Without preparedness, superiority is not real superiority, and there can be no initiative either. Having grasped this point, a force which is inferior but prepared can often defeat a superior enemy by surprise attack. (Mao's Little Red Book, chapter 8) the notorious self-made jour- nalist is perched like a queen bee on the Varsity newspaper's best desk chair. She's surrounded by eager-faced U of T students -- all anticipating words of wisdom from the woman famous for her venomous Globe and Mail interview column, Lunch With Jan Wong.
She's come to reveal to the wannabe journalists some of the "sleazy tricks" she uses to get her weekly victims to spill their beans.
"Try to come across as sympathetic, nice and non-threatening," says Wong in a sweet voice. At her feet lies her worn green Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack. Spectacled and dressed in a pair of Sorel snowboots (the kind with the rubber bottoms and synthetic tops that reach up to the knees), faded blue cords, mismatched purple turtleneck and oversized brown vest, she has chosen the perfect camouflage.
Wong enters her interviews armed with meticulous research. She'll spend hours working her way through more than 100 pages of background articles about her weekly victims, picking through them until she finds what she's looking for.
"What you're looking for is the contradiction," says the Canadian-born Wong, alluding to her "Maoist thing in China" at the height of the Cultural Revolution.
Enthralled by Mao's mysticism and his promise of paradise through the Communist party, she willingly turned in a fellow Beijing University student after the student sought Wong's help to escape to the West. The student was subsequently shamed and expelled.
Wong jokes that Mother Teresa herself could have had skeletons in her closet.
She writes her toughest questions on little yellow sticky notes. The really nasty ones can always be blamed on the editor. And Wong does her best to make sure that during the interview her subject is clear of publicists.
"You want tension, you want drama," she explains.
Recently, she took breast cancer survivor Dr. Jerri Nielson to lunch. Nielson had been stranded in Antarctica and had to perform a needle biopsy on her own breast. Wong, well aware of her brutal marital experience (Nielson is now divorced, and her three teenage kids aren't speaking to her), decided this would be the focus of their chat.
During lunch, Nielson stepped into Wong's carefully laid trap and, slipping down an emotional slope, started waving to her nearby publicists to save her.
"I set her up," states Wong, as soft gasps sweep across her captive audience. "What a great way to finish an interview."
She recounts the time she squeezed dirty laundry out of outgoing Royal Bank CEO John Cleghorn by playing the empathizing confidante. She was determined to dig up dirt on his seemingly happy marriage. After turning off her tape recorder and putting away her notepad, she mentioned that Cleghorn's relationship with his wife reminded her of her parents. Cleghorn walked straight into Wong's web, letting it slip that his wife once left him. As soon as Wong found herself alone behind the elevator doors, she whipped out her pen and scribbled down the juice. "That's beautiful. Just what I want," recalls Wong.
Soon enough, Cleghorn realized his slip-up and had his publicists call, begging her not to print the marriage mishap. Cleghorn himself called, claiming that Wong tricked him. She published it anyway.
"When they relax, that's when their guard is down," says Wong. "It's a trick, but it's legit." Loosen the boundary between reporter and prey and you loosen the victim's tongue.
Keeping your ears perked for the stunning quote is key. And when it comes along, don't let on that it caught your attention.
"It's best to look completely bored. You don't want people to realize that the bell went off in your head," she says. Then you ask a completely uninteresting question and use that air time to scribble down the juice.
Wong's tactics have isolated her in social circles.
"It isn't pleasant," says Wong, who admits having to hide from former victims at writers' functions and parties. Margaret Atwood and Allan Fotheringham are among the top writers she does her best to avoid.
But the stigma is worth it, she says.
"Don't worry about consequences. What's the point of being a journalist if you're self-censoring?"
She refers to her secure unionized job with the Globe and Mail as an "iron rice bowl," despite the newspaper war ignited by the National Post.
"(The National Post) is threatening, I mean very threatening, to the Globe," says Wong.
She says she never lies, never makes false promises and never goes off the record. "I believe in hardball."
A handful among the group of student journalists packed onto couches and sitting on the floor before her politely raise their hands after her talk. One is wondering what to do if the interview subject doesn't answer a question directly.
"You certainly can ask the same question 18 times," says Wong, adding that you can probe until an answer is provided.
The energy Wong pours into her craft is not without its toll. Between working and caring for her two young sons, she has little time for anything else.
Wong tells us she still abides by the lessons of Mao's On Contradiction. She forces her kids to take Chinese classes on Friday nights, and has little time for friends. (She'll squeeze them in about once every two months.)
"I feel burned out right now," admits Wong, who manages to keep her weariness hidden behind her always-pleasant demeanour. *