Sarah Hampson switches on her small, black digital recorder and is greeted with the sound of her own voice. It’s scratchy and accompanied by static as it travels through the small speaker. She’s playing back an interview with Roméo Dallaire. She’d sat down with the retired Canadian lieutenant-general a few weeks prior to discuss the release of his latest book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, about the prevalence of child soldiers and his desire to eradicate their use.
“How did you find it?” Dallaire’s inquisitive voice floods out of the recorder, filling Hampson’s living room.
“I know in the past,” Hampson begins, “that you wrote about how you were…uhh…inspired by…uhh…the…umm…the, the…author…sorry, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry…”
She briefly stumbles on her words—not because she hasn’t read the book or isn’t a skilled interviewer. It’s just that Hampson’s used to asking all the questions.
At 52, the award-winning magazine and newspaper writer has sat down with more than 500 of the world’s most interesting people, from the audacious Hugh Hefner and the insightful Leonard Cohen to the difficult Peter O’Toole. For over 10 years Hampson has created clever character studies in a weekly slot in The Globe and Mail—once known as “The Hampson Interview,” but now simply called “The Interview.” She also wrote “Generation Ex,” a relationship and divorce column that garnered as many fans as it did detractors, and “Currency,” a weekly feature about the way Canadians spend money.
Now, after a few transitional years in her work and personal life, she’s agreed to be profiled for the first time in her 18-year career. “If you want to come to my house, you know, for some colour for your story, that would be fine,” she says the first time we meet, laughing and sipping the foam of her latte at the Starbucks she frequents near the Globe’s Toronto headquarters. “Or, I can even take you for a ride in my crappy PT Cruiser. I know how this works.”
Few reporters would disagree. Although she often refers to herself as “an accidental journalist,” Hampson has made a reputation as one of the country’s most talented profile writers, translating face-to-face impressions into words and unveiling an insightful portrait of each subject.
But in the process, what portrait of herself does she reveal?
Hampson sits on a white couch in the living room of her Toronto home. There is a miniature crystal replica of her memoir, Happily Ever After Marriage, poised on the mantel. A stack of magazines and photocopied clippings she’s accumulated over the years are on the coffee table, including issues of Toronto Life, Saturday Night and Report on Business with her byline in the pages. She sets down her glass of red wine and sifts through a stack of yearbooks on her lap. “Oh, these are so funny!” Hampson’s infectious laugh shakes her tall frame as she points to a basketball team photograph. “Oh, there I am in my uniform!” she says with a smile. “Oh, God.”
Born in Montréal from a long line of proud Anglo-Montréalers, Hampson was sandwiched in the middle of five children. Her father worked for a multinational company and the family moved frequently: from Montréal to Toronto to Switzerland, back to Montréal, to Vancouver and back to Montréal again. Often an outsider, she was forced to observe and deconstruct her new classmates and surroundings.
In spite of the frequent relocation, Hampson was close to both her grandmothers. In her memoir, she writes of her paternal grandmother’s particularly strong presence: Seated at the head of the dining room table, beneath a large portrait of herself in a black silk gown, she would say to her husband, “Buster, the portrait light is not on”—prompting him to get up from the opposite end of the table and walk over to turn the switch, illuminating the picture.
Yet in Hampson’s own family, her father was very much the patriarch; her mother catered to his needs and cared for the children. In Hampson’s memoir, she recalls a family portrait, taken in 1967, of her mother with the five children seated around her. Her father was not in the photograph—it was meant to signify the domestic realm.
Growing up, Hampson developed an interest in reading and writing. A high-school friend, Barb McKinnon, recently reminded her, “You know, Sarah, you’ve been talking about wanting to be a writer since you were like 15.” Hampson attended Smith College, a famously feminist liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts, with a celebrated alumni register boasting names such as Julia Child and Nancy Reagan. It was the late ’70s and feminism’s second wave vibrated through the campus. It was, Hampson says, an “intense” time.
“It’s not that I defined myself as a feminist but as a young woman. It was very compelling to be in a place where the emphasis was on a sort of intellectual life. I liked the rigour of academic, intelligent people.” Hampson studied English literature and was a serious painter. Toward the back of the 1979 Smith yearbook, her photograph fills the page. Paintbrush and palette in hand, she focuses on the easel and canvas in front of her, radiating youth and serenity. She doesn’t remember someone taking her photograph at the time.
Following graduation, Hampson pursued a career in advertising as a copywriter, and later a creative director. She worked at firms in London, England; Halifax; and Toronto. Despite the feminist backdrop of her education, and the critical judgements she’d placed on her mother’s domestic role, Hampson was married by the age of 25 and gave birth to three sons within four and a half years.
In 1990, following the birth of her third son, Luke, she left advertising. But soon after quitting her job, she became restless. She thought about reinventing herself and realized that magazine writing could be the outlet. While it’s clear she adores her three boys, she says she was never the “go-to-the-park, cookie-making mom.”
A year later, Hampson submitted a piece to the Globe’s “Facts & Arguments” page and scored her first byline. Using the opportunity as a stepping stone, she began to look—really look—at magazines, to figure out the types of stories they wanted. Hampson began by synchronizing her writing ambitions with an interest in interior design, and wrote a couple of design stories for Canadian Houseand Home and Toronto Life. But she was itching to attach her byline to bigger stories.
After reading the cover story about Toronto Blue Jays player Roberto Alomar in the May 1993 issue of Toronto Life—the same issue Hampson’s design piece appeared in—her inner profile writer was inspired. She recalls the writer describing Alomar’s actions in the piece, and she remembers thinking: “That’s what I do; I think about how people are. Maybe I can do this.”
Dallaire’s voice is delicate and hard to make out. Hampson holds up the recorder to project the muffled sound. He’s speaking about the extreme post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers from, a result of his time spent serving as commander of the United Nations forces during the Rwandan genocide. Hampson’s voice is direct but gentle.
“Do you look back on that time and does it seem incredible to have gotten through it now, all these years later?” she asks Dallaire.
“It was hell.”
“How many years ago was that all now?”
“Sixteen. But it’s not really 16…It happened this morning.”
Hampson pushes the pause button on the recorder.
“Still, it gives me goosebumps just listening to it.”
John Macfarlane remembers the first time Hampson walked into his office. He’d recently stepped into the role of Toronto Life’s editor. Hampson was sending him feature pitch after feature pitch—each unacknowledged. One morning, after seeing a newspaper photo of former prime minister Kim Campbell performing a line dance, Hampson sent in yet another pitch. This time, Macfarlane called her.
When they met, he immediately responded to her ambition. “She really wanted to prove that she could write, and I wanted to give her that chance,” says Macfarlane, now editor of The Walrus. The resulting story was called “Scenes from a Hogtown Western”—a piece on Toronto’s country music and line-dancing scene. Not only did it make the cover, but it was nominated for a 1993 National Magazine Award in the one-of-a-kind category. “After that, I was sort of this golden person John gave a lot of work to,” Hampson says. “He would say, ‘OK, try this and try that, and why don’t you go do a profile on so-and-so?’”
As her list of assignments grew, so did her inimitable style—a lyricism of informed conclusion, you might call it. Macfarlane says it is Hampson’s acute observations combined with her novelistic approach to non-fiction that make her work so successful. But when asked about her process, Hampson is surprisingly nonchalant. “It’s a crapshoot, profile writing,” she says, pushing a piece of hair that has fallen from her dishevelled ponytail behind her ear. “You have to be open to see where it will take you.”
Hampson’s profiles have taken her to some far-flung places: from the streets of Chicago with NBA hall-of-famer Isiah Thomas, to Toronto’s high-society circuit with Anne-Marie Sten; from a jaunt to the Playboy mansion with Hef, to the quaint English home of reclusive author Norman Levine. She researches and prepares tirelessly, but it’s the unpredictability of the profile that drives her. It’s not until she actually meets the person, she says, that she can develop a take-away—a deeper understanding based on their time spent together. “People are such interesting beings; there are so many things going on with them—what happened today, what happened yesterday, what they’re here to speak to you about, what their background is, what they’re going to do tomorrow. All you can do is say, ‘I’m putting my lens on you right now,’ and pick up all that information.”
At times, Hampson’s lens has been unforgiving, magnifying an unflattering character trait or taking aim at easy targets. In a particularly scathing piece on figure skater and So You Think You Can Dance Canada contestant Emanuel Sandhu, Hampson wrote: “With a personality that’s as loud and cheesy as a skating costume, he unabashedly documents his life of hard knocks and is quick to spout aphorisms as though convinced they hold the secret to his ascendancy.”
Readers were quick to fill the online comments section after the November 2009 article, “So Emanuel Sandhu thinks he can dance (and skate, sing and model),” was published. “This piece seems unnecessarily cruel. What’s the point?” asked one reader. Another wrote, “I have been an admirer of Hampson’s interviewing skills for many years, so it was shock that coursed through my system as I read her humiliating, cruel and immature article on Emanuel.”
In a later article summing up her interviews of 2009, Hampson acknowledged the readers’ complaints about the piece. She wrote that she felt sympathy for Sandhu as he described his difficult childhood, but at a certain point he started to seem self-serving. “It was as if he wanted attention no matter how he got it—even through pity. So I wrote an unflattering profile. It’s not my job to be someone’s publicity agent and tell them what to say and what not to,” wrote Hampson.
“She forms her own opinions about people,” says Macfarlane. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her go out of her way to be unkind to anybody or nasty to anybody, but neither do I think she’s easily conned.”
Hampson’s hour-long interview with Dallaire was held in a lifeless boardroom—as many of her interviews are—at Random House Canada, the publisher of his book. Promotion was the agenda, but Hampson was interested in another topic: Omar Khadr, the Toronto-born child soldier convicted of war crimes. At the time of the interview, Khadr’s trial had come to its controversial end in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 after throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier. Hampson saw an opportunity to get Dallaire’s comments on the matter, especially given the subject of his book. But she also knew she couldn’t profile Dallaire without delving into his past, without addressing the struggles he’s faced as a result of his experiences in Rwanda.
Hampson began by asking about the book, which led into the Khadr discussion and Dallaire’s disappointment in how Canada handled the issue. Emboldened, she started asking more difficult, personal questions. And that’s when he opened up. She wrote of the tension in his eyes: “A fragile but determined wish for the beauty of humanity is sparring with a memory of its evil that he can never hope to fully erase.” Of all the stories written after Dallaire’s promotional interviews, Hampson says hers was the only one to get at the haunting effects of his past and how they inform his thoughts and opinions today.
“What sets the interview column apart is Sarah’s willingness to go off-message and take her subject off-message,” says Kevin Siu, editor of the Globe’s Life section, where Hampson’s columns appear. “What she gets isn’t just the same line they would give to everyone else.”
In 2007, six years after her marriage fell apart, Hampson pitched “Generation Ex,” an intensely personal column about the social contagion of divorce and “ghost fathers” who fade from their children’s lives post-breakup, something her ex- husband is guilty of, she writes. As the Globe’s divorce expert, Hampson generated a readership large enough to encourage the column’s three-year lifespan and her subsequent memoir, Happily Ever After Marriage, published in 2010.
But the column also sparked fierce debate. Hampson says she’s been called everything from resentful to an all-out man-hater. “The topic is a touchy one,” acknowledges Siu. “Her columns are informed by her view and her world, what she had gone through and what readers and authors have gone through; anyone who writes about themselves opens themselves up to criticism.”
In November 2007, Hampson wrote a column called “Still single after 40? Sounds suspicious,” in which she suggested it is better to be divorced than over 40 and never married. Many readers took Hampson’s argument to task. One wrote, “Normally, Sarah, I can see your point of view and often I even agree with you. But this time I think you’re way off base. Better to have a crappy first marriage just to look good later on, than to hold out for the real thing? Ay carumba.”
Such criticism has been echoed by some of Hampson’s peers. Wendy Dennis, a journalist who has written extensively on relationships and divorce—she authored the controversial 1996Toronto Life story “The Divorce from Hell”—finds Hampson’s writing on divorce “deeply conflicted.” What’s particularly troubling, she says, is that Hampson claims her divorce taught her many lessons but also seems to view it as the most shameful failure of her life. “Hampson is a deft enough writer to anticipate and deflect criticisms, but she never truly grapples in a forthright or pitiless way with her own messy, unresolved feelings,” says Dennis, who also blogs about divorce for The Huffington Post.
When Hampson met the man who would be her husband for 18 years and the father of her three children, he was married to another woman with whom he had three children. Hampson was the other woman. He would leave his wife to be with her; he was also 13 years older than Hampson.
In both her column and memoir, undertones of bitterness find their way into Hampson’s writing. For example, she writes in her memoir, “When the house went up on the market, [my ex-husband] was unavailable to help clear out the debris from our 18 years of marriage. I filled the car with old clothes and unwanted household items to drop at Goodwill. I packed boxes of his books for him to collect. He came several times to the house and perused its contents, as though in a shopping mall, contemplating what to purchase.”
Soon after their divorce, Hampson’s ex-husband married again. A year into his new marriage, he and his new wife had a baby. He was 61 years old.
She speaks harshly of her ex-husband, but is thankful they had kids together, and she recalls instances of happy times.
In another excerpt from her memoir, she writes that her ex was supportive of her journalistic career as it was taking off, but over time he became uneasy with the idea, thinking she was growing away from him. “I was doing something that was different from what he knew, meeting people beyond those we socialized with as a couple. ‘I don’t want to be Mr. Hampson,’ he said once.”
Hampson shared similar examples from the relationship in her column for three years. While they help to reveal a portrait of her ex-husband, Dennis says she wonders if such criticism and venting is an indication that Hampson has yet to sort out her own feelings. “If you’re going to tackle subjects as primal and psychologically complex as marriage and divorce, you have to be able to confront your feelings, however uncomfortable, impolitic or distasteful they may be; otherwise, they will creep into your writing unconsciously, and create a dissonance between what you think you’re communicating and what you actually are,” says Dennis.
But Hampson, on the other hand, explains she was writing on divorce because the material was at her fingertips, and that the years past had given her enough distance from the chaos. “I’m not embarrassed about using my life experiences, and whatever wisdom I may have achieved in tandem with the thoughts of other people I know, and that of experts. Why can’t we talk about this?”
After talking about it for three years, Hampson was ready to leave “Generation Ex” behind. She was looking to transition from writing about divorce while continuing to cover marriage and relationships, but in a broader sense. And so, she’s launched her happiness column. Her mother, Joan Hampson, summarizes the shift: “Her new column is on happiness—and now she’s happy.” Dennis finds the change “striking,” and suggests that Hampson’s final “Generation Ex” column—“I was happily divorced…and then I met someone”—sends a message that she never appears to be truly comfortable or complete without a man in her life.
About a month before the release of her book, Hampson met Mark Raynes Roberts, a Toronto-based crystal artist and designer. They were both dateless at a dinner party and have been “inseparable” ever since.
Hampson acknowledges that being in a better place in her life played a part in her work’s transition. “Mark is a lovely man, a stable force in my life, and was I lonely? Yeah, I was lonely,” Hampson admits. “Was I rabidly out looking for a mate? No. It was a wonderful, sort of serendipitous affirmation that things happen in life. So writing a happiness column wasn’t because of him, but it certainly helped. I was very, very ready to move on.”
Dallaire’s voice is shaky and hesitant on the recording. He tells Hampson that just a smell, a sound or a discussion can bring him back to that place. Hampson asks whether it is hard to be around veterans and people who remind him of that time.
“They aren’t the people that make it difficult…It’s the people that don’t understand…”
“I started to realize that I was making it difficult for him,” Hampson explains. She says she immediately switched her focus and asked him about a mutual acquaintance. She didn’t need to push any further; she’d gotten what she needed.
She turns off the recorder and walks around her kitchen, putting a quiche into the oven for Mark and herself, and sorting through her mail. Her sons’ gst cheques are amongst the pile and she puts them to the side. Her three boys are dotted around the globe—Ireland, Halifax and a short drive away—and are undeniably one of the biggest parts of her life. The stairwell of her home is lined with black-and-white photographs of family, generations past and present.
“If I saw the common denominator between everything I do, I think that it’s really my interest in human psychology, in human emotion, in what makes us who we are, including myself.”
And with that final revelation, Sarah Hampson turns the portrait light off.