Jan Wong began her journalism career in 1979 as a news assistant for The New York Times in Beijing. She later became the China correspondent for The Globe and Mail for which she covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. A memoir of her time in China, Red China Blues, was published in 1996.
She is the author of several books including Jan Wong’s China: Reports from a Not-So-Foreign Correspondent, Lunch With Jan Wong: Sweet and Sour Celebrity Interviews and Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found. Her latest book, Out of the Blue: a Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness, was published in 2012.
Jan Wong currently divides her time between Toronto, where she is a columnist for Toronto Life magazine, and Fredericton, where she is a professor in journalism at St. Thomas University and a columnist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
Why I write
For the money.
Just kidding. I write because it’s fun, because it makes me think, because there’s an adrenalin rush when you come up with a sentence that will make someone laugh out loud. I write because writing’s so painful it feels good when I stop. And I write because I want to tell others about something I learned, with the hope of making the world a slightly better place.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I write every day when a book deadline looms. I write on the days when I have a newspaper or a magazine deadline hanging over me. Otherwise, I don’t write.
In each case, I have an overall word count. I stop when I’m so tired I am no longer thinking clearly.
I write at any time of the day or night.
When I was a full-time staff reporter, I had to take an unpaid leave, usually several months to a year, in order to write a book. The sheer length of the book means it’s difficult to dip in and out. You must remember what you’ve already said, and this is difficult if you don’t put in steady hours.
A newspaper column is much easier – you can’t really forget what you’ve already said if you only have 600 words.
When I write books, I always have had a book contract, which of course comes with a deadline. Depending on how oppressively the deadline looms, I may sometimes literally count the days until D-day and divide that into the total word count to find my daily quota. I use this same math when rewriting.
When I’m on deadline, I sometimes write 15 hours a day. I usually start around 9 am, staying in my pajamas until lunchtime. I work with the most clarity and efficiency after 4 pm, which is the typical news reporter’s cycle. I keep going until I’ve reached the quota, which may be 3:30 am (I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway if I hadn’t made quota.)
This cycle was frustrating when my two boys were young. I found that the morning writing wasn’t very good – I spent a lot of time cleaning my desk. I ramped up only about the time I was supposed to make dinner for the family. That was frustrating. Once the kids were in bed, I would start writing again, around 10 pm, and keep going until about 4 am.
I was in my forties then. Now I’m 60, and I no longer can write much past midnight.
Where do you work? Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
I write in my home office. In Toronto, that’s a corner of my living room. In Fredericton, I have a separate room in my apartment. When I rewrite or edit, there’s no place better than the Toronto subway system. For some reason, I can completely focus (as long as I get a seat). Sometimes I’m so absorbed I miss my stop.
Worst source of distraction?
Emails. When it gets really bad, I have to shut the system down.
Best source of inspiration?
Most recently, talking ideas over with my son, Ben, who is now 23. He’s a natural when it comes to editing, even though he doesn’t read much and has never worked in print media.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
In 2006 I fell into a clinical depression related to my work at the newspaper where I had worked for 20 years. I couldn’t write, but that was not writer’s block. It was a byproduct of my illness. I was sick for several years and could resume writing again until about 2009.
But normally, I never have writer’s block. Journalists must be able to write daily. That’s what the jour means.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Nora Ephron, Christopher Hitchens, John Burns.
Are you kidding? Too many to list, but Edgar Snow’s book, Red Star Over China inspired me to leave Montreal and go to China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. The book is now discredited as propaganda but I really loved it.
Best book about China?
Iron & Silk, the 1986 memoir by Mark Salzman about living in China as an English teacher in the 1980s. It was the first time I realized it was possible to write humorously about communism.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Dai Sijie. I love Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, his quasi-autobiographical novel about two urban youths sent to rural China during the Cultural Revolution. The story’s time period mirrored my own time in China, albeit as a foreign student from Canada.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Are you kidding? Again, too many to list. I’m just reading Pride and Prejudice, believe it or not. And my next book will be Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon because I’m going to watch a bullfight in Madrid in a few weeks.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Thank God I waited 26 years to write it. (Red China Blues, 1996). I thought I knew everything about China within a few weeks of arriving in 1972. Of course, I knew nothing, and would not figure out the country for years and years.
How did you get started writing?
As a news assistant in Beijing for The New York Times in 1979.
Does writing change anything?
Writing changes the world.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
I’ve just self-published (for the first time; long story why my longtime publisher and I split) a memoir on workplace depression and am still extremely busy promoting it: Out of the Blue—A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness.
Posted: Monday, June 10, 2013