Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Vincent Lam on his flamboyant alter ego and the influence of siblings

The author of The Headmaster's Wager answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Vincent Lam is the author of the novel The Headmaster's Wager. (Barbara Stoneham)

The author of The Headmaster's Wager opens up about his alter ego is like, the influence of growing up with siblings, and whether or not he asks family members for their opinions on his work. 

Below, Vincent Lam answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Charlotte Gill asks, "Describe your alter ego in personality and appearance."

My alter ego is a flamboyant public health physician, who has a talk show on which he hosts heated debates on public health policy. Politicians, entrepreneurs, social activists, and radical professors are guests on the show, which is conducted in strict Parliamentary-style debate. It's daytime television for civic-minded brainiacs. My alter ego has a preternatural facility with statistical analysis, an encyclopedic knowledge of health policy, and is able to express his opinions in killer sound bites. He looks just like me. (In real life, I was once a resident in a public health training program. I gave it all up to be an emergency physician and a novelist.)

2. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Auberon Waugh (by way of Randell Jarrell) has described the novel as a story that has something wrong with it. If you agree, do you think it's because the novel is a difficult literary form to get right or because as a literary form it has something wrong with it? If so, why or what?"

Both novels and stories need to have something off balance, otherwise why would we keep reading? The thing about something being off balance in a novel or story is that someone is bound to think it's something wrong with the work, while someone else finds it compelling. No one knows what right is.

3. William Deverell asks, "Is there a surfeit of published books in Canada? Are too many authors competing for diminishing returns?"

I don't like to accept that an environment of diminishing returns is a fait accompli. I think the real question as we move into the 21st century is: can authors and publishers, both Canadian and worldwide, define and invigorate the cultural space that is "books" as a high-quality, premier brand within the space of the written word? If we can achieve this, and this should be a central goal for all of us, then a vigorous literary culture will allow greater returns to accrue to more writers. 

4. Lorna Crozier asks, "How did growing up with siblings (or without) affect your writing or your desire to be a writer?"

My sister and I are both readers. Growing up in a family that valued books was very significant. My sister, Elsa Lam, has recently been made editor of Canadian Architect, a magazine. There must have been something in the air.

5. Pasha Malla asks, "Please quote one egregiously stupid criticism — either specific or general — of your writing, and address, refute or mock it."

I have been very lucky. I have had very little criticism that meets these criteria. It is not necessary for me to respond. I assume that when a criticism is stupid, my readers know it.

6. William Deverell asks, "Ever wanted to throttle an interviewer? Tell me about it."

No, I've never felt like throttling someone. I'm an emergency doctor. I would just be creating work for myself. 

I have occasionally felt like someone was trying to throttle me. I'll tell you the first time I felt this way: When I was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, I attended the Giller Gala. This is a very high-adrenaline, live-televised event. It's the biggest event in Canadian fiction. There's a dinner, but I hadn't been able to eat much that night. I was there with all the other shortlisted authors, waiting to hear the prize result, all of us knowing that the result might change our lives. I didn't think I would win, but nonetheless I was nervous about the whole situation. A few moments before the announcement of the winner, a book journalist approached me. She introduced herself, and I shook her hand, said hello. She said, "I'm the one who said all those terrible things about you in the paper." There was a lot of tension in the air, the room was loud, the television people were trying to control the crowd, and I just didn't know what to say to this journalist, so I said nothing. She put on this wicked smile and continued, "Well, you're really out of your league tonight, don't you think?" I felt like she was trying to throttle me. I was shocked at her aggression and rudeness. A few minutes later, I won the Giller, and then I had other things to think about.

7. Vincent Lam asks, "Do you ever choose to deviate from rules of standard grammar and  language usage? If so, how do you decide whether to do it?"

I believe that language should never stand between the reader and the story. I want my words to be a lens, through which the story is viewed. Usually, standard grammar and language usage allow that lens to be most clear. Occasionally, a deviation allows the words to perform this function with greater clarity. It is only when I feel that is the case, that I take liberties with language.

8. Kate Pullinger asks, "Do you pay attention to the opinions of your family — parents, spouse, siblings, children, etc — when it comes to your writing, both in terms of what you write about, but also how you write?"

Never. I don't need to second-guess the opinions of people in my real life. I respect them, and I respect my work. The integrity of the writing must carry itself.