stanford before reading from Human Remains, answering some creative questions, and making them do the wave.
It was fun. Every time I do a launch, different friends can or can’t come. It’s like throwing a party and seeing who shows up.
Some of my friends rarely do physical book launches anymore. They’d rather stay home and write. At most, they’ll have a Facebook party. But I can name two good things that came out of my Cornwall launch.
1. I met Troy and Robyn Guindon. He’s an acclaimed local author, and Robyn is the pharmacist and owner of Wholehealth Pharmacy, where she prides herself on one-on-one care with her patients.
We laughed about the fact that my family still has our Christmas tree up. Robyn said, “We did that, too! One year, we put up little balls for Easter.”
“Anastasia wanted to do that, but we didn’t get around to it!”
Robyn also has a collection of historical mortar and pestles. “Do you ever use a mortar and pestle?” I asked.
“Once in a while, to crush aspirin that we use in a salve.”
A show globe. Normally green means all is well and red means a plague. Uh oh.
“Psoriasis, to reduce the scaling.”
I had never heard of it, but it makes sense that you might try to gently abrade the white scales of psoriasis. So I learned something from Robyn, and you can, too! Plus, if you go, you can pick up one of Troy’s or my books, because she has good taste like that.