Emru Townsend: The book hints at something of a caste system in the sex-for-sale industry; do you think the different kinds of artifice--for instance, that of the opening scene versus a stripper's broadcast "come hither"--help define it?
Tracy Quan: A call girl's most significant artifice might be her ability to "pass" in polite society--as a girlfriend of mine put it the other day. That is, when a call girl goes on a date to see a client at a hotel, when she's working, she blends in. Whereas other sex workers may be more blatant.
The less visible you are, the higher your rank on the sex industry ladder--from a call girl's point of view. But that's not how strippers see it. Many strippers feel that rank is defined by how much physical contact you have with customers--the less contact, the higher your status. So, here you've got this Less Is More aesthetic applied in different ways.
You've described how people outside the business have reacted to your demystifying the trade. Have you received any feedback from other working girls?
Yes. Most of my readers in the sex trade say that they recognize the double life, the emotional dilemmas --and the highly developed narcissism--of my prostitute characters. I did not want to sugarcoat that aspect of the prostitute personality. Successful hookers are incredibly narcissistic.
Nancy is a character who, even when she's suffering emotionally, wants to minimize redness, so she always weeps into a moisturized tissue. This doesn't mean her feelings are less deeply felt, mind you. The wheels of her mind are turning even while her emotions are getting the better of her. In other words, she's a complex, vain girl who can walk and chew gum at the same time--and many sex workers recognize that in themselves and in their colleagues.
One reader told me that Nancy Chan is, for women in the sex trade, what Bridget Jones must be for other kinds of women. There is more to that than meets the eye: Nancy is juggling a job and a love life, like Bridget. But she's also pondering how her feelings about men intersect with her middle class attitudes. What I loved about Bridget Jones's Diary was the often hilarious commentary on middle class angst. It's an emotional landscape that is familiar to me and to many urban prostitutes from small towns. We're exposed to extremes of wealth, to a certain kind of glamor in the big city. There's a little part of us that is still impressed--though outwardly jaded, perhaps--and I've tried to convey what that feels like.
Another reader said that she sees in the three main characters--Nancy, Allison and Jasmine--different sides of herself. I think that's because the average call girl does struggle with being her own boss and being a total flake. There's an "inner madam" and an "inner slut"--if you will--but for a prostitute, the "inner slut" is not the harbinger of liberation. She's the absentee madam, losing control of her impulses, forgetting to keep track of the time--if sex is your job and if you also like sex, the question of self-discipline is constantly nipping at your heels. Very few hookers are lucky enough to be frigid!
Prostitutes today know that things are changing--we are going through a transformation in social attitudes and in the business itself. At the turn of the last century (20th) prostitution in New York became more clandestine because the laws changed--our business was conducted more openly in the 19th century. Now we see this changing in the opposite way: prostitution is coming out into the open, there are ads everywhere in all media (except for radio which is a strangely uptight form of media in some ways). People "blame" the Internet for this but actually I think cable TV was the turning point for us in New York. The first cable TV escort ads were famously bad and not sexy--hookers used to watch them for laughs! But now the ads have actually improved, they're slicker. This made hookers a bit less invisible. Prostitution is still illegal in New York but we're visible, there are ads everywhere. And there is a mood out there--people want to see these laws changed or eliminated.
Some prostitutes see it as a boon, others find it unsettling because they've learned their trade in the clandestine subculture of the 20th century. They want things to stay private. Many working girls tell me, "Nobody knows what I do." It is still considered taboo among call girls to tell your boyfriend or your family what you do for a living. This what many prostitutes relate to when they read Nancy's story.
Nancy spends most of the book (and the serial) struggling with reconciling her straight life with Matt with the clandestine life she lives. Is this something you've also gone through?
Yes, in a different way. The men I've been in love with have usually known something about my past. But I've experimented--trying to figure out how much I want to tell. "Something" is the key word here. I was rarely as rigid as Nancy is in her refusal to tell Matt. But, like Nancy, I have this capacity for leading a double life. It's very consuming to play cat-and-mouse in a relationship but I've done it.
I had mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed learning a new set of skills and I crossed a mental barrier about my own culpability. Oddly enough, being good at deception can open up the world--there are all these people whom I once might have shunned for being incomprehensibly selfish liars. But now I can empathize--and my capacity for intimacy has increased. I realize this sounds like ridiculous self-justification! Maybe it is!
"Something" is a key word, but it's vague. How can you only partially reveal your life as a call girl?
It's a special gift I have. Let's just say I've always felt a certain empathy for the president who "didn't inhale" marijuana smoke.
But seriously, if we can be serious about coy excuses, how many women or men reveal every aspect of their work or their past to a lover or spouse? It is okay and sometimes more than okay to leave out a few details, if only for the sake of not boring the other party to tears. Sometimes, when being open with a man about my sex work, I found it necessary to be discreet in ever more complex ways--so that lying seemed to simplify [and] not complicate my life.
How have men reacted to knowledge, such as it was, about your sex work?
Most of my boyfriends have been very sweet about it. Some were jealous but tried to hide their feelings. In one case, I stumbled across an emotional minefield and fell for a guy who suffered from a classic madonna-whore complex. It was like an accident waiting to happen and I had to extricate myself. At another point, I fell in love with a guy who did not understand what my career as a call girl really meant--he thought I was looking for a man to take me away from the rough and tumble of life's markets. He didn't understand that I also had a driving need to work, meet goals, prove my mettle, whether I work as a prostitute or a writer. Everyone assumes that a prostitute's relationship problems are caused by the madonna-whore virus infecting a man's romantic software. But that's not always true--modern prostitutes have modern relationship problems, too.