Interview with Vincent Lam

Black Label Reviews
June 7, 2008

incent Lam is an emergency physician based in Toronto, Canada - who delivered the No.1 best seller and 2006 Giller Prize winning book, "Blood Letting and Miraculous Cures".

It's also been recently announced that the book will be turned into an eight part - one hour television drama.

Black Label Reviews had the honour of sitting down for a chat with this amazing human being while in Sydney ... and pick his brain about writing, practicing medicine and dealing with all that he's seen.

Vincent, firstly welcome to Australia and congratulations on your wonderful book, "Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures".  Are you intrigued by how well it's doing around the world?

Yes I am actually. I didn't really even assume that it was going to be published while I was writing it even though I was trying to write it in the most professional way possible and I intended to try and publish it - but I'm well aware that there are lots of writers who write three, four or five books before having anything published. So, when I sat down to begin to write it, I said look there's no point really in doing this unless you are ready to do that - that is - write three, four, five books without anything published and have the work simply be it's own reward or satisfaction. So yes, it's a bit of a shock really. It was the fulfillment of my greatest dream to actually see it published and a bit of a shock to see it become so successful.

Tell me about the beginnings of this book - I understand you were a doctor on a ship and you actually met a writer on the ship who loved what you were doing and put you in touch with a publisher.

Yes that's true. I had been working on the book already for sometime and I was working as a ship's doctor in the Arctic and one of the people who came aboard was Margaret Atwood. This was very exciting for me because I have been a fan of her work for a long time. At some point, I told her I was working on a book and I wondered if she would be kind enough to take a look at it. At the time, I didn't quite realise how A) how busy her schedule is or B) what a difficult request this is to put forward to a writer.  So, I just kind of naively asked her if she would and Margaret is very gracious and very kind and she did agree to look at it. What she said to me at the time was I can look at it but you have to tell me exactly what you want me to do. Do you want me to simply tell you something nice about the work or do you want me to tell you the truth? (laughs) I said well, I think I'd like you to tell me the truth and she said oh, are you sure about that? And maybe in the back of her mind maybe she was hoping I would just go away - but on the contrary I thought this is great - I'm grown up enough to receive true feedback from someone whom I respect. So, seven months later when we were all back on dry land and I was back in Toronto - I sent her some excerpts from the book.

It must have been a wonderful experience having someone of Margaret's stature agree to look over the book?

Yes it was a huge honour. She's a very generous and giving woman and a great supporter and friend. I am really really grateful in the ways that she's helped me.

Your book is a great inside look into the medical profession but it also delves a lot deeper into the personal lives of the characters - is that something that you were really conscious of doing within the book to show that real life side to doctors that most people do not generally see?

Well, yes and no.  I think that in terms of theme and messaging as it were - I'm somewhat oblivious as a writer. That's a bit deliberate because I don't want to be too balanced to some kind of theme which may not be exactly what I'm getting at. But of course, one is pre-occupations and one's sort of subconscious emetic motivations which certainly do come out in one's work and I think you're right - that is what comes out of it. It comes out as an intimate and human portrait of people and it just happens that these people are in the particular situation of becoming doctors and learning how to help other people, so this is the story of that happening. I think the short answer is you're right - those are the themes - that doctors are human beings and faulty human beings with good intentions who are not perfect - but I sort of discovered that after finishing the book while other people discover that while reading it.

As a doctor you must witness many funny but at other times awkward or heart wrenching cases - how do you deal with that?

You know that is a difficult question. I think that it's a little bit different for every person. You know, when confronted with a difficult situation I think that there is - very loosely speaking - three different options. One can simply block it out and ignore it and say well this is horrible and this is difficult but I am not going to process this emotionally - I am just going to move on with my life. Another option is to just be overwhelmed by it and say I can't deal with this. I never want to be in this particular situation again and I don't especially want to deal with it and sometimes that means that one chooses a different branch of medicine. One might say I really have difficulty with children dying so I would prefer not to be a pediatrician. Someone else might say I really don't like open wounds so I won't be a plastic surgeon so this is another choice. And I guess the third choice which ends up being the most common choice because we cannot always choose to ignore it completely or be overwhelmed by it so often the middle path is to say - this is really tough and to look at it and say - well I have to think about how to think about this. I have to think about how to both be a human being and be sympathetic to the situation and act as a professional and act as a useful professional which means you have a certain amount of detachment from it. So, in many ways, that is the difficult balance that most people who do medicine are trying to achieve a lot of the time. When there is a new situation they are trying to achieve that balance between being human and empathic and genuine and yet to have enough detachment to make sensible decisions and give educated advice. I don't think it's something that you ever fully learn because it's not like a mathematics lesson like where you learn it and then you do it - it's more that it subtlety comes from ongoing practice and the ongoing act of doing it basically.

I guess it's common knowledge that doctors work crazy hours - how do you find the time to write?

It's true that doctors work difficult hours both with the number of hours and the strange timing of the hours. One thing that has been in my favour as a writer is that emergency doctors do shift work so there may be a day where I am working a day shift, then a day when I'm working an evening shift or a that I'm working a night. So, what it means is that there are times when most people are usually asleep I am working - there are also times when other people would be doing medicine and I am at home - so that makes it possible to write. Like any writer, it's a question of putting aside the time. Medicine is demanding and it is taxing - but I think that really every writer has to confront the issue of sitting and writing because it's their life.  It's very time consuming and everyone has other things going on in their lives - especially when people start out - you just can sit and be a writer. Everyone is trying to make a living, pay the bills and also write a book. I consider I am lucky because I wasn't doing something I simply didn't like just to support my writing. I am fortunate to be in a situation of having a profession that I enjoy a great deal - so the challenge is - how to do two things that I enjoy doing a great deal.

Vincent, you are in Australia doing some promotion for the book and also attending the Sydney Book Fair. What else are you planning during your trip?

Well while I'm here for the Sydney Book Fair I get the chance to see other writers and I have some family here so I've seen my family a couple of times. From here, I'll be going to Vietnam, where I will be spending some time researching the novel I'm working on now.

Well good luck with the next novel and have fun while you are in Australia.  It was a pleasure to talk with you Vincent.

Wonderful, thank you.

© Black Label Reviews 2008