Vincent Lam remembers Stephen Durnin
Vincent Lam is a physician and the author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.
In November, Lam became the youngest writer and the only first-time author to win the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's premier literary prize for fiction. His book is a series of integrated stories following Ming, Fitz, Chen and Sri, medical students and young doctors.
Lam was born in London, Ontario in 1974. When he was four his family moved to Ottawa. At St. Pius X High School he was one of the spirited students in the gifted program. He remembers many good teachers but says that Stephen Durnin in particular was “mind opening.”
“I had him for three years. He gave us free rein to explore things we were interested in. He told us not be afraid to follow our own directions and see what happens. He encouraged independent study,” remembers Lam.
“He had a profound influence on me. So much of school is about mastering basic tools for further education or the work world, and it has to be didactic. But he pushed us to be independent in our thinking. Do it seriously and critically. Be your own toughest evaluator.”
Stephen Durnin, the English teacher, librarian and owner of the “hippie wagon” remembers Vincent as “very quiet and pleasant – a studious type of person, a really sharp, versatile thinker with all kinds of self-discipline. He was an intellectually curious person who wanted to know everything.
“He gives you the impression of being sort of fragile but he is full of self-assurance. It's nice being with people like that.”
Durnin was also not afraid to switch roles with his young student.
“A friend of mine had given me a fiddle. I played the guitar and I thought maybe I could master the violin,” says Durnin. “So when Vincent was in Grade 9, I would go to his house on Fridays after school. He gave me violin lessons for 10 dollars an hour.”
But Lam was perhaps not a natural teacher.
“I didn't last long. He was too demanding,” laughs Durnin. “I still play the guitar but the violin is not my cup of tea.”
Lam's gift for writing, however, was evident. He wrote a short story, entered it in a young writers' competition and won. “It was very formative because the prize allowed me to go to Queen's University for a week and take a writers' workshop taught by Jane Urquhart. I was 15 or 16 then, about half the age of the other participants. It was very exciting.”
Lam became interested in both writing and medicine while in high school.
“In the midst of wanting to be a writer, I felt that it would be a very good thing to have a job. Because all the writers I admired had also done things in the world. I thought that was a really important thing to do. My thought process, very simplistically, went like this: ‘I should choose a job where I can learn about people, and what would be perfect? Well, I could be a doctor.' I had very little appreciation for how incredibly tough it would be to become a doctor.”
Lam attended medical school in Toronto and chose emergency medicine as his specialty. He wrote Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures over two years, while working full-time in the ER at Toronto East General Hospital.
Emergency medicine, he explains, offers him intensity, stimulation, excitement and a schedule that gives him time to write.
During the Giller hoopla, Lam mailed a copy of his book to Stephen Durnin with a card telling him how much his teaching had meant.
“I felt like I'd won the Giller prize myself,” says Durnin. “I felt so happy for him. It was the most rewarding thing that ever happened to me in my career. I was beside myself.”
“He sent me back a nice note,” says Lam, “and a marking sheet from a short story assignment in his class!” He observes contentedly that he did well.
Lam says, “I hope all kids are encouraged to have a free mind to explore things that aren't necessarily practical or career oriented. That's my message to teachers. You can be good at something really practical and also lead a super creative life.”
“Congratulations. You can write.”
While working as a doctor aboard an Arctic cruise, Vincent Lam had a chance encounter with renowned author Margaret Atwood. She agreed to read his short stories and later sent him an e-mail announcing, “Congratulations. You can write.” Atwood mentored the young author and was instrumental in bringing Lam to his publisher, Doubleday Canada.
Atwood introduced his book at the Scotiabank Giller Award ceremony:
“Doctors and fiction writers both deal in extreme events. Both have their fingers on the pulse of life and death. And neither is squeamish about gore on the floor.
“Direct in style, unsparing though compassionate in observation, subtle in emotion, and occasionally gruesome in humour, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures follows four medical students from widely different backgrounds as their stories intertwine, as their illusions are shattered, and as the meanings of many lives expand around them.
“The good news is, doctors are human beings. The bad news is, doctors are human beings. The other good news is, this book marks a stunning debut.”
Vincent Lam is writing his first novel, Cholon, Near Forgotten, which follows a Chinese man in Saigon – headmaster of an English school and a compulsive gambler – during the Vietnam War.
Shaftesbury Films is developing Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures into a TV drama series for The Movie Network. Lam will act as a consultant while continuing to work as an emergency physician in Toronto, where he lives with his wife and son.