Dr. Vincent Lam profile

Interview by Lin Stranberg, National Review of Medicine
April 15, 2006

Dr. Vincent Lam's publicist ushers him into the vast boardroom of his prestigious Toronto publishing company. Wearing jeans and a red William Shakespeare T-shirt, the 31-year-old emergency room physician is late to arrive, apologizing for not putting the appointment in his Palm Pilot. No matter. Writers tend to be late. And underneath his dispassionate professional exterior beats the heart of an ardent writer.

His literary debut, a collection of short stories titled Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures, has established him as a talent and attracted the kind of media attention that most first-time novelists only dream of. He crafts powerful sentences, creating riveting tension in stories that explore the development of four medical students who become doctors.

Ask him how an emergency physician became a writer and he'll tell you it's the other way around. He writes because he feels stories are amazing things. "Stories are the absolute essence of what we're all about as human beings. How could I resist writing?"

He's wanted to be a writer since elementary school and was "profoundly not interested" when his mother suggested becoming a doctor or dentist because he was good with his hands. "I fell in love with the idea that someone, sometime—perhaps long ago—had put these words on paper and I could read them and they would come full-fledged into a narrative and images and sounds and experiences in me. I found that was such a magical, amazing thing that I wanted to be on the other side of the pen."

As a teenager, he wrote his first story about driving across the border with his family on a snowy day. "Very Canadian," he smiles. It won the short story competition award from the Young Writer's Development Trust; his prize was an encouraging experience at a Queen's University writer's workshop led by author Jane Urquhart. "It was wonderful just to realize there are other people out there who are writing. There's a great sense of community that comes out of it."

While writing demands long hours of introspective work, he also wanted to be out there doing things, engaged in the world. Medicine seemed like a great idea at the time. "To my simplistic adolescent mind, medicine seemed perfect. I thought I would meet people and get a better understanding of what makes the mind tick." He had no appreciation of how much work lay ahead of him, nor was his motivation purely monetary. "I'm sure most doctors would agree that from a pure money point of view, there are probably other things we could all be doing."

He denies that his characters' obsession with getting into medical school is based on his own experience. "Getting into medical school for a lot of people is like a love affair," he laughs, "a very bad love affair. It's like a quasi-romantic, quasi-religious quest, with all else falling to the side and all these theories on the inside scoop of how it's done, how to make it happen. It's all give and no get. You just drive yourself nuts."

Dr. Lam claims the only story in the book that's based on fact is The Long Migration, inspired by a summer he spent in Brisbane with his grandfather, who was then terminally ill. He's linked elements of that story into his forthcoming novel, Cho Lon, Near Forgotten, for publication next year. "It's about this Chinese man who was in Vietnam during the Vietnamese War and had two lives: a life of being a gambler and a life of being a school owner and headmaster."

Good friend Richard Munter, who studied biology with him at University of Ottawa, says Vincent was and remains incredibly focused and tenacious. "While most of us were falling asleep over our textbooks," he recalls, "Vincent was using colour coding, audio recordings, and hours of studying to ace everything.  He just kept pushing to get the grades and medical school interviews."

"That description does not hint at Vincent's creativity," he adds, "but in fact he's very creative both in his writing and in all aspects of his life.  At university, he seriously considered changing religion to overcome his girlfriend's parent's objections about them being together. When his bike lock froze, he borrowed some dry ice and tried to shatter the lock.  His coffee table consists of an upside-down, fully functional toboggan on wooden crates. And when he bought a sports car, it wasn't just any sports car, but a 15-year-old BMW.  He enjoys maintaining, upgrading and, of course, driving it."

Dr. Lam's regimen includes time to write, maintain his ER schedule at Toronto East General and share child care responsibilities for his 13-month-old-son with his wife Margarita, a physician in family practice. His work is never late. On the contrary, his editor Maya Mavjee says his very strict approach to deadlines makes her feel nervous about falling behind (in publishing, things are usually the other way around). He's just finished co-writing a non-fiction book on influenza for publication later this year and he's back at work on his novel.

"Doing medicine is very satisfying, usually in an immediate way, so I have to force myself to take a very long perspective in terms of carving out time for writing. But I made a conscious decision to do that because it's very important to me. Writing is very high in the rank of things I have to do."

© National Review of Medicine 2006