IFOA: Percival Chen, the gambling, womanizing protagonist of The Headmaster’s Wager, was inspired by your grandfather. Do you think this made his character easier or more difficult to write?
Lam: I think that having a protagonist inspired by my grandfather meant I had to understand my subject at various levels. I had to think very hard about why I was interested in my grandfather, and this gave me an emotional access point to the time, place, and story. Meanwhile, I had to free myself of attachment to actual personal history in order to let the character render himself in a way that was truthful to the narrative. So, I wouldn’t think of this issue in terms of making the writing easier or more difficult. Like all relationships between author and character, there were particularities, and in this case my link to my real grandfather was one of these particularities.
IFOA: If you could have lunch with one author, dead or alive, who would you choose?
Lam: J.D. Salinger.
IFOA: We’re always impressed by writers who hold down demanding day jobs, but yours wins the prize. We have to ask—how do you balance writing with working as a physician?
Lam: I’m not sure it’s so special. Most writers do something else, whether that is how they engage with the world, or out of financial necessity. It just happens that my work outside of writing—emergency medicine occupies more cultural prominence than other types of work, and so people notice it. In any case, I won’t disagree that it is very demanding to juggle two types of work. How is it done? It all comes down to scheduling, prioritization, focus, and the long view. Scheduling is key. It’s the only way to get things done. It is very important to prioritize the use of time, and avoid doing things that are unnecessary. If one does two kinds of work, it is absolutely necessary to focus on the immediate task while one is doing it. When I practice medicine, I am focused on it. When I write, that is where my head is. The long view is what keeps a project like a book alive, when day to day work and concerns in a field like emergency medicine have a natural tendency to feel more immediate.
A few logistical thoughts: Time with family is a priority. Groceries should be bought efficiently, and in bulk. Housing should be bought and changed as seldom as possible. Public events must be well publicized and organized, otherwise they are a waste of time for everyone involved. Personal fitness pays dividends. Cycling often saves time, and means keeping fit while getting from point A to point B. Television—forget it (some of it is good – but it is mostly a cultural sinkhole)! Lengthy commuting—no way, I live close to the hospital. Spending less money means having more time. Having less stuff means less tidying up.
IFOA: What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Lam: I am hesitant to prescribe such a thing…because a perfect day usually blooms like a flower. It occurs in the right conditions, but the exact timing and appearance is unpredictable. You have to let it happen. The perfect day starts with a good night’s sleep, probably involves family, books, excellent food though not too much of it, the outdoors, and ends the same way it started.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: If I’d only known that…
Lam: I should have been betting against credit default swaps.
IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:
For more about Lam and his appearance at IFOA, click here.