The doctor is in

Master of medicine working hard to jump-start heart of Canadian fiction

Richard Helm, Edmonton Journal
January 19, 2007

SDMONTON - Things you may not not know about Vincent Lam, the author of the Giller-winning Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, gleaned from his visit to Edmonton this week.

Trivia point No. 1: He once lived in Edmonton. That's right, this Toronto emergency physician-turned-CanLit star is a nominal Edmontonian, sort of like Michael J. Fox. Lam spent a year in Edmonton when he was seven, when his architect mother moved here from Ottawa to work on a federal government contract. He remembers attending a French school but can't recall the name. Driving through the city earlier this week, he vaguely recalled eating berries in the park outside the Kinsmen Fieldhouse.

OK, it's not the most vivid of anecdotes, but there you are. The city of champions helped forge Lam's literary sensibilities.

Trivia point No. 2: He plays a mean fiddle. Or at least he used to. Through high school and his undergraduate years, Lam picked up spare change while working as a busker at Ottawa's Byward Market. His old violin teacher wouldn't be happy with him today, Lam says, acknowledging he's let practice "go a bit." But Lam credits that woman with helping instil in him the belief that everything we accomplish in life is the product of one per cent talent and 99-per-cent hard work.

Trivia point No. 3: Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, his confident, nuanced collection of stories about four young Canadians working their way through medical school and into active practice, is actually only one of the books Lam came out with last year. His other book on the store shelves, co-authored with Dr. Colin Lee, is The Flu Pandemic and You. The forward to that flu guide is written by his mentor Margaret Atwood.

As convincing as he is in his fictional voice, Lam is pretty authoritative as well when it comes to talking about public health issues. He drew on his experience as a front-line SARS survivor from Toronto's 2003 outbreak for both his books. Lam says he and Lee intended their collaboration as an essential survival guide -- both to pandemic influenza and to the hype surrounding it. At a time when some local businesses are issuing pandemic first aid kits as employee gifts, it seemed only right to ask him if he feels the country is better prepared to face the next big bug.

"I think after SARS, people are more aware of the public health issues," he said.

"You can prepare endlessly for a rare event and the preparations will always be incomplete, and there's a cost associated with that. You end up using resources that you could also choose to use in some other way. You could choose to use them to make sure there's no childhood malnutrition in Canada, or use them to fund medications ....

"The difficult question is how much do you prepare because to do it you've got to spend money, you've got to spend resources, and people have problems right here, right now, and you can't devote the energies of a whole society to preparing for catastrophe."

Those readers who fell in love with Lam's characters in Bloodletting will be cheered to know his next book, and first novel, will jump off from one of those interwoven stories. One of the stories concerns Dr. Chen, who reappears throughout the book, and his grandfather, Percival Chen, dying from cancer in Brisbane, Australia. The elder Chen will be the subject of Lam's next book, Cholon, Near Forgotten, a character loosely based on Lam's own grandfather.

"That's a story I've been meaning to write since I was 15 years old," Lam said.

Lam, who lives in Toronto with his wife and young son, was born in London, Ont. in a family from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam. He has no particular training as a writer and confesses he still often feels like an imposter at book readings and other literary functions. But he knew he wanted to write long before he became fascinated with medicine.

"As a child I loved reading, there was nothing I loved more," Lam said. "No exaggeration, I was that kid sitting in the yard, reading, while all the other kids were running around.

"My mother used to worry a bit about that."

If the rigours of a new book and the daily demands of life as an emergency room physician aren't enough to keep him busy, Lam will also be serving as a consultant for the new TV drama series currently being developed from Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures for The Movie Network.

© Edmonton Journal 2007