Friday, September 21, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) with Vincent Lam

Dr. Vincent Lam is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, and was born in Canada. Dr. Lam did his medical training in Toronto, and is an emergency physician in Toronto. He is a Lecturer with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. He has also worked in international air evacuation and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships.

The Headmaster's Wager, Dr. Lam's first novel, about a Chinese compulsive gambler and headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War, is published by Doubleday Canada. Dr. Lam's biography of Tommy Douglas is published by Penguin Canada as part of Extraordinary Canadians series.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

* Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and became very popular. This changed some external aspects of my life, because I became a well-known Canadian writer. This meant that I had new opportunities to talk to people about the book, and to publish abroad. These are all very good things. However, at a core internal level some things did not change –  I am a physician and a writer. The work of practicing medicine and the work of writing are both deeply meaningful to me at a human level, and this is unchanged.

How does your most  recent work compare to your previous?

In writing Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, I had great knowledge of the specificity of setting – this is because it was set in a medical school, in hospitals, and in  clinics, and I am a doctor. Writing with this knowledge, I was able to elicit the emotional core of the book and represent it with details that were accessible to me. I could sort of pluck the knowledge of doctors off the shelves of my life to use in my writing. In writing The Headmaster’s Wager, I began with a deep understanding of the emotional core, and not much else. I knew what the book should ‘feel’ like. But as it turned out, I didn’t know nearly enough about Vietnam to do it initially, so I had to go out and learn all of that. This initiated my research phase, which I’ve already mentioned.

How does it feel different?

* Every book is a world into itself.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

* That is like asking why my ears are the particular size that you see them to be!

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

* Writing for me is very slow. It takes only a fraction of a second to start. That’s not the difficulty. The difficulty is getting through it and finishing. I edit extensively and repeatedly. Almost all pages receive fifteen to twenty rounds of editing in my hands. This is slow.

To write a novel set during a significant time in my family’s history required a variety of types of engagement between myself and the subject. I needed to understand as much as I could about what that era meant to me emotionally, and this has grown over two decades of personal contemplation. I amassed as much sensory and historical information as I could about that time. I wanted to understand the story of Indochina, the mentality of that land, the Vietnam War, the sensations of daily life in Saigon and Cholon, the patterns in which people interacted, and the concerns of the Chinese in Vietnam, with enough detail and depth to write it as if I had lived it. But beyond all that I had to let the story be free and true. I had to allow for its own vitality. It had to inhabit a space of truth where it was not my family stories at all, and it was not a documentation of my historical knowledge, but where it could become its own story.
4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you?

* With obsession, with a deep aching haunting.

Are you an  author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

* I have always written projects that were meant to be ‘books’. Even Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures was always meant to be a collection of linked short stories and a cohesive book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? 

* They are neither. They are separate, a supplemental way to communicate. The real creation, the writing is all very private, but the reading can be part of a way to communicate the creation.
Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

* Yes. I do enjoy them, as I like to meet readers. I also like to be able to offer them something of my actual spoken voice. In the case of many writers whom I admire, once I have heard them speak, I always subsequently hear their voices in my mind when I read their work and this adds to the richness of the experience.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing?

* Yes, I’m sure I do. But if they start to occur to me, I try to think of them as little as I possibly can. I do think about stylistic issues. My key stylistic goal is that I want the writing to acquire a sort of transparent quality, hoping that the reader can almost stop noticing that they are reading, so deeply have they entered the story.

What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?

* I am mostly trying to answer subconscious questions.

What do you even think the current questions are?

* I like the questions to be subconscious, so I allow them to float beneath the surface and emerge in the plot and the characters. As such, they are hard to articulate.

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

* I believe that the role of the writer should be to distill in a deeply reflective and contemplative manner the emotional forces of our time, and to distill these into works that engulf the reader into an experience of the book. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

* I have a fantastic editor, Martha Kanya Forstner, and one of the most wonderful things about my writing process is working with my editor. It is difficult and essential work, but we work together very agreeably. The difficulties are to do with the text and its problems, not to do with any sort of problem in the editorial relationship. I would note: what truly good types of work are there in this world that are not both difficult and essential?

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

* Learn how to take advice. I’ve never heard this is a direct way, but it’s the best advice out there.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short fiction to novel to medical prose)?

* Every book is hard. Part of writing is sometimes to be pushing boundaries. This is where the writer grows.

What do you see as the appeal?

* The appeal is always story.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

* My main routine is that I schedule the time to write. I’m very busy, so I have to schedule the time if I’m going to have the time. I prefer the early part of the day.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

* I return to the deep emotional fibres that animate the project. At a certain point, it is possible to turn to the characters, but it takes a long time to get there.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

* The smell of my wife.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

* All of that, surely. Books also come from life and history. These are big forces for me.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

In no special order, a random and incomplete conjectural list…

Nick Adams Stories, Ernest Hemingway
Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Running In The Family, Michael Ondaatje
Gift of Stones, Jim Crace
Dream Stuff, David Malouf
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
Nine Stories, JD Salinger
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
The Book of Secrets, MG Vassanji
The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon
Runaway, Alice Munro
From a Chinese City, Gontran de Poncins
Blindness, Jose Saramago
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
Our Town, Thornton Wilder
Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

* Helicopter powder skiing.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

* If I wasn’t a writer, I would be a physician!

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

* Story.

19 - What was the last great book you read?

What was the last great film?

* Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog

20 - What are you currently working on?

There is something… but I cannot say more.

No comments: