Vincent Lam on The Headmaster's Wager

CBC Books
May 15, 2012

Listen to the radio interview

I In 2006, 32-year old physician Vincent Lam won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his collection of medical short stories Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Over the past six years, he's continued his medical practice while writing his much-anticipated first novel, The Headmaster's Wager.

Vincent Lam was born in London, Ontario, and raised in Ottawa, but his parents were part of the Chinese expat community in Vietnam, before emigrating to Canada. From an early age, Lam has been carrying family stories about Vietnam around with him. Lam believes the stories had such an impact on him as a child because they were so very different from the life his family led in Canada. "The things I heard about were from another world and, therefore, were even more vivid and more colourful," he told host Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview with The Next Chapter. "It was hearing those stories that made me want to write a book about the Chinese community in Vietnam during the Vietnam War."

The Headmaster's Wager is what finally emerged when he sat down to write about those stories. Percival Chen, the book's main character, is based on Vincent's grandfather. Like Vincent's grandfather, Percival is the headmaster of a prestigious English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Like Vincent's grandfather, Percival uses his position to enjoy several vices, including compulsive gambling, fine liquor and beautiful women. And, like Vincent's grandfather, when the Vietnam War threatens his family, Percival must confront the limits of his connections and his wealth.

Writing a story that is so close to home can be difficult for some writers, but for Lam, it created a stronger connection to his family. "The book is the only way that was available to me to express the set of emotions that I have about the Vietnam War, about the history of the Chinese community during the Vietnam War and, in many ways, the history of my own family."

This became painfully true when Lam went to Vietnam to do research for the book and was shocked to discover just how much the country had changed since his family left. He found it difficult to find buildings he wanted to explore and to find people who remembered the war. "That was very terrifying me for as a writer, to know that I was writing about a place that I could no longer actually access in a direct way."

However, Lam also found the experience liberating in a way. Not only was Vietnam moving forward as a nation, but he could move forward with the work and use the materials he had already collected to their maximum potential. "What it meant was that I had to place the utmost confidence in what I could derive from the modern Vietnam, in the things that I knew through family stories and the things that I learned through research."

If there are details Lam got wrong, he's willing to accept that there were flaws in his writing and research process. What was most important to him was connecting with the emotional truth of the story of Percival Chen. "When I began, all I really knew was what the book should feel like," Lam explained. "That was my only piece of string I had to hold on to." That string guided him through the process of "researching and learning" and is what ties this entire story together.

Now readers get to decide whether or not Lam succeeded.

© 2012 CBC Books