Volume 94, Issue 40

Thursday, November 9, 2000


Thomas Homer-Dixon predicts the future

Wong dines with the stars

Snow softens his sound

Wong dines with the stars

Photo by Ted Yao

By Matt Pearson
Gazette Staff

Jan Wong is preparing to eat lunch for the second time in one day.

The Globe and Mail columnist, former Beijing bureau chief and author of two books, is preparing for an interview with singer Judy Collins. Upon its completion, the interview will become another segment in the Lunch with Jan Wong series, which began rather unexpectedly in the autumn of 1996 when Wong interviewed Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.

To this day, Wong is surprised the column has survived. It hasn't always been the most popular part of The Globe and Mail, based on the number of complaints the paper receives about it almost on a daily basis.

Yet from all of her dealings with hypersensitive and self-absorbed celebrities, Wong has learned a thing or two about conducting herself during interviews. This knowledge certainly comes in handy, since with the release of her third book, Lunch with Jan Wong, the author finds herself on the hotseat frequently.

"I've actually learned a lot from being a reporter on how you're supposed to deal with an interview," she says. "It's very interesting to be on the other side." During a typical a book tour, Wong is sometimes required to do up to nine interviews a day, on top of a speaking engagement in the evening.

Part of the reason why Wong's interviews are so infamous comes down to her desire to write the celebrity for exactly who they are, paying close attention to their wardrobe, behaviour, mannerisms and eccentricities. Despite this reputation, lunch guests still behave badly.

When Wong took For Better or For Worse cartoonist Lynn Johnston out for lunch, she was shocked by Johnston's behaviour. Johnston filled out a scathing comment card on the service she received during that lunch, which Wong claims was fine.

"Why would she do that? Maybe she thought it's never going to make it in the interview, but anybody with brains would know that how someone treats a waiter or waitress is pretty revealing," Wong remarks, adding the bulk of her guests seek her out through publicists, not the other way around.

Despite the bad press associated with a number of Wong's columns, she maintains that publicists continue to call for interviews. "I think the reason people come is because they're selling something and they're just hoping you'll spell their name right. They don't care if it's negative," she explains.

However, one must wonder if the veteran journalist ever misses her old job, covering breaking news for the front page. Although she finds dealing with publicists degrading, she defends her column convincingly. "It's the last area of deferential journalism. We've changed the way we report on CEOs and politicians, but we haven't changed the way we report on celebrities," she argues.

"I don't think [this job] is a comedown because celebrity is big business and it's a huge part of society today. I find it really irritating that I'm criticized by fellow reporters for asking tough questions. Would they be saying this to me if I reported on politicians or CEOs? They go on and on about how mean I am, it's like, 'Hello? I'm asking a question.' I did not kidnap these celebrities, in fact, most called me. I don't have a gun at the interview, I just have my pen and my notepad."

According to Wong, she hopes to return to China to report again, but since she raised trouble for the Chinese government with the publication of Red China Blues, she knows any return to China cannot be announced. "I'd like to go back to China, but I may not be able to because the Chinese government doesn't like me very much," she explains, seemingly unworried. "I know how to operate in China and avoid detection, I've been there so long."

For now, Wong also writes features; she recently spent a week in a Toronto high school studying the daily life of a teacher. Having thoroughly enjoyed the experience she gushes emphatically about how the experience put things into perspective for her. "I spent a week following him. I went to the dance, I went to commencement, I had to go to all of this stuff in order to get a picture," she recalls.

If it sounds like Wong's life is idyllic, that may in part be because a sense of humour is important to her. "We lack humour writing in the paper and we need to entertain people. They're not going to read you if you're boring. I think humour is one of the best ways to write and as long as you can entertain people, you can teach them."

Jan Wong will appear on Monday night at the London Public Library in support of her latest book. Admission is free and the event begins at 7:30 p.m..

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Copyright The Gazette 2000