Toronto doctor Vincent Lam wins $40,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Vanessa Farquharson, National Post
November 7, 2006

V incent Lam has won the 13th annual Scotiabank Giller Prize and $40,000 for his short story collection Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures (Doubleday).

The most lucrative literary prize in Canada has never been awarded to a first-time author before, and this is only the second time in its history that a short story collection has won. Runaway — by Alice Munro, one of the judges this year — was the other, in 2004.

Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch made the announcement last night at a gala reception at Toronto’s Four Seasons hotel, after a rich dinner served on mirrored placemats, with stacks of books serving as centrepieces.

"I'm astounded, I'm overcome," said the author, a practising physician, who was born in London, Ont., grew up in Ottawa and now calls Toronto home. "More and more I count myself as a very fortunate and lucky person, but of late I've come to realize that luck is not what it seems. What I've encountered is a divine blessing, for which I'm very grateful, and it's the kindness of people, and so many people who have been kind to me are in this room — I especially owe a great debt to Margaret Atwood."

Atwood, one of Canada's most celebrated authors and a past Giller recipient, presented Lam's book at the ceremony. She met the writer on a boat in the Arctic a few years ago, when he was working as the on-board physician. He asked if she would look at his writing; she did, sent him an e-mail that said "Congratulations, you can write," and immediately directed him to an agent.

Mr. Lam said he takes medicine as seriously as he does writing and plans to continue doing both. He is in fact working at the hospital this afternoon, but has the morning off. "I'm sure my publicist has plans for me," he said.

Mr. Lam, who began work on his novel five years back after finishing his residency, will celebrate his win quietly with his wife and son.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures examines various modern-day moral dilemmas. In one story, a tense romantic relationship develops between a hyper-driven med school student and another who isn't so sure about academia, while in other stories, Evac missions go wrong and new viruses attack friends and colleagues.

In his acceptance speech the author, who worked in a Toronto emergency room during the SARS outbreak, went on to thank the city's literary community for its support.

Alongside his work in medicine, Mr. Lam's non-fiction writing has appeared in various publications including the National Post. His first novel will be published by Doubleday next year.

The other nominees were Rawi Hage for his novel De Niro’s Game (House of Anansi Press), Pascale Quiviger for her novel The Perfect Circle (Cormorant), Gaétan Soucy for his novel The Immaculate Conception (House of Anansi) and Carol Windley for her short story collection Home Schooling (Cormorant).

Along with Munro — who withdrew her own short story collection The View From Castle Rock from the running in order to be on the jury — the other judges included former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and renowned author Michael Winter.

"I think the Giller committee really does their own thing," said Mr. Lam, when asked if Atwood's backing helped him in his win, "and so they should ... As I was reading each book, I thought to myself, 'Wow, this book should win, this is a fantastic book.' I was shocked that I won."

Last year, the Giller Prize and Scotiabank teamed up to create The Scotiabank Giller Prize, doubling the cash prize to $50,000, with $40,000 going to the winner and $2,500 to each of the other finalists.

Justin Trudeau, who said he’s "always been a fan of Canadian literature," hosted the gala event, which attracted about 500 of the country's media, publishers and litteratti, including Barbara Gowdy, Jane Urquhart and Graham Greene.

Asked after the ceremony why he thought his writing resonated with Atwood, the Giller judges and countless other readers, Mr. Lam said, "I always knew that I was writing about doctors in a way that's not often written about."

"But," he added, "the distance covered is actually quite short. It's the difference between just behind your eyes and just behind mine. And the facts and circumstances are not that extraordinary, but what I find most interesting is the mental drama and the internal excitement and discipline in narrative that happens."

Also at the black-tie event were liberal leadership hopeful Bob Rae and former Ontario premier Ernie Eves, Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, Margaret Trudeau, Malcolm Gladwell — the New Yorker writer behind bestselling books Blink and The Tipping Point — and renowned writer and activist June Callwood.

The Giller Prize was founded in 1994 by businessman Mr. Rabinovitch in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller. The award honours excellence in Canadian fiction, long format or short stories. It has always been the richest literary prize in the country.

Past Giller recipients include Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje and Mordecai Richler.

Over 2.5 million Giller-nominated books were sold in the first 10 years of the prize and over $60-million in book sales have been generated as a direct result of the prize.

This year 101 books were submitted from 36 publishers from across the country.

Photo Credit: Peter J. Thompson/National Post

© National Post 2006