A Q&A with Vincent Lam

Zoomer sat down with the Giller winning author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures to talk about his new book, The Headmaster’s Wager.

Athena McKenzie: As an emergency room doctor and the father of three young children, how do you find the time to write?

Vincent Lam: To find the time to write, to do medicine and to be a half decent dad is totally the no. 1 challenge of my life. I’m still struggling with it, so I don’t have the perfect answer. I definitely feel lucky to have all of the above in my life. The closest thing I can give to an answer is, A: scheduling. Deliberately setting aside chunks of time aside for writing. Because writing is the thing that can easily get pushed out by everything else in life. And, B: I try to cut out things that are potentially dead time. We chose to live somewhere that is 10 minutes on our bikes to my hospital and my wife’s hospital. Because I can’t spend an hour and half commuting. And we don’t have a television.

AM: I understand The Headmaster’s Wager is rooted in family history. Can you tell us about it?

VL: The environment and the inspiration for the protagonist come out of childhood stories about my grandfather. There is sufficient distance that he isn’t based on him but he is inspired by Ahim.

When I was small I grew up hearing stories about Vietnam and the Chinese community that was there because that’s where my parents were born. The stories were very interesting because life was very chaotic and dramatic in those times — compared to the suburb of Nepean where I grew up. It was alluring because I knew that these were stories that had a lot of significance to my family narrative and yet I knew that they were also stories that were set in a place that didn’t exist anymore. Many of the Chinese had left as boat people and the Chinese who remained didn’t live the same way anymore. This gave it a certain allure because it was a mythical place of the past. I knew it could not be retrieved or reassessed by getting on a plane.

The character of my grandfather was also very interesting to me because he had these two sides. He was a school headmaster. In that, he was a successful businessman. Years afterwards, there were associations of his alumni and he was highly regarded as an educator, and lots of people credited him with giving them the ingredients for succeeding in the world. He was this charismatic figure. Yet he also had this side that was not that successful by some measure. He had lovers, he had various wife’s at different points. He gambled to excess with heavy losses. The duality of that was something I found very interesting.

AM: Did you only know your grandfather through stories?

VL: I knew him through stories up until the age of fifteen. I met him first when I was fifteen and I went to Australia. I visited him another two times and spent a summer with him when he was terminally ill with cancer. That summer forms the one story in Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures that is quite autobiographical. Even that is fictionalized, but that’s the one story that is quite true.

AM: How different was writing delving into this long fiction after writing Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures?

VL: It was different because  — and this is a comment apart from form — the thing with Bloodletting was that I had a lot of knowledge about doctors and hospitals. I could just focus on the dramatic impulse and the characters and the craft. The things that I knew about doctors and hospitals were always just there and I just took them for granted. And when I started Bloodletting, I didn’t know exactly what the book was going to feel like when I was done. I had this vague sense, but I had all the practical knowledge. This was very totally different. In The Headmaster’s Wager, I understood what the book would feel like. I had this palpable sensation. Except I didn’t know a whole lot about what I needed to make it work. As I started to write, I began to realize how huge my gaps were in my understanding of the history and the politics of the time. I felt immediately at this huge disadvantage because I had never lived in Vietnam. I had to go out and learn, and acquire all of that information, so I could work with it, the same way I had with Bloodletting. Then I could again focus on character, plot and drama and craft.

AM: Was it hard to approach your writing desk after winning the Giller Prize?

VL: It was. The first year I was really kind of in a fog. When I wrote Bloodletting, I didn’t necessarily assume it was going to published, period. And then, I really did not expect it was going to win the GIller. That was wonderful, but I was totally unprepared for it. I think I spent a year where my head was in a lot of different places and I was trying to write, but I wasn’t really focused. I think that whole year I was trying to deny to myself that I felt pressure from having won the Giller. After a year, I finally gave in and was like, “Yes, I do feel pressure.” It was convoluted, because the thing I kept on thinking about was if this book doesn’t do well, not in terms of sales, but if I’m not able to write this book about Vietnam and write it well, then people will think I set out to prove something and I wasn’t able to do it. (This was all in my own imagination — my own introspective-writerly paranoia.) And I sort of felt indignant at that notion. I keep thinking, I never really set out to prove anything or to win the Giller or any of that. I just set out to write books. I think I first had to acknowledge the pressure and then let go and get to the point where it actually became totally unimportant. Where all I cared about was the craft and the book.