Author Talk with Vincent Lam

Jeff Glor, CBS News
August 13, 2012

J eff Glor talks to Vincent Lam about "The Headmaster's Wager."

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Vincent Lam: My parents are ethnically Chinese from Saigon. I grew up in Canada. So, as a kid during the '70s and '80s, I heard two narratives about the Vietnam War. One was the western narrative - about drafted soldiers fighting a terrifying jungle war, and about the protests against the war. The other narrative came out of family stories. My parents told me how Saigon kids were fascinated by the Americans who came to Vietnam - they were tall, gregarious, and interesting because they were so different. Daily childhood life in Vietnam was innocent and sweet in many ways, despite the war. I heard stories about my grandfather, who was both a successful school headmaster and an incorrigible man about town. He was a gambler, womanizer, and drank too much cognac. The existence of these two narratives, and the intersections between them fascinated me. I wanted to write a novel set in this world. Also, I knew there could be a great protagonist inspired by my grandfather.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

VL: I was surprised by how visceral certain scenes became as they were written. My relationship with writing is that I drive it along to a certain point. Then the book begins to pull me forward, dictating its imperatives. When the book 'took over,' it seemed to require that certain scenes of violence be rendered in very frank, open language, as did certain sexual episodes. I'm a quiet sort of person. People who know me personally and who have read the novel often say they're surprised that I wrote those scenes.

JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

VL: I would be an emergency doctor. That's sort of cheating, because I actually am an emergency doctor. If I weren't a writer, I would still be an emergency doctor, and I would spend more time riding bicycles.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

VL: I recently read 'The End of Your Life Book Club' by Will Schwalbe, which is a tender, beautiful, life-affirming book that all book lovers will embrace. I just finished 'The Malice of Fortune' by Michael Ennis. It is an amazingly immersive historical novel that features both Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci. I'm reading 'The Power of Kindness' by Piero Ferrucci, which is a small and important volume that everyone on this planet should read. It has a blurb by the Dalai Lama. Need I say more?

JG: What's next for you?

VL: I'm going to enjoy the rest of the summer with my wife and kids, go on lots of bike rides, do some book touring in the fall, and then write another novel.

© CBS News 2012