Tracy Quan
The creator of call-girl Nancy Chan speaks about her work and her former career
It seems like an obvious statement: hookers are people too. Yet when I mention that Tracy Quan, former call girl and author of Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl: A Nancy Chan Novel and I have a few similarities in our backgrounds (parental links to Trinidad, similar observations on race and gender issues, and of course writing), there is the occasional response: what could you have in common with a call girl?

And there lies the problem. It's true that, as a culture, we tend to define people by their jobs. But when it comes to the sex industry, we allow ourselves to define a person's entire character, past and present, by what they do.

When Quan's Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl serial first appeared on Salon in mid-1999, I instantly became a Nancy Chan fan. With a tone owing more to Sex and the City than Pretty Woman or any other hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story, Quan allowed us to enter the world of high-priced hooking without robbing Nancy of her mildly quirky, occasionally neurotic humanity.

While working on a review of the novel (released this summer by Crown Publishers) for January Magazine, I got in touch with Quan and she consented to an e-mail interview. Her practical and honest insights, a welcome change from the idealistic and didactic tones that often characterize either side of sex-related discussion, was a breath of fresh air. I hope you enjoy reading our conversation as much as I did having it.

Emru Townsend: Are you still hooking?

Tracy Quan: Emotionally speaking, I had to put my career as a call girl on the back burner. I tell myself it's still an option. But it probably isn't--because of the demands on my time, now that I'm so involved with writing. It's not just the time but the energy--to be a professional, with-it call girl, you have to be so many things: serene, ambitious, well-rested, hard-working, patient, alert. And sexy. You have to have your wits about you all the time. When you're a writer with a deadline, when you're promoting a book, responding to the needs and moods of the media machine, you cannot just run right out and turn a trick and be all those wonderful things at the drop of a hat. As a writer, you have to give quite a lot of yourself to your career and to your readers. I have found that I cannot do both because both professions are so demanding of my time and energy. There are also privacy issues and I feel that, by putting the business behind me, I am respecting the privacy of my former clients.

That's in line with one theme I noticed throughout the book. While most people think of anything related to sex as an emotional, hot-blooded issue, call girls have to regard it with the same discipline as any small-business owner; Nancy has every aspect of her job meticulously thought out, balancing client satisfaction with practicality. Have readers been surprised at the level of organization the job requires?

I like that question. As a grandchild of Chinese shopkeepers, I felt I was "returning to my roots" by going into business for myself. Even though I certainly did not want my grandparents to know I was turning tricks, I identified with them. My grandfather sold condensed milk in large quantities, my grandmother made and sold black pudding.

I say this because the trend in my family is for my generation to go into some sort of salaried profession where you draw a paycheck and a lot of organizing is done by a support staff. I rejected that. It's hard work being your own madam, running your own "shop"--but I loved it and took a lot of pride in doing it my way. There's a bit of show biz in shopkeeping, you see. On a good day, you can feel like a bit of a star. But there's a mundane side, too.

Some readers love the "backstage" details--for them, it's like reading Airport with naughty bits. Or Kitchen Confidential, though nowhere near as gross. (By the way, I loved Kitchen Confidential and I credit Anthony Bourdain with pushing me to be a little braver. I've never met him but I read his book while I was writing the novel.)

Some readers hate the fact that I explore the prostitute's job in detail. I've been accused of writing stuff that is "insufficiently dirty," cynical--even soulless. But my mission is to describe what sex is like when you have the soul of a shopkeeper. A professional call girl is not so much a sex worker as a shopkeeper.

Of course, some call girls (like Nancy's best friend Allison) are in rebellion against the shopkeeper role--they want to be social heroes, erotic saints, reformed love objects... you name it. Anything but a sexual bean counter because, of course, heroes, saints and the reformed are automatically seen as soulful.

Some very ambitious readers tell me they see my novel as a how-to for wannabe hookers. That was never my intention! But the professional details are accurate.

Was the opening scene of the novel created specifically to advance that mission?

The opening scene was conceived under a cabbage patch and delivered by the stork. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Although I'd been prepared by reading the Salon serial, I was still struck by how it took one of a guy's hottest fantasies--two girls at once--and immediately poked holes in it by exposing the artifice. It wasn't really "dirty," and it was of course cynical, but I wouldn't call it soulless. Honest, maybe. Hilarious, certainly.

I hope I conveyed that just because you aren't feeling lustful or vulnerable during sex, this doesn't mean you have no feelings. Nancy feels a workmanlike pride during that scene--when she thinks she's really cooking, as it were. It's a daily emotion, not a major one--it's not the feeling she would have if she met the guy who was about to change her life forever. It's not the feeling a writer has when she turns in her first book manuscript. It's a small scale sense of accomplishment, like the feeling you might have when you think you've done a good job editing a difficult paragraph. Nancy has those feelings when she's working, when she's turning a trick and meeting her own standard of excellence.

And I don't think that's cynical. Nancy is counting on her friend (Allison) to do the job properly. This involves a certain degree of trust between two girls who could also be competitors. If she just went into the session expecting the other girl to be untrustworthy--now that would be cynical. Perhaps, if you see only artifice in that situation, perhaps that's cynical.

I was thinking more of the three players' acknowledgement of the falsity of the scene. Maybe "cynical" was too strong a word.

Maybe! But I think it's fine that you used it--helps me to figure out what I really think!

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Photo credit: Hugh Loebner
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