Writing novels like a long bicycle ride: keep going
By: Rob Alexander
| Posted: Thursday, Jun 28, 2012 06:00 am
Even though Vietnam is a long way from the door step of Toronto author Vincent Lam, winner of the 2006 Scotia Bank Giller Prize, that didn’t stop him from ably capturing an especially troubled period in Vietnam’s history in his latest novel, The Headmaster’s Wager.
Author of the award-winning Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, Lam turned to his family stories, leading him to focus on the experience of Vietnam’s expatriate Chinese community during and after the Vietnam War.
Following the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Vietnam’s Chinese community lost their homes and businesses and many were sent to the so-called re-education camps or forced to flee the country.
“My parents direct line was all Chinese, but they grew up in Vietnam,” Lam said recently.
“That whole sequence of events was the plot line of the family stories that I grew up hearing. I have a lot of connection to that particular community in that particular time but of course that is all gone now. (The Headmaster’s Wager) inhabits that mental territory,” Lam said.
Lam tells the story of Percival Chen, a headmaster of an English school, a womanizer and gambler, during the 1960s and ‘70s. It was a period when France still had an influence in the region, even though Vietnam was no longer its colony, at the same time both China and the U.S. were attempting to exert control. North Vietnam, however, was seeking independence while South Vietnam was corrupt, disorganized and had no effective leadership.
And through all of that, people – such as Lam’s protagonist – are trying to make money and keep their heads down, staying out of the politics and the war. But the events surrounding Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s prove to be too large for anyone, least of all a fault-ridden Chinese expatriate capitalist, to avoid.
The headmaster is not always a likeable man. At times, he’s easy to hate. But Chen does redeem himself, and through the turmoil of the Vietnam War Chen begins to lose everything he has built and worked for, he ultimately sacrifices it all for family.
And as Chen’s life unravels, Lam does a remarkable job of transporting readers to Vietnam – and anyone who has travelled in that country will quickly recognize the feel that Lam imparts upon The Headmaster’s Wager.
During Lam’s two research trips to Vietnam, once in 2004 and again in 2008, he had to be aware of everything, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, even the feel of the country, how it moves and breathes.
“It did mean I really, really had to have my sensors on high sensitivity all the time, seeing everything, smelling everything, recording as much as I could, words and photos.”
But, as he said, it is also liberating as a writer as it forced him to depend on his craft and instead of going into great detail, choosing the most important details and allowing those to trigger readers’ imaginations.
“It is up to me to choose the right details to draw the eye to the right things, so a big part is using the art and craft and choosing the right words,” he said. “Knowing I can’t lean on the kind of crutch of being able to walk out of my room and look at a scene and that I have to rely on those words and place confidence in that artistic process.”
And it is a process that works. Lam had initially proven himself with the 2006 Scotia Bank Giller prize-winning Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures and it has served him well in The Headmaster’s Wager.
The Headmaster’s Wager is not an easy read, nor should it be. It is, however, a satisfying read, as Lam’s story is ultimately hopeful as he explores redemption, courage and finally, the acceptance of what is truly important: family.
While his family stories served to lead Lam to Percival Chen and The Headmaster’s Wager, they proved to be defined and as a result too restrictive, constraining Lam as he tried to weave them into his story by the fact they’re real, he said.
Instead, Lam realized he had to step away from those stories and write the book as he intended: as fiction, but moving away from his family stories proved to be a challenging process.
In the end, it took him four years and numerous and frustrating dead-ends to reach a satisfying and workable conclusion.
“All along, I knew the book should feel a certain way and I knew there was a certain emotional core that the book should gravitate around. This was fixed but I couldn’t figure out what plot, what characters, what anything would achieve that,” he said.
Lam worked with multiple plots and points of view, experimenting with each to see what felt right. He tried first person, but said that proved to be “a complete failure.” He rewrote it in third person and then tried it with four voices: each in the past and present, but eight voices proved to be a greater disaster than the first person exercise.
And finally, after four years of trying on different hats, The Headmaster’s Wager began to come together, as he settled into third person perspective.
“Finally, at the end of the four years things started to gel and I knew exactly what the plot should be and when I asked questions the book would answer me. When I didn’t know what would happen in some scene the characters would tell me the book would answer it or the characters would do that.
“When I worked on it for five years: first four years are tremendously hard and frustrating – and I was so tempted to give up – but I knew if I gave up it would be worse than continuing. It’s like riding a bike for a long distance, you just know if you stop, you might not start again.”
The Headmaster’s Wager, published by Doubleday Canada, retails for $32.95. It is also available as an e-book.