Vincent Lam on His Debut Novel The Headmaster’s Wager

“Everything written in this book is true.” I say that, from time to time. “Everything that happens to my characters is fiction.” I say that, too. Sometimes, I say both things on the same occasions, for instance at a public event, or in an interview. Both of these comments are true.

I’ve written a novel, The Headmaster’s Wager. The protagonist, Percival Chen, has a few things in common with my late grandfather.

Both Percival and my late grandfather were headmasters of English schools in Vietnam, which became highly profitable during the era of American influence in that country. Both my grandfather and Percival were compulsive mah jong gamblers. Both made little effort resisting women who appealed to them, and both were able to spend money more quickly than they earned it. Both might have earned mixed reviews from their children with regards to parenting.

All of these similarities are specific, identifiable, and this being the case, it comes as no surprise to me when I am asked “How much of Percival is actually your grandfather?”

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I’ve worked out an answer. It goes like this: “Percival and his story are inspired by my grandfather.” Then I continue. I say, “I am careful to say that Percival is inspired by my grandfather. I do not say he is based upon my grandfather”. Beware of answers that come pre-packaged with caveats. They will require further caveats, or explanation.

The book I’ve written takes place in a time and place of my family’s history. Like my novel, my family’s story played out in a place called Cholon, which was once a Chinese sister city to Saigon. The main part of my novel occurs in this corner of Vietnam during the war with America.

There, my family’s story unfolded, some might say unraveled, strung itself out into long diverse strands, until over the course of several years and various upheavals it was woven into something totally different. I grew up in Canada, where ‘what happened’ in Vietnam was told to me as my family legend. It was as foreign to me in some ways as a creation myth, and equally intimate.

When it came time to write a novel anchored in this past, I tried at first to write the things I had heard as a child. It went a bit like this in early drafts, “He said, she said, he did, she did.” The writing of these accounts seemed rich with my own emotions, but often fell flat on the page.

I knew what certain gestures meant and certain omissions implied, but once dutifully transcribed, this deep layer of meaning became indecipherable to the reader. I knew the psychic truths of all these events. I discovered that I could not convey them with emotional fidelity by using the actual facts of what had happened. In order to be true to how certain things felt, it was far preferable to use inventions.

From time to time, Percival encounters some temptations that my grandfather must have encountered. Meanwhile, other plot twists spring from occurences attributed to other members of my family, from my extrapolations of history, or from my own imagination. Percival sometimes does things that are more or less what I think my grandfather would have done.

At other times, he is his own man. I wasn’t there, and can’t be sure what my grandfather would have done on a particular night on the town. However, it doesn’t matter, because I know what Percival does. Hence, I calim that Percival is inspired by, not based upon my grandfather.

There are a few scenes in my novel that bear no factual resemblance to anything that happened in my family. Yet I also know that the emotional resonance of certain fictions will likely remind people in my family of things that actually happened. The facts are floating above the page. Or, they are underpinning the fiction, as you like.

What can I say of the way these narratives interact? There is the real and the imagined, blending one into the another. There is that which shaped the course of my actual life, and that which is in the realm of ‘what could have been?’. (But don’t we always wonder – as part of our real lives – what could have been?)

I could say that fiction and fact are like two shadowboxers jousting in my novel, or like dreams that transform one into another. And back again! I could say that the only way I could express the way I truly feel about my family’s journey through the Vietnam War, was to make up stories.

Or, I could say that everything that happens to my characters is fiction. Also, that everything written in this book is true, and then go from there.

VINCENT LAM was born in 1974 in London, Ont., into a family from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam. Four years later, they moved to Ottawa where he was raised on stories told by his father and the works of C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, and developed aspirations to become a writer. Acknowledging that he hadn’t seen enough of the world to create great literary works, Lam enrolled in medical school at the University of Toronto, hoping it would provide real-life experience and a wealth of rich material. His plan proved to be a very good one. The Headmaster’s Wager is a Globe and Mail & Maclean’s National Bestseller, available from Hogarth in the U.S. wherever books are sold August 14, 2012.

Visit Vincent online at and on Facebook and Twitter @drvincentlam.

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

  • barb

    Looking forward to reading this one!

  • Dawn

    Looks like a good read!

  • Leon Jarrell

    This is the rich, full storytelling I and my best customers respond to the most. I can’t wait to share it and partake of it myself.

  • Marcia

    Tremendous novel about the lives of Chinese in Viet Nam from World War II until the Viet Nam War

  • LeAnn Knott

    I like to read books based in other countries! This excerpt shows the intense story it is building. This win will provide that completion of the unique story!

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    I wish I could win!

  • Donna Clifford


  • Joyce Canavino

    This sounds really interesting and informative. Hope I win a copy!

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    I want to read this book

  • Hira Hasnain


    Sounds like a really interesting book. I love that the characters are inspired by real life characters – this adds depth to the narrative. I’d love to win a copy! 🙂

  • Ed Nemmers

    I would like to read this work!



  • Maureen Manning

    Sounds fascinating! Would love to read it!

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    would love to win a copy!Love the family references.

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    I am sure I would enjoy this book.

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    I would like to finish off the summer reading with a book that sounds both intriguing and a little different from other things I’ve been reading.

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    sounds fascinating

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    I love the cover. It makes it look interesting.

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    Sounds good. Hmmm, I tweeted and Sent to FB but it didn’t add to the totals on here…i even clicked to tweet about 3 or 4 times.. i’ll be loved for that if it went thru lol

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    Sounds like a book I’d read.

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    Cannot wait for this one! Both the book and the author sound fascinating.

  • nylne

    Thank you for the opportunity tonwin the The Headmasters Wager!

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    I’m especially drawn to books written by Asians, as my late husband was Chinese. This sounds like one I would like and I’m eager to give it a try.

  • Jill

    Great opportunity to read this fantastic book!

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    Reading looks wonderful

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    This is not a book I would have picked out for myself, but now I think I need to broaden my book list.

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    This is not your typical story background – and for that, I would enjoy reading the book

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    Hope I win

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    I think it is something i would like to read

  • Sunnymay

    I like the title, Headmaster and think the book based on memories with a bit of confabulation are what make memoirs so close to the true feelings the author’s trying to convey.

  • Diane

    This book just arrived in the mail and I’m looking forward to reading it..sounds like a really interesting story. So happy it receive it…

  • Rachel

    I was lucky to win this book & I recently finished reading it. It was a great book, it kept my interest & I enjoyed reading it! I have already passed it on to a family member! Thank you!

  • Blima

    One of the best books I have read in a very long time.
    Thank you.

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