Giller winner surprised by success

Jonathan Ball, Calgary Herald
January 14, 2007

Vincent Lam's career as a writer is off to an impressive start.

His first book, the short story collection Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, was released in 2006 with advance praise from literary heavyweights Margaret Atwood and Wayson Choy. It was followed the same year by Lam's second book, The Flu Pandemic and You, co-written with physician Colin Lee.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures (Anchor Books, 368 pages, $19.99) has been a great success for the first-time author, becoming a Canadian bestseller after it was awarded the Giller Prize last November. All of the attention has taken the 31-year-old Toronto emergency room physician by surprise.

"I certainly didn't have any expectations akin to this," states a modest Lam. "I thought I might be photocopying my own book, and giving it to people, which is certainly always a danger for any writer. My biggest expectation, the hope in my mind, was just to get it published."

The book's success has gone beyond the world of publishing, with rights sold to Shaftesbury Films for development as a television series for The Movie Channel. Lam will be consulting on the series. "I hope that my vantage point will be useful, since I know both the medical milieu and the dramatic elements of the stories with which Shaftesbury will be working," says Lam.

Not bad for a man who doesn't even own a television set. "But I have a laptop," Lam says, "and I have seen TV, just on DVD."

The news of the TV series followed on the heels of the Giller win, although Lam notes that "my agent, Anne McDermid, and I had been in conversation with Shaftesbury for some time previous to me winning the Giller, and of course all involved were very pleased to be able to solidify working on this project together."

Much has been made of Lam's double life as writer and doctor, an expected point of interest given that the stories in Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures centre around characters who are themselves doctors. Almost as much ink has been spilled discussing Lam's medical career as discussing his book, but he doesn't mind.

"I enjoy being a practicing, competent doctor, and a practicing, competent writer," says Lam. "It certainly doesn't bother me that anyone is interested in the fact that I am a doctor." To Lam, the curiosity seems natural, stemming as it does from fascination with the intersection between fiction and so-called "real life."

Some might expect a book of stories about doctors written by a doctor to be dry and unappealing, given the vast amount of jargon in the field. Readers might initially be dismayed to discover that the book contains a glossary of technical terms, but they will be pleased to learn that it is not necessary to consult this glossary while reading. Lam's focus is always on characters and emotional responses to medical situations, not the technical aspects of illnesses or procedures.

Lam made a conscious decision as a writer to neither "talk down" to his readers nor expect them to have access to the same kind of insider knowledge. "That was very deliberate, and I was very aware of that issue," he says. "My reference point in writing this was that I wanted it to be readable for a lay person, but at the same time I wanted it to be readable for someone who was a physician."

Lam wanted to become a writer from a young age, long before considering a career as a doctor. If his success as a writer continues, would he give up the medical profession? "Well, the jobs are not mutually exclusive, but it's a complicated question," says Lam, before settling upon "I don't think so." Lam finds that "the jobs reinforce each other quite well," and believes that "there's only a certain amount of writing one can do in a given day, since you need time to ruminate."

One of the stories in Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, entitled A Long Migration, concerns Dr. Chen, who reappears in many of the stories, and his dying grandfather, Percival Chen. The elder Chen will be the subject of Lam's first novel, Cholon, Near Forgotten. The novel will be published by Doubleday Canada, although its release date is not yet confirmed.

Lam's website summarizes the novel as follows: "Born in a small village in Guangdong province at the time of the last Chinese Emperor, Percival Chen loses two successive sets of parents, and flees from the 1945 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. He makes his fortune as headmaster of an English school in Saigon, and loses it as a gambler during the Vietnam War. In 1998, Percival is dying from cancer in Brisbane, Australia, occasionally visited by his children and grandchildren who are scattered through the world."

It is the last days of Percival Chen that are the focus of A Long Migration, and the novel can be expected to focus more fully on his earlier life.

"Unfortunately, I can't really say much more than what is in the press release," says Lam. The seeds of the book were planted prior to the writing of the short stories, and Lam is currently completing the novel.

"When the short stories took off, at that time, I felt like that (Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures) was a book that I had to write first. But that novel had been in the works for a long time."

Having met with a great deal of unanticipated, and in many ways unprecedented, success, Lam might be expected to have loftier aims than "just getting published." But, Lam says, "I wouldn't say my goals have changed that much. My primary goal in writing (Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures) was just to write a good book, and my goal for (Cholon, Near Forgotten) is to write the best book that I can."

Jonathan Ball is a Calgary writer.


Vincent Lam will read Jan. 15 at 7:30 p.m. in the John Dutton Theatre of the W.R. Castell Central Library. Tickets: $5, available at Pages on Kensington.

© Calgary Herald 2007