TEGH doctor wins Canada's top literary prize

Lisa Queen, Metroland - Toronto Division
November 16, 2006

Sr. Vincent Lam, Canada's newest literary sensation, isn't sure whether his first love is medicine or writing.

"I like doing medicine and I like writing. Both of these things have their own personal satisfactions that are very much about doing a job well and being professional and skilled."

Fortunately, the Toronto East General Hospital emergency room doctor was able to combine both passions in his collection of short stories called Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

In fact, Lam blended the disciplines so skillfully in his book about young medical students that he has been named this year's winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The book, published by Doubleday Canada, has been toasted as "an astonishing literary debut."

But until his name was called out at last week's award ceremony, Lam never expected to win Canada's most prestigious literary prize.

"I was very surprised and, of course, happy. I didn't expect it was going to be this outcome," said the married father of a son who is almost two years old.

"It's a poignant moment when one ends up landing on the prize podium."

Lam, who receives $40,000 for winning the Giller, had expected the honour to be awarded to one of the other authors with him on the short list.

"I read the other four books. Each time, I thought 'Wow, this book is great. This book should win.' My bet (on which would win) was on whatever I had open," he said.

Asked whether he considers himself a doctor who writes or a writer who practices medicine, Lam said he changes his mind depending on what task he is doing at the time.

"If I'm doctoring, then I'm doctoring. If I'm writing, then I'm a writer. They use different energy," he said.

"The doctor energy sits out there in the world somewhere (related to) people's health issues and concerns. The doctor energy is responsive energy to what is happening as a result of somebody else's situation. The writing energy is very different. It's all internal. The challenge is between the blank page and the writer. It's more introspective."

A first-generation Canadian, Lam was born in London and grew up in Ottawa. His family is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam and that history has always played a key role in Lam's life.

"I was born in Canada, but always raised with a very clear sense of appreciation that not everywhere in the world is like this," he said.

"My parents always told us as children that we had to be very grateful, that we are in a good country where there is peace and stability and a sense of openness. I was raised with a lens looking in from the outside, even though I was born here."

An avid reader, he has had non-fiction work published in the Globe and Mail, the National Post and the University of Toronto's Medical Journal.

Lam, who worked battling Toronto's severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak three years ago, has just had a new non-fiction work called The Flu Pandemic and You published. Written with Dr. Colin Lee, it serves as a "survival guide" for those looking to prepare for the next influenza pandemic.

Next year will bring the publication of Lam's first novel, about a Chinese man who by day is the headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War, but by night is a compulsive gambler.

© 2006 Metroland Printing, Publishing & Distributing