Vincent Lam goes all in with The Headmaster's Wager

Mark Medley, National Post
April 24, 2012

V incent Lam first started to write The Headmaster's Wager, his debut novel, more than a decade ago. This was before he finished medical school, before he became a father, before he shocked the literary establishment by winning the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his short story collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. The origins of the novel date back even further; Lam began thinking about the book when he was only 15 years old. "It was around that time I knew that I wanted to be a writer," he says. "So that was the first thing I ever wanted to write."

Vincent Lam
"The book feels exactly like I thought it would feel and it should feel," Vincent Lam says. "And yet almost nothing else in the book is what I thought it would be." (Photo credit: Tyler Anderson / National Post)

Finally, after gestating for more than 20 years, and after 10 years of toil, The Headmaster's Wager, one of the most hotly anticipated books of not only the spring, but of the year, comes out April 24.

"The book feels exactly like I thought it would feel and it should feel," he says. "And yet almost nothing else in the book is what I thought it would be."

The novel tells the story of Chen Pie Sou, later known as Percival Chen, the owner and headmaster of a prestigious English-language school in Cholon, a small city on the outskirts of Saigon. He arrives in Saigon as a young man, new bride in tow, having (barely) escaped the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War. He soon opens a school in an old warehouse previously owned by his father, who had fled rural China for Vietnam in search of fortune when Chen was still a boy.

A shrewd businessman, wanton womanizer and problem gambler, Chen rises in the ranks of Saigon society, becoming an important ally to the U.S. officers stationed there, who require translators in their ongoing efforts against the Viet Cong. The novel opens in 1966, just as the war is escalating. More problematic for Chen, however, are the actions of his headstrong son, Dai Jai, who is arrested by police and, later, must flee the country — events that eventually compel Chen to wager everything to save his son's life.

The novel is dedicated to Lam's grandfather, William Lin, who died when Lam was in his early twenties, and whom he describes as the "family legend." Like Chen, Lin was the headmaster of an English school in Cholon, and, like Chen, "had a taste for gambling, women, the finer things in life."

"He was the inspiration for Percival Chen," says Lam, 37, sitting in a booth in Pearl Court, a restaurant in Toronto's Old Chinatown, not far from where he lives with his wife and three children. "Percival Chen is not him, and the things that happen to Percival Chen are fictional, but [he] was definitely inspired by my grandfather." (If the name Percival Chen seems familiar to readers, it's because he appears in the story "A Long Migration" in Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, in which an older Chen — or at least a prior version of the character — lives out his days in Australia, where Lam's grandfather immigrated after leaving Vietnam.)

Lam, the son of immigrants who both grew up in Vietnam's expatriate Chinese community, where The Headmaster's Wager is set, returned to Vietnam twice in recent years to research the novel. The school his grandfather owned still stands, although "you wouldn't be able to pick it out if you didn't know what you were looking for."

In a way, Lam didn't know what he was looking for when he started work on the novel all those years ago. To hear him explain it, writing the novel was more complex than any procedure he might perform as an emergency physician at Toronto East General Hospital, where he still works. The Headmaster's Wager required numerous surgeries, rehab and an unhealthy dose of painkillers, too. Lam estimates he tossed more than 1,000 pages. At one point, the novel employed four different narrators. He wrote the book in the third person, then, unhappy with the result, wrote it again in first person, despite the warnings of his editors. After six months of intense work, "I discovered they were right." He then rewrote the entire novel, again, in third person.

"So what are you going to do?" he asks, trapping a dumpling between his chopsticks. "It had to be done. It would be awfully nice to be more efficient, but I haven't figured out a way to do it yet."

Despite these artistic gambles, Lam, unlike his protagonist, doesn't consider himself a gambling man. "I have a self-directed RRSP," he laughs. "That's as far as it goes."

But life is full of wagers, he says, and, as an ER physician, he constantly faces "situations that are inherently risk-prone, and that involve weighing the odds and particular outcomes, and making a rational choice.

"Many things in life are like that," he continues. "Anyone who's ever bough a stock is hoping that it will go up. Anyone who's ever bought a car is hoping the thing isn't going to break down. And life is full of these risks. And I think the question is how to manage risks in a sensible way. I think when we talk about gamblers we're not talking about betting and risk, because I think we engage in that all the time whether we like it or not." Instead, "I think when people talk about gambling in that vernacular way, what they're really talking about is people who make risks that are objectively unjustifiable. People who hope for a good outcome but for whom there's no reasonable expectation that they will."

But isn't that just like writing, I ask. You dedicate years of your life to a single project, without any guarantee of payoff.

"I completely agree," he concedes. "I think from a financial point of view writing is a total, total irrational gamble. And the only reason that it's possible for it to make sense is if one chooses to recognize the value in the work itself. If one sits down and embarks upon a writing project and says, 'OK, this is the number of hours I'm going to spend, this is the number of dollars return I'm going to expect' — that's a foolish bet. That's gambling, and I don't think that's a good idea. But if one sits down and says, 'You know what? The important thing here is the work I'm doing, and I'm prepared to accept the reward being both the work — in the sense of the act of writing it — and the end product,' then I think it's a reasonable risk to take.

"You don't know as the writer how the end product is going to turn out. Of course you hope that you're going to be happy with the book, from an artistic point of view, and you hope you're going to be at peace with it. And I am actually at peace with this book. The book and I — we fought for a long time, and finally we managed to understand each other. But I don't think one can even be sure of that when one is starting."

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam is published by Doubleday Canada ($32.95).

© National Post 2012