In a post-TMZ and Perez Hilton world, where the gleeful spreading of celebrity gossip and slander has become part of peoples’ daily lives, it is almost difficult to believe that the columns collected in Lunch with Jan Wong upset so many readers on publication. Once called the “Hannibal Lecter of the lunch set”, Wong is a Canadian journalist who, from 1996 to 2002, interviewed celebrities over lunch for her column in the Globe and Mail newspaper. Her aggressively forthright accounts of those meals enraged many of her subjects (and a fair number of her readers) but mostly serve to highlight the writing skills that so many “lifestyle” or entertainment columnists and gossip bloggers today lack. She is funny and observant, sharp and, despite her reputation, sympathetic. These are interviews, not fluff pieces; Wong was not there to write only flattering, glowing things about her subjects. She was there to write about interesting people in an interesting and intelligent way. And that is exactly what she did, making this a very entertaining book.
The majority of her lunch dates are with other Canadians, though a fair number of international figures also appear. Wong is good at explaining each of her subjects’ backgrounds and accomplishments though, so it hardly matters if you’re familiar with the person already. She talks to an impressive range of people, from all walks of life: there’s a hostile Margaret Atwood, a brawling beauty queen, sex therapist Dr Ruth, Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, hockey commentator Don Cherry (this was the only interview that made me cry), pro-choice advocate Henry Morgentaler, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, cartoonist Lynn Johnston, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, Hong Kong political activist Martin Lee, actor Anthony Quinn, and others.
Wong is tough on her subjects, there is no question about that, and, unsurprisingly, actors and writers caught up in the exhausting conveyor belt of public appearances and press interviews sometime snap under examination. But, let’s be honest, that is where some of the fun lies. The book begins with Wong’s very first “Lunch with” subject: Margaret Atwood. Neither woman is at her best: Wong was given the story last minute and didn’t have time to do sufficient prep and Atwood is easily offended, by both Wong and their surroundings. That is what makes this sort of interview fun: Wong is recording what happened during the brief period she spends with these people, not trying to provide a fair or balanced in-depth portrait of them. If they were rude to the wait staff, if they were picky eaters, if they had bad table manners, Wong is sure to say. She does not go off the record.
One of the best features of the book are the endnotes Wong provides to each interview, describing how the subject and the public reacted to the piece. Delightfully, she quotes some of the complaints she received from readers, which sometimes seem founded and sometimes not. Wong is marvellously thick-skinned about it all and I loved the balance these other perspective provide.
Though her subjects may complain and threaten to sue after publication, the majority of the pieces are positive. Some of them are not quite as detailed as you might hope (her interview with Yo-Yo Ma gives a wonderful impression of his hectic schedule and impressive energy but very little insight into the man himself) while others are fascinating glimpses into the lives of less famous but no less interesting figures. My favourite interview in the entire book was with John Cleghorn, then the chairmen of the Royal Bank of Canada, who admitted to having teared up (as I did) while reading Wong’s earlier interview with Don Cherry.
I have to admit that there was really never any chance I was not going to enjoy this book. Wong was the reason I started reading the Globe and Mail as a teenager. It is a paper with many flaws but, while Wong worked there, I always had something to look forward to, both in these interviews and in her more intensive feature pieces. I have loved her four other books (three about her time in China as first an exchange student and then a journalist and one, which I will be reviewing soon, about her workplace-caused depression) and Lunch with Jan Wong, by far the lightest in terms of subject matter, was no exception.