Giller winner Vincent Lam pens debut novel

Andrea Baillie, The Canadian Press
April 23, 2012

T ORONTO – When Vincent Lam was writing his acclaimed collection of medical short stories, "Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures," his frame of reference was obvious. After all, he is a doctor in a busy Toronto emergency room.

The soft-spoken author says he needed only to "reach out into his mental bookshelf" to mine material for the tome, which won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The process for his debut novel, "The Headmaster's Wager," was a little different.

The book, which hit stores Tuesday, is the story of Percival Chen — the Chinese headmaster of an English school in Saigon at the time of the Vietnam War. His vices are myriad: gambling, women, drugs. He is pushed to his limits when his beloved son runs afoul of local authorities.

The scope of the material is impressively vast, particularly for a first novel. Lam admits there were times during the five-year writing process that he almost gave up.

"(From 2008-2010), those years were really, really hard because I at that point realized what I was trying to do, and the enormity of it was far greater than I had anticipated," he said during a recent interview.

"And it was really, really tough and I was just constantly discovering things I didn't know and constantly discovering things I had to do on a page which I had never done before and it was really, really a very challenging time.

"And I will say that at many times during those three years I thought I would have to abandon the project, I thought I would have to give up and I thought that I might just have to say: 'You know what? I can't do it.'"

In 2011, however, things changed. The book's memorable cast of characters — including Percival's father, his son, his troublesome ex-wife, his confidant and his young lover — began to "help" the author.

"The first four years I felt I was trying to drag the book into existence and it was resisting, it was resisting coming into the world and the book and I really argued. We had some very rough patches in our relationship over those four years; the relationship was on the verge of breaking down," recalled Lam, 37.

"But in the fifth year, everything changed and the book began to help me. During that last year of work I no longer felt like I was flailing around aimlessly in the dark … I felt that whenever I had a question I could just turn to the book, and I could turn to the characters and they would invariably give me the answer."

While Lam grappled with his debut novel, he was also dealing with the increased scrutiny that comes with the Giller. The prize, after all, affords Canadian authors rare exposure and Lam's storyline was a particularly compelling one: while working on a ship, the young physician had shown his writing to CanLit legend Margaret Atwood, winning her stamp of approval.

There was also change on the home front: Lam and his wife expanded their brood from one to three.

So, did the seemingly unflappable physician feel the pressure?

"In the first year of work, when I was sort of confused and I didn't really know what I was doing, I was quite blithely denying the fact that there was pressure," he said. "It wasn't that I was being dishonest, I just couldn't admit to myself that there was pressure, so it was great after about a year when I was finally able to tell myself: 'Oh yes, there is pressure. All right, I'm just going to accept that it's just the way it is.'"

He also managed to arrange his hospital schedule in order to write more, but admits that time management remains his biggest challenge.

While "The Headmaster's Wager" presented uncharted territory, the entry point was very personal: Lam's grandfather. The author, whose parents left Vietnam in the 1960s to come to Canada, says he'd been ruminating on the character of Percival since he was 15 years old.

"I started with a character, and the character of Percival is inspired by my grandfather, and I think it's important to say 'inspired by' because he is not my grandfather, but there are similarities. My grandfather was also the headmaster of an English school in Saigon, in (the Chinese community of) Cholon specifically… and he shared some of Percival's characteristics in the sense that he was a womanizer, he was a drinker, he was a gambler and he was very smart and very capable and he was a very charismatic person who was easy to love and easy to like," said Lam, who grew up in Ottawa.

"And I think for me there was a lot of draw to this character and to this place because … I was born in Canada so I grew up hearing family stories about a place that I'd never been to, which was Vietnam, specifically the Chinese community in Vietnam. So I think those stories had an especially vivid place in both my imagination and my concept of self because they were completely foreign to my experience of growing up in this country."

Adds the author: "I was also very aware as I was growing up … that not only was I not growing up in that world but that world did not exist any longer."

And so, Lam set about trying to learn about that world, travelling to Vietnam for the first time in 2004, a journey that is documented in photos on his website,

But although he immersed himself in the culture, he still didn't feel he had the proper emotional frame of reference for his novel. The research continued.

"The reading became quite extensive," he said. "I read all the standard novels about Vietnam — 'The Lover,' 'The Quiet American,' I read all the standard histories of the Vietnam war … and then I also became aware that that level of understanding was not enough," he said.

"So I started to read memoir and there's a lot of peripheral memoir that emerged from that era. I read a lot of memoir that probably never made the literary hit parade as it were."

In the end, he read roughly 50 books cover-to-cover and sourced another 50. He found only a handful of books that dealt with the Chinese perspective in Vietnam.

If the process of writing "The Headmaster's Wager" sounds exhausting, it was.

"I'm getting tired just talking about this," Lam joked at one point during the interview.

After all, the less-driven among us might have given up trying to balance a spouse, three young children, a high-profile writing career and a day job as an ER doc. Not so for Lam.

"That's a good question," he said when asked why he kept on with the book.

"There may be an element of sheer stubbornness. I think that's got to be part of a lot of writing projects. I think a lot of writing projects have a dark phase. One can use the adjective that one wants — either stubbornness or persistence or commitment or whatever. But it's just not in my way of doing things to give up and whenever I thought of giving up…. At the end of the day the thought of … abandoning the project was more painful and more disheartening than to just to keep on working."

© The Canadian Press 2012