Outside of battlefields and unhappy marriages, there is nothing like an emergency room to highlight extremes in human behaviour. And ER doctor (and happily married man) Vincent Lam captures those extremes in his Giller Prize-winning book, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures (2006). With dark humour and sensitivity, Lam writes about everything from a medical student who loses half of a cadaver’s head to an air-evacuation doctor who drinks on the job.
By his early teens, Lam – who earned his medical degree from U of T in 1999 – knew he wanted to be a writer and wanted to emulate authors such as Hemingway, who had a large appetite for life away from the page. “I thought, very naively, ‘Oh well – what will I do? I’ll just become a doctor.’” As he got older, he realized he wanted to pursue medicine for its own sake.
In the summer of 2002, Lam was working as a ship’s doctor for an Arctic cruise line. In a coincidence that would seem far-fetched in a fictional work, Margaret Atwood (BA 1961 Victoria) was also on the cruise. After asking her if she would read his short stories, Atwood replied: “Do you want me to tell you something nice or do you want me to tell you the truth?” And he answered, “Well, the truth.” Shortly after, Lam received an e-mail from Atwood assuring him he could indeed write. He is now working on his first novel, Cholon, Near Forgotten, about a headmaster and inveterate gambler in Saigon – a story inspired by his own grandfather.
Since winning the Giller Prize, Lam, 32, also has the role of “public figure” in common with Hemingway. Getting recognized by patients has taken a little getting used to for the modest writer. “Usually, you’re just another emergency doc in a set of greens with a stethoscope,” he says. “It’s very anonymous. And writing is the exact opposite, because you bare your soul on the page. So it’s kind of weird when you’re the emergency doc and someone’s reading your book. They actually have access to your literary soul.”