Canada's Literary Doctor Ready for US Debut

Media Bistro
August 28 , 2007

M y mother thought I should be a schoolteacher," Vincent Lam laughs, recalling the moment when he told his parents he wanted to go to medical school. Lam's first passion was for writing, you see, and his mother thought that at least as an educator, he'd have two months in the summer to write. "I first got interested in medicine when I realized I needed to do something to make money while I was writing, and working with patients seemed like it would inform my writing—it was like an ultimate form of character study," Lam explains as we wait in the bar at the Soho Grand for a car to take him back to the airport, where he'd catch a flight back to Toronto. "Of course, the thing about medicine is that it's a huge amount of work, and you shouldn't do it for any other reason but that you want to practice medicine. Once I realized that, I didn't write any more fiction during my medical training."

He started writing again shortly after completing his residency, beginning work on a historical novel set among Saigon's Chinese community during the Vietnam War. "But I quickly became conscious of my huge, gaping lack of experience as a writer," he admits, so he wrote a short story about what he knew: medical school. "By the time I wrote a second story, I had the idea of doing a collection of linked stories." Are any of the characters in Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures "him," I ask? "It depends on what kind of day I'm having," he says. "They're all some corner of my emotional reactions to my training, drawn out and exaggerated." Some moments in the collection represent wish fulfillment, things he wishes he could've said to patients, while others are more basic "what if?" scenarios.

When Bloodletting won Canada's prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize last year, he admits he was shocked. "It's a prize that has historically gone to witers who are very seasoned and experienced. For me, winning was actually quite terrifying." He hadn't even expected that the stories would get published, thinking that they were just part of the long woodshedding process he'd have to go through before landing a book deal. (Weinstein Books has picked him up in the U.S. market; the book's coming out soon, and he was in town last week for a magazine photo shoot.) "So the idea that my book is being read all over Canada is very intimidating, and now the expectations for my novel are there, so I'm sure there will be some interesting reviews. But when I write, I try to completely divorce myself from all that. It's still about sitting alone in a room, just me and the text."

For now, Lam says he will continue his medical practice, in what, betweent the two of us, we jokingly describe as taking the Atul Gawande path rather than the Michael Crichton one. I comment that as an emergency room physician, at least he doesn't have patients knowing that he's a writer, but he reveals that, yes, he does get recognized occasionally when he comes in to make his examination. "Both medicine and witing are about narrative," he adds. "The primary thing you need to think about in medicine is the human narrative. And it's still immensely satisfying for me to go to hospital and work with patients, although it certainly makes for a complicated schedule."

© Media Bistro 2007