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Interview with a Sex Trade Novelist
by Allan Vorda
There has always been an interest in society's "oldest profession," yet despite our fascination with prostitution, for most people it's a life only visible from the periphery. Tracy Quan offers an inside look at this mysterious world in her Nancy Chan novels: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl and Diary of a Married Call Girl. The author spent at least fifteen years as a call girl in New York, but completely transforms her experience on the page: readers can't figure out what is real and what is fiction.
Quan was raised in Canada, but ran away from her mother during a trip through Europe. At fourteen, while living in London with a boyfriend, she decided to become a prostitute and turned her first trick—an American salesman—in a West End hotel known for its bar scene. Eventually, she moved back to New York where she connected with a group of Upper East Side madams and their wealthy clientele.
Readers in search of titillation might find more of this on the book covers than between the pages. There's definitely a lot of sex, but the main ingredient in Quan's novels is humor. Nancy Chan's daily life is a roller coaster of emotional events and challenges: trying to satisfy a variety of "johns" on a tight schedule; trying to handle two neurotic relationships with her best friends, Allison and Jasmine; weighing the merits of participating in a hooker's movement; meeting with Wendy, her psychotherapist; and juggling her career during her engagement (and subsequent marriage) to an investment banker.
With her novels finding a devoted readership, it appears Quan's second career as a writer will be just as rewarding as her first.
Allan Vorda: For those who don't know anything about you, perhaps you can give a brief history of your background. What is your ethnicity, where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?
Tracy Quan: As for ethnicity, I feel connected to Derek Walcott's Shabine: "Either I'm nobody or I'm a nation." I am a product of Trinidad, but not born there. It seems almost pretentious for a middle class call girl who can pass for Chinese to identify with Walcott's mulatto sailor, but this is where I am right now, on the question of ethnic identity.
I see myself as post-ethnic—my family is so multi-ethnic, there is nothing to be but post-ethnic. To some extent, my mother could be described as Chinese, but really my parents are just Trinidadians, and this doesn't indicate ethnicity. Whatever one has guessed from my books is slightly wrong—my mother isn't Indian—and I'm not sure it's even necessary for me to have an ethnicity. Like Nancy Chan, I look Chinese because I have some Chinese ancestors, and I have passed for Chinese in a country (the U.S.) where everybody wants to categorize you ethnically. But here is my issue with this question and with American culture in general: my identity has nothing to do with ethnicity, it's regional.
I still see myself as a small-town chick romancing the big city. My parents moved to Canada when I was three—they're Caribbean and I think they felt more comfortable in Canada than the U.S. They spent some time here, my mother went to college in Massachusetts, but they never felt able to put down roots in the U.S.
I grew up in Ottawa, the unnamed "quiet city" in the Nancy Chan novels. I wanted to describe it without naming it because there are preconceptions about Ottawa, just as there are about prostitutes. However, a Canadian war reporter recently told me that Ottawa produces people with tremendous ambition—he's from Toronto where they tend to deride Ottawa, so he wasn't just shilling for Ottawa reflexively. His theory: it's the center of Canadian reality; no matter how small it is, you have a sense of owning something quite large and you can develop ambitions that are out of proportion to "reality." My theory: There's nothing to do there but think. And think. About what you are going to do when you get out of Ottawa. And so you have this driving ambition to create your own reality.
I grew up in the centre of town—a safe, short bus ride away from Parliament. My friends from the Ottawa 'burbs don't share this view but I feel very lucky to have spent my childhood years there. I was surrounded by the values of bilingualism—I received my first kiss, on the cheek, from a French-Canadian boy of eight (I was seven). He was amazingly chaste and he lived next door. There was a strong awareness of human rights. Homophobia was taboo. Everybody I knew was politically aware, and many were politically committed. It was provincial and international at the same time.
It could be very frustrating growing up in this backwater where everything seemed to shut down at 10 pm. Our parents felt safe raising kids in such a small, easy city but you could still see a Shaw play or Marcel Marceau at the National Arts Centre, which happens to be located right across from Byward Market. The Market was Ottawa's red light district when I was a kid and, as far as I know, still is. It's conveniently located—right near Parliament Hill. At some point, in the '80s, wicked yuppies tried to eliminate streetwalkers and they didn't really succeed. As kids, we all knew that something racy went down in the Market, and we also knew that our parents thought it was a normal fact of life.
AV: You became a prostitute, or sex-worker as you prefer to be called, at the age of fourteen. Your protagonist, Nancy Chan, says she made her decision at the age of ten. When and how did you arrive at this decision? What do you recall from your experiences in London when you first started turning tricks?
TQ: In Diary of a Married Call Girl, I delved into those London years a lot more. Nancy has an experience that closely mirrors my own: Trying to make it as a prostitute, not being taken seriously, trying to warn the agency about the police. The downfall of a more experienced person helps her to come into her own, her growth as a prostitute is a bittersweet thing.
I was a runaway, living with my boyfriend, very eager to have some financial independence. I had always daydreamed about being a prostitute, and London is a city where you can certainly explore that. There are people from all over the world buying and selling sex. It's invigorating.
I found out from the internet that one of the nightclubs where I hustled champagne is still in business, operating with a more cleaned-up identity—not as a hostess club but as a normal cocktail lounge. That freaked me out! I recently went back to London for a book launch, and I wandered around Soho one night just to see what was going on. There you have the sex trade sharing the street with restaurants and grocery shops and other businesses. I saw a girl on Wardour Street standing in a doorway brushing her hair, wearing something black and sexy. She was talking into a speaker system, perhaps to the club manager. I had this urge to go up to her and say, "I used to be a part of all this!"; I didn't, of course. I was wearing jeans and black sneakers and probably looked like a total tourist—but what else do you wear when you want to walk around and take in the city? It was a strange feeling. I almost felt sad to be cut off from whatever she was experiencing.
In London, I mostly worked in Mayfair and other parts of town. I never actually worked in the Soho clubs, but I did apply for jobs there when I was trying to break into prostitution. And I did one shift at a Soho sex shop, where I was really not good enough at pushing the product. So I feel a certain connection to the area. And that neighborhood gives you an immediate sense of a pure, distilled, undisguised sex trade.
AV: When you arrived in New York, how did you become associated with the escort agencies that provided the inspiration for your work?
TQ: I'm glad you asked this. Yes, I worked for escort agencies and I worked for madams, but I invented Liane, Jeannie's Dream Dates, and all the characters who appear in the Nancy Chan novels. (Needless to say, I also invented Nancy.) While my characters are sociologically accurate, they are creatures of my imagination.
I have friends who feel they can recognize Liane, but that's why fiction exists: we can get lost in it and lose our own sense of what's "real"—back to that question, perhaps, of people from small but significant cities thinking they can re-invent reality.
Liane's enterprise may resemble an agency, but a person like Liane, a private madam in New York, wouldn't call her business an agency. She might not call it anything at all, out of some desire to remain vague and unknowable. So that's one of the first differences. You learn to stop calling things a name, so explicitly. And you learn to conduct your business in a more nuanced way.
Another big difference is that we didn't ask for the money upfront. It's humanizing for everybody concerned—customer, prostitute, madam—to know that there's some trust and self-respect; the madam who "owns" these customers will pay you from her own pocket if something goes wrong. That's how I learned to appreciate the meaning of ownership. It's a two-way street. Escort services cannot afford to make those guarantees. They deal with strangers and you must share the risk with the agency.
AV: Your first novel portrays a hectic lifestyle of exercising, shopping, meeting your clients, conversing with your fellow workers, and meeting friends for drinks. Describe a typical day as a prostitute in New York.
TQ: In the Nancy Chan novels, I want to describe a prostitute's "typical" day without being too linear. I hope I've succeeded. My days were not always filled with adventure—on a good day, your customers are predictable, they show up on time and you can change out of your black femme fatale stockings into your schoolgirl outfit without being forced to rush any of your clients. Adventurous days might also be catastrophic!
AV: Give an example of your best and worst experience with a john.
TQ: This may sound like a Pollyanna position, but I don't see anyone as the Best or Worst. I look at this patchwork of tricks that I turned and feel that my understanding of men and business, of life in general, has benefited from every one of them. Even the more unappealing or dangerous customers who did not merit a repeat visit.
AV: In a superb interview with Laura Buchwald, you state: "The irony is that people talk about the exploitation of women in prostitution, but there is far more emotional exploitation going on in that grey realm of casual sex." Can you expound on this?
TQ: Have you read Amy Sohn? When she published her second novel, we had a lively conversation about sexual mores. She told me, "Women should be having orgasms when they have casual sex." I disagreed. If a woman has a really intense orgasm the first time she's with a man, she'll want to hear from him the next day. And, if he's feeling casual, she might not hear from him for three weeks! Casual sex should be like a handshake—most people do not have an orgasm each time they shake someone's hand, and therefore they don't agonize about the outcome of this handshake.
Men seem to feel that "getting off" means they "got some." How many women really see an orgasm as an adequate reward for sex? Sometimes, an orgasm makes us want MORE from the man: he owes us a phone call or a love letter of some sort— whether it's a text message extolling your beauty or email asking for another date. I really think that sex without love—without any hint of love—is unfulfilling unless there's money changing hands. And that's my particular bias.
Some people want to look at orgasms as a form of currency, but this isn't like striving for equal pay. It's more complicated. If orgasms ARE a form of currency, men and women are coming in different currencies. The exchange rate isn't always fair.
AV: What would happen when someone would ask you out for a date and didn't know what you did for a living? Did you ever tell anyone you were dating about your background?
TQ: The real problem isn't what to say to guys when they ask you out. The deeper problem is this: whatever turns a john into a regular—qualities that make you successful as a call girl—will also attract boyfriends. But this creates enormous tension between love and work. I was a relationship-magnet throughout my career because I loved being a love object. I did well during the months of pseudo-celibacy—no boyfriends, lots of business—and I wanted to be a sexually active spinster. Desperately but not, perhaps, sincerely, because I ended up juggling love and business for most of my career. I look back and realize I was thriving on that tension; my personal life was filled with sizzle and drama. Oh, and some of these partners knew I was still working. But that's almost incidental. Prostitutes have to be incredibly self-centered in order to survive and succeed. I sometimes think we barely notice how our boyfriends are feeling—it's all about us and how WE feel about their feelings. I was the worst kind of drama queen, a real brat in my dealings with men. Prostitutes are sometimes very spoiled, taking for granted the adulation, attention, desire from others, that many human beings long for but don't have. I think I've learned to be more appreciative of this.
AV: Have you ever had an embarrassing moment when you ran into a client in public?
TQ: Why would I be embarrassed? Most men who pay for sex are compartmentalized—a bit like prostitutes. They're old-fashioned. The world isn't some giant hot tub for these guys; it's more like a government office building with distinct floors and departments. If they run into you when you're with another man, they will look the other way.
But sure, I was always spotting my customers around town. In fact, some clients are titillated by the fact that your worlds might collide. It is just second nature not to say anything to each other.
AV: Why don t prostitutes kiss their clients?
TQ: As Gypsy Rose Lee might say, "You've gotta have a gimmick." For Nancy Chan, it's a professional challenge to be warm and affectionate without being sloppy.
If you take pride in that, you want to avoid kissing. Many prostitutes feel that kissing on the job shows a lack of imagination or character. There's something undisciplined and lazy about letting all those clients have a kiss. It's far more interesting to keep them coming back in the hopes that they might, one day, pierce the professional veil and steal the prostitute's forbidden fruit.
AV: There are scenes in your books that discuss some of Nancy's clients having unprotected oral sex with her. Isn't this dangerous, and stressful, considering the possibility of contracting an STD?
TQ: In my experience, women are more likely to see men as vectors of disease than the reverse. So there's this heterosexual double standard: You can put a condom on your customer for oral sex, but he wants to reciprocate without a barrier. Men love to perform oral sex with prostitutes because they sense that we're always, you know, prepared for it—we like to shower a lot. Anyway, not all direct contact is equally unsafe.
The biggest problem for many isn't STDs or HIV, which can be easily avoided, but cold viruses. There's a lot more stress from worrying about whether you are coming down with the common cold—which condoms won't protect you from. If you have a cold, you might not work for a week. You can fall behind financially. That's a realistic and constant fear.
AV: I've heard you say that once a prostitute starts getting older, her choices are to become a madam or quit. You said you weren't cut out to be a madam and so you became a writer. What happens to those prostitutes who don't become madams?
TQ: There's a character in my first novel who wants to become a social worker, and her sugar-daddy wants her to be an interior decorator; those are both viable careers for an ex-hooker. But an arrest record's an asset in social work, whereas it could be an embarrassment for a decorator.
Prostitutes talk about "getting older" when they hit 26! But many are still working in their 40s, and have what it takes to stay at the party long after others have left. Age is an issue, just as it is for athletes and singers. But prostitutes over 30 are often earning more than they did in their 20s—it's not just inflation, it's about getting better at your game.
Only a small number become madams. Many get married to some lucky breadwinner and have a few kids. Quite a few go into another service profession. There are ex-prostitutes in every walk of life, doing all kinds of things. Computer programmers, dog-walkers, doctors, beauticians, domestic workers, brokers, you name it. An alarming number have turned to writing. I'm not sure that's the sanest option, but I really couldn't think of anything else to do.
AV: Are you still turning tricks? If not, did you just stop cold-turkey or gradually? It seems it would be hard to completely stop something you have been doing for at least fifteen years, especially when you have a clientele you have been meeting regularly for a long time.
TQ: Oh, I just drifted away from it, I never told myself I was stopping. That would be much too decisive!
In the sex workers' movement, we argue about whether prostitution is a job or an identity. And my second novel is one prostitute's response to this. Nancy sees it as a job; her best friend Allison sees it as a cause. How can you give up your job if it's your identity? Diary of a Married Call Girl has a double-meaning. It's about Nancy's marriage to Matt, but it's also about Nancy being married to her job.
At 17, I found that being in love made me unfaithful to my job and I felt very torn. But I decided that I was married to my work and nothing was going to come between us. I'm still married to my work, but my second marriage is my writing career. I had an amicable no-fault divorce from my first career when I moved out of prostitution into writing. And finally, I can have a love life that doesn't make me feel unfaithful to my job. That's a wonderful new romantic ball game for me. While some of my peers are settling down, having kids, and feeling less romantic about life, I'm enjoying some of the emotional vistas I turned away from as a teenager. I'm glad I waited this long to feel like a teenager and I have no regrets about the past. But I also have no desire to turn back.
AV: How did you become a writer? Did you contact a publisher with the concept for your novel or had you been working on a manuscript for a long time?
TQ: Nancy Chan first appeared on Salon.com, where I was writing two episodes a week, and her story unfolded like a Victorian serial. She had just started dating Matt, the banker she eventually marries. But these were early days for that relationship. When the column took off, editors and agents started emailing me. I had spent a few years trying to publish other kinds of books. Basically, the net made it possible for me to break into an older medium—book publishing. People take this for granted now—think of all the bloggers who are getting book deals. But this was pre-blog, 1999.
AV: Have you ever read Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa"? The short story has a female graduate student getting paid by men to discuss the deep meaning of literature when they are unable to have intelligent conversations with their wives.
TQ: I'm a huge Woody Allen fan. I recall that "The Whore of Mensa" was a cute piece of writing, but perhaps a little dated. My favorite prostitute in a Woody Allen vehicle is Shawn, the call girl in Husbands and Wives—one of his best movies, I think. Shawn isn't central like the prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite, but she left a strong impression on me. In Husbands and Wives, a man is caught between two archetypes—his castrating, intellectual wife and a nurturing, soft-hearted bimbo who doesn't read Simone de Beauvoir. He wants to love this sweet young girl, but he just can't. He mistreats her, is profoundly cruel to her, and returns to the coldness of his marriage. In order to respect his partner, he needs that castration element which his young girlfriend cannot provide. There's all this peer pressure from his friends to reject the bimbo because they barely understand that she's actually human. It's almost like a form of racism and it's tragic to see him coming to terms with how stunted he is. The woman who stands outside this dichotomy is the prostitute—she's insightful and realistic, so she's not a bimbo, but she's capable of kindness, and she's not about castration. In theory, this kind of woman could be the solution because she contains elements of both archetypes, but she's The Outsider. It's a really sharp commentary on what's going on between men and women in certain circles. I think that's more relevant to us now than "The Whore of Mensa."
AV: What writers do you like and what is a typical writing day for you?
TQ: I seem to get a lot of work done at two in the morning. On the rare occasions when I can get to my desk by 8 am, I feel quite virtuous, and I aspire to the bourgeois life that Flaubert famously recommends for writers, but I have some issues with the hours. (That said, I can rise with the lark, no problem, when I'm on a media tour.)
I'm a big admirer of A. A. Milne and of Colette, though I'm not very interested in Colette's animal stories. I much prefer Milne's approach to animals—his characters were based on stuffed toys, but they grow on you and become quite complex as you get older. I first read him as a child, of course. Milne also wrote about London actresses and party girls; his other work has been eclipsed by the children's books, but these novels and essays are delightful. He was always playful, but Chloe Marr (a novel about the 1930s) was also racy. Manhattan is my Hundred Acre Wood. Nancy Chan has a lot of Piglet in her and Allison's as naive as Winnie the Pooh. Jasmine is Rabbit, always having a "captainish" day.
While writing my second novel, I discovered Mary Stewart Cutting, an American author who died in 1924 after producing a ton of domestic fiction. When I found Some of Us Are Married at the New York Society Library, I expected just turn-of-the-century treacle. But her stories feel so modern and immediate. In More Stories of Married Life, she writes about New York suburbia circa 1900. A happily married couple reads a magazine serial together, analogous to snuggling on the couch with a video. But the relationship is dissected in excruciating detail by this dishy, insinuating narrator. In one dark tale, a traveling salesman is totally stressed out by his wife's letters. Today, these would be e-mails.
AV: Can you compare the differences of being a sexual artist with that of a literary artist? Which of the two is more satisfying?
TQ: Well, the satisfactions of physical work are more obvious—you know very soon whether you've been successful. For a writer, success is harder to define and it takes longer to find out.
AV: What percentage of your writing is fictional?
TQ: How do we measure something like this? I'm flattered when my characters and situations seem "realistic," but I invented them. And sometimes they invent themselves. Some readers try to separate the fictional from the real, but there are things which will always be unknowable. Uncertain. Up for grabs. I create characters and then I see them walking around the streets of New York.
AV: In both Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl and Diary of a Married Call Girl, there is the ongoing neurotic relationship Nancy has with her friends Jasmine and Allison. Nancy states that Jasmine sees herself "as a referee for two warring states of mind: paranoia (mine) and irrational exuberance (Allison's)." This often shows the comic-tragic lifestyle of three women in "The Life." How did you develop these fascinating characters?
TQ: In my second novel, whenever Nancy and Allison are at odds, marriage is competing with public life and social change. That's something I struggled with at one point, when I was engaged. I almost became a corporate wife, but it wasn't meant to be. And Allison is going through something akin to what I experienced when my first book was published. Suddenly I was more public than I had ever planned to be. I was also starting a new relationship and I just felt like I was in over my head.
I'm a huge fan of Bridget Jones's Diary. I'm also an activist and I subscribe to countless list-serves for prostitutes' rights. In 2001, a Dutch bank was refusing to open business accounts for sex workers, even though brothels were finally legal in the Netherlands. The Dutch prostitutes took on the bank and they got this big Dutch bank to turn their policy around! When they won their victory—a very proud moment for all—I saw the email coming in. But I had been away from my computer for three hours and I hadn't heard from my boyfriend that morning. I saw the subject header, it was huge, I cared a lot about the outcome—but the first thing I did was race to my inbox to see if a boyfriend had emailed me! Only when I saw that the new boyfriend was paying attention to me did I feel able to go and read about this historic victory for prostitutes' rights. Nancy and Allison are pretty obsessed, in a Bridget Jones manner, with boyfriends and handbags and their body mass index.
Jasmine is more than a smart-alecky side-kick, she's also the conscience of the sex industry. She can handle being alone, but she's hiding from the world and she doesn't take big emotional risks. I'm fond of Jasmine, so I suppose she has traits I admire in others. And I'm very protective of Jasmine—I've had to defend her a few times.
Whenever I meet a guy, I ask myself, would he be Nancy's boyfriend? Or Allison's? The guys who would go for Jasmine are quite special.AV: One of the great strengths of your writing is the humor, such as when Nancy thinks to herself while making love to Matt: "You're not exactly violating a sacred temple. My body is more like a boutique with flexible hours." This sounds like something Mae West might have said. How do you come up with such delicious tidbits?
TQ: Wow, well, I do admire Mae West. I'm flattered that you enjoy the humor—I'm just writing what I know.
AV: At another point Nancy is making love to Matt and thinks: "It's hard to have an orgasm when shop and temple are competing for mindshare, but I forced myself to come, by concentrating on something I'd rather not discuss." Can you reveal this secret?
TQ: I don't think Nancy is ready to reveal this. Thanks for asking though!
AV: It's also ironic at one point that Nancy is concerned that Matt might be having an affair and cheating on her. Explain the dynamics of this from a sex-worker's perspective—it seems incongruous that someone like Nancy should feel betrayed, but surely that must enter into it.
TQ: When it comes to her emotional wants and needs, Nancy is as selfish as the next person. She wants Matt for herself, she wants him to treat her a certain way, and she wants him in her corner, not catting around with other women who might distract him emotionally. What's so strange about that? If Nancy were a man who sees prostitutes on the outside and wants his wife not to have an affair, it wouldn't seem strange at all. Don't forget—Matt is essentially a sweet susceptible guy. She doesn't trust him to be as calculating as she is, or as compartmentalized.
AV: What are your thoughts about morality? Furthermore, if you are married or get married, do you want to have a faithful husband, and is it logical to expect a former sex-worker to be faithful?
TQ: Faithful compared to what? A person who is cheating on a partner can be highly aware of that partner, spend a lot of time thinking about him/her, partly to avoid getting caught. The so-called faithful type might be too lazy to look elsewhere, and might not think about his partner enough. Who's faithful? The spouse who takes marriage for granted and doesn't play around? The person who strays and stays highly attractive, while remaining an object of desire for the spouse? I think we should measure relationships not in moral terms but in terms of desire. If your partner actively wants you in his life, in her life, maybe you've been faithful after all.
I am very happily unmarried, but I'm also the jealous type. It is appalling and cruel and very wrong to disregard your partner's vanity. Especially if your partner happens to be me. A man should be as protective of a woman's ego as he can be. It goes without saying that women should do that for men, but men sometimes need to be reminded to do this for women, especially when they are tempted to confess their infidelities.
AV: How have you been received in the literary community, such as when you do a talk show or a book reading?
TQ: I haven't been heckled too much in real life. Most of the hecklers go online where it's safe.
AV: What will your next novel be about and what can your readers expect from Tracy Quan in the future?
TQ: Something enjoyable, of course. They deserve that.