Vincent Lam: Matters of Fact

Valerie Howes, CBC Radio
June 28, 2011

ith a new book on Tommy Douglas, the Giller-winning author reflects on the rewards of penning a biography.

A practising doctor as well as an award-winning writer, Vincent Lam relished the job of authoring the biography of Tommy Douglas - Canada's "father of Medicare." His latest book, Tommy Douglas, is part of Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series.

What were the challenges for you in writing nonfiction?
For a novel, a large part of the work is deciding what happens - plucking things from thin air. Nonfiction was a treat: I could just deal with the writing. On the flip side, one feels a certain weight of responsibility towards what - as much as one can tell - actually happened. 

How did your background in fiction influence you stylistically?
I naturally gravitated towards a character-centred book, a book that told the story of one person in a certain time and context. Other books in this series are different. For instance, Mark Kingwell's excellent book on Glenn Gould is based in ideas - he comes at it as a philosopher. 

Douglas is one of the country's most loved figures; how difficult was it to paint him as a human with flaws?
I struggled with that, and I've seen that other biographers struggled with that too. I was certainly aware this book would be perceived as very complimentary. But after spending so much time researching Tommy Douglas, I realize that [my] view was entirely justified. He was known as a tough guy to work for; he drove his staff and himself hard; and sometimes he could be a harsh critic, but the fact is, he did this in privacy. In this cynical age, we tend to believe no one is as good as they seem.

What was your research process like?
Mostly reading and interviewing. I read the existing biographies of Tommy Douglas - some are certainly more academic than mine. Then I read books that were relevant to the period. The nice thing about Tommy Douglas is he's recent enough that a lot of people who knew him are still alive: like Bob Rae; Tommy's daughter, Shirley; and his secretary. That was a lot of fun for me; I experienced just one degree of separation from the figure I was writing about.

What stood out among your discoveries?
Uncovering information regarding the circumstances of Shirley Douglas's arrest. It really gave me a sense of historical discovery. Tommy had speculated that the Canadian and US intelligence services must have collaborated on this matter, and the recollections of Lyn Goldman [a childhood friend of Shirley] confirmed this.

This also furthers my curiosity as to the contents of the still much-redacted RCMP documents on Tommy. The release of these documents remains a very active present-day issue. For me as a writer, all of this makes the Tommy Douglas story very much a live and current story. 

As a doctor, how do you feel about Tommy Douglas's legacy?
It speaks to what we believe in as Canadians: If someone is sick, we should all be responsible.

Dr. Vincent Lam is an emergency physician and a lecturer at the University of Toronto. His first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize. His latest book, Tommy Douglas, was published in March, and he is now working on a novel to be published by Doubleday in 2012.

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