Although Dr. Vincent Lam was born in Canada, he is "of the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam." Lam is an emergency physician in Toronto, as well as a lecturer with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. Other medical jobs have included international air evacuation and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships. Lam has written non-fiction and short stories; The Headmaster's Wager is his first novel.
The book is inspired by the experiences of Lam's grandfather. Although Lam did not grow up in Vietnam, his parents were born there, and his grandfather lived and worked there. Lam grew up listening to stories about life in Vietnam and specifically about the Vietnam War. The stories were fascinating, dramatic and full of chaos. His parents later left Vietnam to come to Canada. Lam says that he knew he wanted to someday write a novel about it all. But for a long time he didn't feel ready. He felt inexperienced in both life and as a writer. It wasn't until after he completed medical school, and after he wrote a non-fiction book and his collection of short stories, that he finally took out the notes he had written about his grandfather's experience and began to create the novel.
It was a long and arduous process. When he began writing, he knew the central character and the loose plot, but nothing else. He tried different story arcs. He wrote in third person, then in first, and then finally went back to third. At one point he wrote the story from four different points of view, which became too unwieldy and confusing. About four years into the project, he knew what he wanted to write about, and how.
Lam had to do countless hours of research for The Headmaster's Wager. He read memoirs of the time and place. He read history books and articles. But his grandfather's stories were the foundation of the novel. He heard them from his parents first, and then his grandfather, when he met him for the first time at age 15. These stories became the novel's emotional core. And it is this weaving together of facts and feeling that make this story so compelling. Percival, the central character in the novel, is based on Lam's grandfather. Percival is not, on the surface, a sympathetic character, but because Lam was intimately connected to his grandfather, he was able to create him as a multi-faceted person. His grandfather had these two distinct sides to him: he was a well-respected school headmaster and he was also a womanizer and gambler. Lam was able to craft these seemingly contradictory characteristics into one compelling character. And because Lam is a Chinese man who was born and raised in Canada, he was able to explore the East-West relationship from a very intimate place, which is pivotal for the story.
Being a Chinese expatriate in Vietnam is in Lam's blood, but that time and place no longer exists. And he is okay with that. Lam describes his view, and his family's view, on the world in an interview for Culture Mob: "That is a lesson from the whole era. My family left all kinds of stuff behind. When Vietnam opened again, it was possible to reclaim some of that. There were costs attached, like paying those who used the property in the interim, and you had to renovate. My grandma thought about it and said, 'No, I don't want it. We have a new life - why go back? Leave it behind.'"
This article was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the
May 2013 paperback release.
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