The Doctor Is In

An interview with Giller winner Vincent Lam

Rachel Giese, CBC
November 8, 2006

D espite little sleep, no breakfast and a barrage of media interviews, Toronto doctor and writer Vincent Lam is clear-eyed and energetically cheerful the morning after the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Awards. So much so that he even takes a moment to delight in spotting the antiseptic hand cleanser dispensers mounted on the wall by the elevators at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto.

"Hand-washing in the workplace," beams Lam, co-author of a non-fiction book called The Flu and You. “Now that makes me happy.”

But the real reason for Lam's mood is his previous night’s Giller win. His debut work of fiction, the short story collection Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, beat four other nominees to pick up the prestigious $40,000 prize. The 32-year-old emergency room physician wrote the book — which follows the lives of four young medical students — a year after finishing his own residency. If that schedule weren’t punishing enough, the married father of a two-year-old son has also been at work on his first novel, which is due out in 2007. CBC Arts Online spoke to the multi-talented multi-tasker about the difference between practising medicine and writing fiction and receiving the support of a CanLit icon.

Q: Tell me about last night. Did you think you were going to win?

A: I didn’t have any expectation of winning. In fact, I really didn’t think that I’d win at all. The moment before they announced my name, I remember thinking, “I’m here with my wife and my agent and the people from my publishers and these are all fantastic people who have supported my work and supported me. This is great. This is perfect. This is sufficient and wonderful.” But then I didn’t mind at all when they called my name.

Q: Margaret Atwood has been a mentor to you. You showed her your writing and she championed it, helping you find a publisher. What was it that drew you to her?

A: To me as a reader, Margaret Atwood is practically an institution unto herself. As a young reader, I certainly was captivated by many of her books and struck with terror by The Handmaid’s Tale in particular. To me, she is someone who epitomizes what a writer can be. She is both incredibly productive as a writer and equally productive as someone involved in the society around her. She speaks her mind about what she believes and isn’t afraid to make a point.

Q: You write about medicine and Atwood shares that interest in science and biology. Is that a point of connection?

A: I think Margaret put it very well last night when she said that both doctors and writers have their finger on the pulse of life and death — I’m paraphrasing, here — and aren’t afraid of “gore on the floor” — and that is an accurate quote. When she said that, I thought, “Oh, that’s classic Margaret.”

Q: Are you a different person as a writer than as a doctor?

A: I’m very different. I find that I can be exhausted as a writer after having worked a fair bit and still have the energy to go to the hospital. In fact, I’m relieved by the concreteness of medicine. And I can be mentally exhausted as a doctor and I’ve still got writer energy. They’re very different processes. Writing is something that starts from the page and off you go, whereas with medicine, you’re confronted with a situation and then have to deal with it.

Q: It sounds like the two professions are very complementary. Do you draw a lot on your experiences in medicine for your fiction writing?

A: In my medical fiction writing, I certainly write about my own reactions as a doctor. Parts of the job can be quite routine. But then there are those moments of doubt or a moment when the situation can be seen in different ways or played in different ways. And those moments within myself are moments I draw on heavily as a writer.

Photo credit: Aaron Harris/Canadian Press