Q&A: Acclaimed Author and Conservatory Alumnus Vincent

by Daniel Davidzon The Royal Conservatory of Music
July 18, 2013

isitors to the Byward Market in Ottawa in the 1990 may have stopped for a moment to listen to a young man playing the violin in the street, perhaps even dropping a loonie in his case as they walked past. “Just another busker,” they may have thought.

Those loonies helped finance medical school at the University of Toronto for Dr. Vincent Lam, an emergency physician in Toronto and a Lecturer at U of T, as well as having worked in international air evacuation and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships. A chance meeting with Margaret Atwood inspired Dr. Lam to pursue a parallel career in writing, and he quickly established himself among Canada’s literary giants.

Dr. Lam’s short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was awarded the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize and later developed into an HBO miniseries.  His first novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award in 2012, and he has also published a biography of Canadian politician Tommy Douglas.

Dr. Lam is in esteemed company along with other literary Conservatory alumni, including Barbara Gowdy, Annabel Lyon, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alix Ohlin, and others.

We caught up with Dr. Lam as he reminisced about his early musical memories and discussed how he stays motivated to work, write, practice and perform.

How old were you when you started your musical training, and how did it come about?

I started playing the violin when I was five years old. My father and I went to Suzuki violin lessons together. Later, I was fortunate enough to study with two remarkable teachers, a husband and wife team – Armand and Margaret Weisbord. While under their instruction, I played in duets, small chamber ensembles, and spent several years with the Ottawa Youth Orchestra. Towards the end of high school and during my undergraduate studies, I worked as a busker in the Byward Market in Ottawa.

Has your violin playing and overall music education contributed to your growth as a writer?

Studying the violin requires a great deal of self-discipline. The student of the violin needs to have regular practice habits, needs to be able to take critique and to employ self-critique, and needs to have a humanistic imagination. These are also crucial qualities for a writer and a doctor. I think it helped me to have developed these skills early in life as a student of the violin.

Have you any preferred pieces to play?

Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas.

As a writer and a musician, what techniques do you use to stay motivated, and what advice would you give hopeful musicians or writers?

I think that being a writer, or a musician, or a physician, or doing anything else that is worthwhile is very challenging, can be very frustrating, and so motivation is an important issue. I think that one way to stay motivated is to view a project in the ‘big picture’ while also understanding the ‘small picture’ of its component parts. Thinking of the ‘big picture’ of writing a book, or preparing a concerto, or learning a profession helps to keep you moving towards the large goal. Meanwhile, understanding that even big projects can be broken down into constituent parts makes it possible to tackle challenges and problems in manageable chunks.

How many of your author colleagues (that you’re aware of) are musicians? Medical colleagues?

There are lots. One of my friends and fellow emergency physicians is Terry Tam, who is a wonderful violinist. He is an ER physician at Saanich Peninsula Hospital in BC, and Concertmaster of the Victoria Symphony

Can you share a fond memory of learning music using the Royal Conservatory curriculum?

Mostly, I just have fond memories of music. (Really now, who has fond memories of curricula?)

Finally… You can play perform sonatas, write novels, give lectures, and carry out operations. Is there anything you can’t do?

I’m totally unable to dance. No moves whatsoever.

To learn more about Vincent Lam and where to buy his award-winning novels, please visit his website.

© Royal Conservatory of Music 2013