Emergency Doctors Writing Novels and Other Miraculous Things

A Q&A with Giller prize winning author Vincent Lam

Interview by Max Fawcett, Unlimited Magazine
June 2010

H e might not be a superhero, but short of leaping over tall buildings in a single bound there's not much that Vincent Lam can't do. The Canadian doctor and writer, whose family is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, is one of the brightest lights in Canada's literary scene, a man who has managed to balance the demands of a successful medical career, a growing family and a clear gift for writing and literature.

As a doctor, Lam has pursued a number of different challenges, from managing the chaos of the emergency room as an ER physician to working in international air evacuation and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships to the decidedly more serene duties associated with lecturing in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto

As a writer, his success is even more impressive. His first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was recently adapted for television and broadcast on HBO Canada. Cholon, Near Forgotten, his first novel about a Chinese compulsive gambler and headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War, will be published by Doubleday Canada. Lam also contributed a biography of Tommy Douglas to Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series, and co-authored The Flu Pandemic and You, a non-fiction guide to influenza pandemics.

Amid all this, Lam managed to find a few minutes to talk with Unlimited Magazine's Max Fawcett. Here's what he had to say.

MF: First off, how on earth did you find the time to write a book?

VL: I often believe that there is a lot of time that can be found if one is determined to find it, but there's no question that it's a pretty big undertaking to write a book. One of the things that was definitely to my advantage, and is to my advantage as a writer, is that I'm an emergency physician – I'm a shift-worker. On one hand, that wreaks havoc with your sleep cycles and it has all sorts of other downsides to it, but one of the upsides is that it means that often my medical work may start when other people are going home, so for instance today I'll be starting mid-afternoon and working past midnight. The negative is that I miss the evening at home, but the positive is that until I start work I have the day to do what I want.

People do different things – golf is very popular with some of my friends, but I have no interest whatsoever in little white balls and long sticks with big chunks of metal at the end, that doesn't appeal to me. I'm much more interested in writing. The bottom line is that it's a question of making time, and setting aside time.

Most of my friends who are writers do have nine-to-five jobs, and for them it means that after dinner they're at the desk for two or three hours every evening working on their book. People ask me that a lot, but there are a lot of busy people, and most writers are doing something else too because that's kind of the way it has to be.

MF: Your book shows a different side – a darker side, I'd say – of the lives that doctors lead than popular television dramas like House, ER and Grey's Anatomy. Was it important for you to portray the profession in a more honest light?

VL: Absolutely. For me, the beauty of the book as a medium, whether it's a book about doctors or a book about pirates, is the possibility of that form. In those three or four-hundred pages, you can get very, very close to the core of someone else's experience, and the true feelings of a life that you're not necessarily living yourself. To me, that's the great potential and the great strength of the book as a medium.

That being the case, the books that I enjoy are the ones that help me to understand someone else's world and help me to understand someone else's inner vision. That's why it was very important for me to be as honest as possible in this book.

It's not all dark, either. I think – I hope – there's a lot of hope and humanity in there as well. But yes, it's a human portrayal of what medicine is, and I think that's the right way to write a book about medicine.

MF: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a doctor?

VL: At least one young person at every reading asks me about that. I think I would say to people that if you're going to consider a career in medicine, there are three main things that you should think about. The first thing that you should think about is whether you're willing to be changed. In the process of medical training, which is very intensive and very demanding, both the things that are asked of you and the things you have to see and do change you as a person. They confront you with certain harsh realities about life and about death, and so if you're not open to changing as a person I think there's a potential for a great deal of bitterness. It's only if you're open to looking at the world differently, and to becoming a different person, that you can really accept all of those challenges as part of your life, and embrace them.

The second thing that I would say to people interested in becoming a doctor is that they really have to ask themselves if they're willing to live a life where other people's problems become their problems. People have this notion that they want to go into medicine to help people, and I think that's the right reason to go into medicine. But sometimes people don't extrapolate that idea further; if you really want to help people, what you're doing is taking their problems onto yourself. Their problems become your responsibility, and that has to be something that a physician likes. If they don't like that and they don't relish that, there's again the potential for a great deal of bitterness and resentment, and that's not good for anyone.

The third thing I would say to people is that they have to ask themselves if they're willing to work like heck for the rest of their lives. It's a lot of work, and there's a lot to keep up on if you want to be good at it, and if you're going to do it you should probably be good at it.

© Unlimited Magazine 2010