How to write on behalf of an extraordinary and beloved writer?
I am not Melissa, but I am sharing Melissa’s news. Please bear with me. My heart is broken with her passing, a pain I know many of you share.
The word traveled like wildfire – I think it was less than six hours after her death that the questions began on her inner circle fan page. How could it be true? I had spoken with the girls (Melissa’s twin daughters, Sarah and Juliet) about how we would tell her fans, her “people.” We came up with the idea of a blog post, and asked Melissa about it – she approved. But we thought we had weeks, months, maybe even a year. It was not to be. I now find myself in the untenable position of needing to share with the people who mattered so much to my best friend, the most horrible news.
First, the simple facts, as shared to close family and friends on Sunday the 27th of February 2022 by Shon Holyfield, who was Melissa’s husband for almost twenty years and is the father of their children.
I am so very sorry for this terrible news. Last night, Melissa passed away in her sleep from stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
In December 2021 Melissa experienced physical symptoms that needed medical attention. Within the month, Melissa was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – stage 4 (meaning that the cancer originated in the pancreas but had already spread all over her body.)
Despite the best medical attention available from doctors at multiple hospitals (and across multiple states), the cancer in her body was too far spread to be treated.
How did this happen so fast?
Pancreatic cancer is called the ‘silent killer’ because in almost all cases patients don’t manifest any outward symptoms until the cancer has advanced to a stage where it is not treatable.
This is the situation that Melissa found herself in. She didn’t exhibit any symptoms until it was too late.
How are the girls?
Amazingly stable. Their viewpoint has been that they will honor their mom by focusing on how appreciative they are for the 19 amazing years they had with their mom vs. despairing over what they won’t have in the future. We have a trip planned in a few weeks and we have a packed schedule lined up for celebrating life between now and resuming their studies this fall at NYU.
In April of 2022 we plan to have a celebration of Melissa’s life – both in person and available through online streaming. We don’t have the details yet, but we will be in contact to let you know when, where, how you may participate, etc. as soon as possible.
What can you do?
Your love, friendship, and warmth are so very appreciated. What is most helpful right now is to give us some time to get things lined up for the celebration of Melissa’s life in April. We understand there may be questions or a desire to do something; to call and express your heartfelt thoughts.
What is needed most right now is just a bit of space between now and the celebration of Melissa’s life in April – after which we will be more available. We hope that you can understand what the family needs most right now is a bit of time to heal.
We love all of you so very much. We know that Melissa also loved all of you. I am so very sorry for this terrible news. We hope that you are able to focus on all the amazing times you shared with Melissa and hold on to those warm memories as you begin your own healing process. We know she would not have wanted anyone that loved her to sit in despair, but instead to have a smile on your face and warmth in your heart as you reflect on Melissa’s amazing life and positive impact on all those around her.
I, too, am so very, very sorry to be passing on this news.
Melissa said in her last blog post, “I never like posting to my blog when I haven’t really got much news…” She cared deeply for her fans, as you know, and engaging with you all was one of her absolute favorite things. She would want you to know what happened, and what will happen next. She did, in fact, have quite a bit of news. She just never had a chance to share it.
For those of you who loved her and shared her world, but don’t know me, I need to introduce myself. I should never have mattered to you, but all of a sudden the weight of this tremendous honor and responsibility is thrust upon me, the responsibility to share on her behalf and speak for her. I hate it. I am neither qualified nor equipped for it. Please forgive me if I misstep.
Almost two decades ago, Melissa chose me to be her best friend. I didn’t have much choice. If you know her at all, even just through her books, you know she is an exceptional individual, an artist extraordinaire, gifted and radiant and glorious. I know it for a fact, as I know that if I said that out loud, she would roll her eyes at me and tell me to stop, and I would tease her a bit more, then we would proceed to debate the philosophical underpinnings of vanity vs. humility, the relative merits and potentials of mortals vs. gods, the unending questions of the influence of stars, the importance of integrity, the wavelengths of aesthetics, and whether or not I would actually die if she made me watch Better Off Dead with John Cusack yet again. (Melissa had a bizarre affinity for the most awful 80s movies.) (Of course I would have taken the chance and watched it with her yet again.)
All you really need to know is I have been with Melissa for a long time now, that she chose me and trusted me. In 2017 I became her official assistant and the compiler of the companion book for her series (among other things, including very inept tech support for her Facebook Live interviews). I’ve basically lived with her since then. I’ve had the honor of being in the room for many, many hours of her time in the Realms of Light and Shadow. (Despite creating a lovely office with a perfectly functional and attractive desk, Melissa somehow always winds up writing on the couch, often with a cup of tea by her side and one or several of her very large and devoted cats draped on or about her.)
It was one of my favorite things, to hear Melissa give her sudden little shriek or start laughing, then pluck her earphones out (she always had a writing soundtrack) and share something she had just written. It was always “Listen to what Carian just said…” or something similar. Never “Listen to what I just wrote.” She described herself as an “organic writer” or “pantser” (writing by the seat of her pants, rather than plotting her stories) and I can attest to the fact that she really did seem to just… channel her universe and her characters. There were several times she sought out company because she was feeling creeped out and unsettled, usually after writing Dore. (She would shudder with the memory of what he had just “done.”)
Sometimes, usually on long drives, Melissa would just… disappear. A faraway yet intent look would come into her eye, a particular slight smile or frown, and I knew well enough to stop talking and not question or interrupt her, because shortly she would be madly scribbling notes or recording voice notes. (I particularly enjoyed the times in the car, when she would ardently whisper the voice notes because I couldn’t be allowed to hear and thus be privy to any spoilers.)
I’ve witnessed the challenge of writing the final book(s) over the last couple of years, the frustration of those days when it just… wouldn’t… go. When nothing was working. As Melissa said: “So there’s the look in on my daily path, just plodding along in the dark, running into walls, backing up, finding a new path, running into walls, backing up… It’s been super fun.” She was so good at dry humor.
But here’s the thing: it’s not entirely true. Another part of Melissa’s process was that whenever she finished writing a chapter and felt good about it, she would have me read it. (I know, I am so incredibly lucky.) She would read it with me, it was her final pass. And I have to tell you, despite the struggles, she has written a very great number of beautiful, exciting, hilarious, deep, enlightening and altogether excellent chapters. Whatever excitement you may have been thrilling to at the prospect of the next book, it was well warranted because she has outdone herself.
In those final dark days, Melissa trusted me with her laptop and her phone and her passwords. She told me and the girls we had her permission to publish what she’s written.
The day after she died, I took a deep breath and logged in. I found her files. There is A LOT done. Then I was utterly overcome by a sense of sacrilege, of blasphemy, like blasting down the doors to a sacred shrine while the goddess’s back was turned, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to look again. Yet.
In addition to the files comprising the actual work of her final book, there are hundreds of notes, whole notebooks full of them, whole libraries of voice notes on her phone. It may all be there, even the ending… I don’t know. But I do know that she wants what she wrote to be shared. I know her editors, I have the lists of her beta readers, I have my own experience from sharing her process through this incredible, sometimes arduous but mostly exhilarating journey.
Regarding the companion book, which has been my project: the first draft is done and it stands at almost 500 pages. (Definitely needs a trim!) Every word of it is Melissa’s words, excerpted from her books and things she wrote to me, questions she answered. Three main categories of information are included:
– Places. This includes (in order of introduction): the realm of Alorin, its regions and kingdoms, cities, strongholds, mountains, rivers and seas; as well as dimensions and realms “Beyond Alorin” including Illume Belliel and Shadow.
– Nomenclature. The history, lore and thaumaturgy of Alorin as a whole, including the Adept race, strands of elae, the application and uses of Patterning. Note that tribes and gods, religions, races, and magic particular to specific areas are included within the sections on those places.
– Dramatis Personae. All characters, in order of appearance. Very minor characters who only appear once if at all (including some of the Fifty Companions) are listed under the place or nomenclature they relate to.
Her intention was to have it illustrated, and she had chosen a talented young artist (who is also an ardent fan) for the work. She had whole Pinterest boards and folders full of illustrations and photographs that inspired her.
Then there’s the book of quotes, “How Deep Does The Alabaster Go?” A new edition of that is in the works, completed with quotes from The Sixth Strand and now likely also whatever quotes she has already written for the new book. I’ve received some excellent feedback from fans on how the book is presented, and we are looking at whether to include quotes from the story itself, not just the chapter headings as it now stands. I had planned to open a channel for suggestions from fans who may have a particular quote from a favorite character that they would like to see included.
Ah, also, swag. That “Hello, little spy” shirt (I want one!) among others: work is in progress on that too. Another thing I would love fan collaboration on, and several have already stepped up, thank you.
There is so much more I could say and share, but my purpose here is to just bring you, her beloved fans, into the know on where we stand. Be heartened, as Melissa’s mom said: there is more to come.
No-one could finish this story as Melissa could – it was her life’s work. But I promise I will do my absolute best to honor her and bring you her work, as she wanted. (To be clear, by that I mean we will publish/make available what Melissa has already written. The only writing that will be included is that which she has already done. I can’t say yet how much that is.)
In closing, I want to shore up and preserve – wide open – the communication channel Melissa treasured between herself and her readers. If you are a reader and her message resonated with you, then you know how much (little) importance she placed on a mortal shell. One does need fingers to type and a voice to discuss, among other things, so losing hers is absolutely, horrendously, arse-puckeringly (and tear-jerkingly) inconvenient, but the universe she created and the following she cultivated are a legacy that certainly transcends mortality.
So please, any message you want to send Melissa, you can still send, either as a comment on this blog or a message via “contact the author” on her website. Yes, it will be me who receives it, but I will save it with all the other messages she has saved over the years. Please feel free to share ANY story, insight, interaction, anything at all. I will preserve all of it as part of her legacy, for us – her friends and fans – and for her children, whose loss is heartbreaking and profound, balanced only by the privilege and joy of having such an exceptional individual as their adoring mama.
I don’t know how to do this, but I am trying. I loved her, we all did, and my hope is that together we can keep her legacy alive and bring her world and her message to as many people as would benefit from it.
“Death is not a tragedy to the one who dies;
to have wasted the life before that death, that is the tragedy.”
― Orson Scott Card, Shadow of the Hegemon
“Count not what is lost, but what is left.”
– Jayachándranáptra, Rival of the Sun (Paths of Alir)
“Let the birth of each new day be your own rebirth; grow, learn, love, admire.
Revel in possibility.”
– From the writings of Epiphany’s Prophet (Kingdom Blades)
“Pray not to be sheltered from dragons
but to be fearless when facing them.”
– A popular Malchiarri saying (Kingdom Blades)
Melissa McPhail and Heidi Kemp (firstname.lastname@example.org) October 2018 author photo shoot.