s this a work of fiction?
It's one hundred percent fiction and one hundred percent based on my experiences. I tend not to get specific about which parts of my book are autobiographical and which are theoretical, or the result of gossip that I've heard.
I have two friends who are pretty convinced that they have identified themselves, and there's one ex-boyfriend who is convinced that he's present in the story.
Was it difficult to revise your personal history?
This must come naturally to me, because I never had trouble doing it. I recently spoke with my father about our family history, and he said that we come from a long line of people who are very comfortable reinventing their lives and pasts. So I think it may be in my genes. This, by the way, is very common in the West Indies, where my parents were born. West Indians can be extremely creative about things like ancestry, for example.
Are you close to your parents?
Yes and no. I'm closer to my father. He's the eldest in his family and so am I. We bonded easily; it was a very warm, verbal relationship. He identified with my self-confidence and eldest kid egotism. My mother didn't identify with those aspects of me because she was the ninth of ten siblings in a family where it was "better" to be a son. My father loved having a daughter. He has this whimsical, analytical mind, which can be a lot of fun for a child.
There were also moments when he was extremely sad or hurt by incidents in his life, which I could see clearly. It was easy for me to empathize with him, whereas, my mother didn't inspire the same feelings in me. She was the parent you perform for, get good grades for, deal with on a disciplinary level. She was proud of the fact that when I was about three, I was mistaken for a freakishly small six-year-old. We were in an elevator and I was making conversation--I was an extremely talkative child. A lady in the elevator stared at us in disbelief and asked my mother how old I was, because I sounded three years older than I looked. Whenever my mother has told this story, I've seen her revert back to the moment when she said, "She's three!" in a pleased-as-punch voice that, as a creative person, I can identity with. I was my mother's project and that's still part of who I am. She always wanted me to be a writer. She was an editor and felt that she had an eye for talent.
But we weren't close, because if you are somebody's project you must eventually break free. I was too willful to stay close to my mother. None of these tensions or misplaced ambitions existed with my father, and so it was easier for me to be close to him.
My mother was the difficult parent, and I wouldn't have it any other way. If I had two easygoing parents, I might have turned out lazy and spineless. Being emotionally distant from my mother has actually made me more creative, productive, driven--things you need to be if you're a working writer. We have a limited, Hallmark card idea about motherhood in this culture. Many mothers who are not close or affectionate produce talented, self-aware children who work and play well with others.
My parents are divorced and my mother did something which, in the Hallmark philosophy of life, is unthinkable: she left us. Then, a few years later, she became the custodial parent. But the "unthinkable" had already occurred. I knew that my mother was capable of normal, impetuous behavior, like anyone else. So there's no schmaltzy maternal myth in my family. Some of my female friends have trouble focusing on their careers or their creative work because Mom is constantly feeding on their emotional energy. I'm amazed at the number of women who can't say No to Mom, who mess up marriages and projects because of that.
It is painful to be abandoned by your mother when you're a child--no smart person would deny that--but the pay-offs come in adulthood when you find out how much emotional freedom you have. When you have a mom like mine, you're less afraid of the world. You cannot wait to get out there and stake your claim.
How did you reconcile your work as a prostitute with your parents?
I didn't have to, not in the way that you'd expect. I waited until I was in my twenties to be open with them. They accepted it as an adult decision. Only recently did they find out how young I really was when I began hustling. As a teenager, I was rebellious but I was careful about protecting my parents from too much information. I matured sexually at an early age and was in some ways smarter than a lot of the kids I knew. I felt more sophisticated about personal relationships because I saw my parents divorce and remate. Some of my peers came from apparently idyllic households, and I noticed that those kids tended to take longer growing up. I have some adult friends whose parents never split up. They have idealized or infantile ideas about their parents as people or as partners.
What language do you feel most comfortable using to describe your profession?
I think "sex-worker" sounds a little politically correct and clinical, but it is a term that I use in certain contexts. The hookers I've worked with rarely use the word "prostitute", not because it's a bad word but because it also sounds so scientific and clinical. It may seem quaint, but most of the girls I worked with referred to themselves as "working girls."
Our clients wouldn't use the word "hooker"; they'd pretend that we weren't--in conversation, that is. They'd treat us with the proper financial respect, but they would talk about "prostitutes" or "hookers" as if it had nothing to do with us. It was a fiction they observed--not to a point of complete self-delusion, but as a kind of politeness. Similarly, unless you had a certain down-to-earth rapport with a client, you wouldn't say the word "john".
Why do you think clients visit working girls? Is something lacking in their personal lives that they can't fulfill elsewhere?
The idea that something is missing is a modern one. Men have long sought the company of paid sex partners. If you live in a culture where women are not supposed to have sex before marriage, than it's more obvious why a guy would do that--it's supply and demand. It's often the only way to get laid without making an enormous commitment. Interestingly enough, the same thing comes up in a more sexually free culture.
In New York City in the year 2001, it's obviously not forbidden to have sex before marriage--a lot of guys would prefer to marry a woman who is sexually experienced. But sometimes it's still easier for men to pay for it. A lot of women start out wanting to have casual sex, but after two sexual encounters with the same guy, it's no longer casual. The woman becomes attached. That's fine if the guy also becomes attached, but a lot of guys start to feel guilty or uncomfortable because the woman is not feeling "casual" anymore. They know they're taking advantage of the woman's ambivalence. 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, where people are not entirely sure what they want or what they can handle. Men often handle casual sex better than women do.
A lot of women feel comfortable having multiple partners if they're getting paid,. I don't know many prostitutes who would sleep with five guys a day for free, even if those guys were cute and good in bed--which can happen on a good day.
Were many of your clients cute and good in bed?
Yes, in unconventional ways. As a teenager, I was attracted to guys on the basis of their looks. When I matured I realized that the cute guy does not necessarily know what to do with you in bed. In my late teens and early twenties I realized that there were men who wouldn't necessarily turn my head, but I found myself in bed with them--that was my job--and they were good lovers. Even if I didn't have an orgasm, it felt pleasant to be there. Some people have the right way of touching you.
Did you ever get emotionally attached to your clients?
Occasionally. It's part of the business; if you like men and aren't highly cynical, it will happen. Some clients became regulars--it felt more like the attachment you'd have for a friend. If they moved on or died, I'd miss them.
Are you still in touch with any of your clients?
Not lately. Running a business as a call girl was really absorbing--like owning any small business. Writing full time is equally absorbing, so I decided that I would have to take a break from that.
Is it equally fulfilling?
I didn't think so when I was just writing. Physical work is much more fulfilling, and I missed the pace of being in the market. Now that my book is in stores, I don't feel that empty space in my life anymore. Hustling a book is as exciting and challenging as hustling your body. Very few prostitutes have days where everything is by appointment, or weeks where they know their schedule two days in advance. Sometimes you'll know about an appointment three days ahead of time, and sometimes you'll have to deal with a client's last minute demand for attention. That's part of the appeal, those unexpected moments in the day. Bringing a book to market involves lots of those moments. Having to repair errors is a fulfilling part of the process. When a disaster occurs, I enjoy the challenge of making the best of a confused situation.
When you were working, were there people in your life who had no idea how you spent your days?
Sure--I had friends and boyfriends who knew and many who didn't. Even today not everybody knows, but more than most hookers, I'm open with my family and friends. I know lots of working girls who live amazingly efficient double lives.
How do they manage that?
They're like spies--strong-willed, boundaried, compartmentalized, smart women. You can't lead a double life successfully if you're not sharp. A lot of your intellectual energy goes in that direction. Many of these people say, "I have to lie, because people are so judgmental." In my opinion, they do it because they get off on it on some level--it turns them on emotionally or maybe even sexually to have this tension in their lives.
Have you ever been affected by another person's judgment?
I have. Some prostitutes attract a constant stream of jealous, neurotic boyfriends. Some don't. Having attracted both types, I think this often has to do with where the girl is emotionally. Whenever I've attracted a troublemaker, it was because I wasn't completely clear about what I wanted to do. I don't think that sex workers are always honest about that; there's a tendency to blame society, to say that we live in a repressive culture. I think, in fact, we play a bigger role in who we bring into our lives than we often admit.
Some hookers lead compartmentalized lives, with boyfriends who know nothing about what they do. There's a puritanical assumption that these are the disturbed hookers. In my experience, that's not often the case. The disturbed hookers are the ones who need to confess.
Why is that?
Because it's not about whether you confess, it's about who you confess to. If you always confess to people who give you a hard time, you're self-destructive. Why suffer over your job? There's a belief today that you should be open about everything, out of the closet. A woman who leads a double life and who lies about it is very often much more functional. Happier and healthier. She can focus on her work because she's not micromanaging an argument she had with her jealous boyfriend last night--instead the boyfriend thinks that she's practically a virgin. The next morning she's off doing things with a client that she wouldn't do with her boyfriend. I think that woman's healthier than the one who needs to open up all the time.
Why would a prostitute choose not to experiment sexually with her partner?
She's probably had a chance to try things with clients and learn what does or doesn't turn her on. I know a working girl who will not watch dirty movies with her boyfriend. She's terrified that if she keeps pornography in her apartment, her boyfriend will stumble across it and the cat will be out of the bag. I suggested that she get a very vanilla porn movie, the kind that is manufactured for couples, watch it with her boyfriend, and get him used to the idea. That way if he does see something it won't be such a shock. I gave her one--she watched it and was appalled. In her free time she doesn't want to do something that is a turn-off. Meanwhile, on the job this gal is uninhibited. She's a good sport if a guy wants to do something that doesn't turn her on.
What are some of the reasons that women become prostitutes?
The primary reason is money. It's fast cash and you don't have to wait two weeks for a check to show up. There are other reasons though--emotional ones. I got into the business as a teenager because I wanted to start making my own money--the whole thing sounded very lucrative and easy to me. But I stayed in it for deeper reasons that go back to the things I said about my parents.
My fondness for my father drew me to the profession--my early ability to empathize with Dad, my enjoyment of his conversation and company, made it easy for me to enjoy the company of men. One of the things I enjoyed about prostitution was the banter with older guys, who in turn delight in conversing with a woman young enough to be their niece or, frankly, their daughter. I was getting a chance to re-enact a very familiar and important dynamic.
If I had pursued a corporate career in my 20s, competing against males of my own age, I would have been completely out of my element. I like to bond with men. In the mainstream, white collar workplace, where the goal is equality, you cannot be a blatant daddy's girl with the men you encounter. In prostitution it's not seen as a handicap or a sign of weakness. It's actually quite helpful.
Some people become prostitutes because they are capable of thinking clinically about sex. From an early age, I knew that sex was a physical skill; only later did I understand how sex could be some sort of complicated emotional gift. For this reason, I'm sure the sex business was the right place for me. I was not driven by lust when I was younger. Instead, I was motivated by curiosity, by a desire to have sex with interesting guys, by a feeling of accomplishment when I had sex. Those are the attitudes that any professional should bring to the table. Or the bed, in my case.
I was never one of those teenagers who gets pressured into sex "to prove she loves" her boyfriend--instead, I was the type who wanted birth control because it seemed cool and grown-up, before I even had a boyfriend to use it with. People assume that teenagers who go into prostitution are these mixed-up, cowering waifs. That's not always true. Many of us were precocious "nerd" types who thought very logically about sex. We don't have the normal hang-ups. Most of the moral issues surrounding sex or prostitution are just superstition--the real issues are: how to do it properly, how not to get an STD, where to get tested if you think you've been exposed. Whether to get paid before or after. Prostitution requires that you think methodically about sex and I was doing that when I was still a virgin. Many people do not or cannot think that way about sex and they should not become prostitutes.
What makes it a positive environment for women?
If you are a call girl or work in a brothel, you mostly work with other women. Obviously the customers are men, so it's not suitable for women who want an all-female environment. But it is interesting in the sense that women of all ages run their own businesses. I read a book by Natalie Angier in which she said that she never got a chance to connect emotionally with much older women, because in the workplace most people are the same age. From the age of 19 I had professional relationships with women from their twenties to their eighties--relationships in which we'd discuss everything under the sun: sex, love, money, business, ethics. When I read Angier's book I realized that it is not typical for a 19-year-old girl to have these life discussions with a woman of 79. This is not available to people with ordinary corporate lives.
In dealing with men who are the same age as your father or older, you gain an understanding that you wouldn't in other jobs. You experience another generation's sexual culture. My clients were anywhere from twenty-five to eighty. Having been exposed to how older men thought, I really couldn't get interested in a guy who was close to my age. I've never been attracted to them.
Do you think you understand men better than you would otherwise?
I understand men better than boys. Anybody who pays attention to the work they do learns something about human nature. The fact that there's no administrative buffer for prostitutes and that you're relying on your wits means that you have to pay attention to how people behave. Brothel prostitutes, who have management around them, are often viewed by other prostitutes as less self-sufficient. They might be honorable and hard-working, but they are not necessarily the sharp hustler types. The real hustler types get restless in brothels, because they want their own clients.
How does one build a client base? Is it through word-of-mouth?
There's an idea in my novel that there are two kinds of working girls: there are girls who get clients from each other, from a small circle of private madams and call girls, and their business builds slowly. Then there are girls who run ads on the Web or in magazines, build up a client base, and cross over into a more private way of doing business. Among the girls who have always worked from private lists, very often you will have relationships going back generations, like a family tree. There are funny little connections between the clients; sometimes there will be a father and a son and they're not supposed to know about each other.
What are the downsides of the business?
You're dependent on your body's health and abilities. There's a limited amount of money you can make with your body. If anything should go wrong with it, you can't function. Making money doing something less tangible could be more profitable because you're less vulnerable. How much can one body generate?
I don't know, and I'm curious about that. How many clients does a working girl generally see in a day--and how does she handle it?
It varies at different ends of the spectrum. There are brothels where women see twenty clients a day. They're not having intercourse with all of these clients, and if they do it's very quick. These women become very skillful with certain things--manual sex, for example. A person in that environment may be trained to project a very strong sexual aura, which can expedite the process.
What would you say to a young woman today who aspires to be a prostitute?
Don't try this at home. I don't really encourage people to do it. I think that there are already too many people in the industry. In that respect I still think like a hooker. It's a competitive business like anything else. A lot of people want to be in it, some for the wrong reasons.
What are the wrong reasons?
Because they think it's easy, or that they can't do anything else. People view it as an appropriate business for anyone who happens to be down on their luck. There are very negative attitudes out there that lead some people who shouldn't to become hookers. These women are a problem--aside from creating a very bad image for prostitutes, they screw up the marketplace. They don't offer anything of great value.
What still needs to change to improve sex-workers' rights?
The US is out of step with other parts of North America and Europe. In the rest of the world there are laws that are problematic for prostitutes, but sex for money is not in and of itself illegal if you are in a tolerant zone.
The sex laws in this country are state laws, and the language differs in each one. In New York the law that affects madams says that promoting prostitution is a felony. In other states it's called pandering. It's an obstacle to legal reform, having so many local laws.
The Prostitutes' Rights Movement is about social change, and that is threatening for prostitutes. There's a modern notion that we are a bunch of socially transgressive, sexual radicals, an idea that is supported by the illegality of prostitution in this country. This doesn't take into account two things: one is how traditional prostitution is, as it's been around since the dawn of time; the other is how conservative people who break the law can actually be. Most prostitutes want to keep things as they've been.
In my book, Nancy and Jasmine are very resistant to this social change. They both started out in other circumstances--Nancy started in hotel bars, and Jasmine used to be a drug dealer. They value what private call girls can achieve. Allison, on the other hand, has always worked in that milieu, and she takes it for granted. She wants social change and she doesn't think long and hard about what there is to lose. Nancy and Jasmine are more self-protective--the old-fashioned sexual hypocrites, whereas Alison is an idealist. The conflict among these three friends is a real trend that's happening right now--in the media, in reform movements, even among our straight friends who have open minds about prostitution.
Is your depiction of the movement itself true to life?
Some of the characters--like the peep show dancer from San Francisco--may strike an obvious chord with people who take an interest in the sex workers' movement.
But the internal spats--the tensions between different kinds of sex workers, the judgmental feelings about each other's grooming and behavior, the "lingerie liberal" guilt that call girls suffer from when they're faced with hookers who have more street cred--these things are hard to talk about at meetings. It's like any other movement. If you don't know who your allies are, you can screw up the dynamic of a conference or an organization. Things can get fractious or strangely personal. At a meeting you might discuss anti-trafficking legislation, outreach to homeless hookers, the next international AIDS conference. And then you go for coffee and gossip about some fellow activist's awful hairstyle behind her back. Or how improbable it is that she could hope to turn a trick at her current weight! I've heard some incredibly catty stuff behind the scenes at hookers' conferences.
How accurate is your description of the sex itself?
I think it's very accurate. I've tried to show the different sexual moods that a prostitute has in the course of a day and in the course of her career--the roles she plays, the clients she sees. Sometimes she's in a hurry and is working hard to get things done as quickly as possible and still maintain a sexy attitude. Other times she's enjoying herself, and is conflicted over whether or not she should feel this way.
I've read that there is a stigma among prostitutes against enjoying the physicality of sex. Is this true in your experience?
Yes. In prostitution there's a prevalent "macho" attitude--most hookers are absolutely appalled when others get off on the sex. It's a boundary issue--if a girl starts to enjoy herself, she might stop acting professionally.
What is professional behavior?
Kissing is considered a big taboo. Occasionally a working girl might think, "If I met this man socially, I would kiss him." Just because she feels this way doesn't mean that she should act on it; to do so would be betraying the other girls who see this client. Everybody's in competition, but if we're going to compete we must play fair. People who don't conduct themselves properly can run into trouble.
Where does one learn the rules of conduct?
Some of it is upbringing. Whether you fought fair or dirty as a kid will affect how you conduct yourself as a hooker. After a certain age, people are who they are.
If word gets out that a working girl is breaking the rules about kissing, there is resentment. A girl will stop working with another girl or referring clients to her if she suspects that this is going on. As in any business, there will always be people who break the rules and compete unfairly. Safe sex is another issue; most people practice it, but it's pretentious to suggest that this is never violated. Word will get out that a girl is having unprotected sex, and there will be fallout. The dark side of this is that you can ruin a girl's career with rumor, and there is often jealousy among the woman that could prompt such behavior. It's very important to get along with other people--if you're a very pretty working girl, it's particularly important to get along with other working girls.
There's professional jealousy in every trade, but here you venture into such personal territory. The trade is based on physical attractiveness; the ability to negotiate this and to be somewhat detached about feelings is very important.
Another case of unprofessional conduct would be allowing a man to have sex twice for the fee agreed upon for going once. There's a feeling that it's okay to "steal" business if you do so ethically. This happens in every industry.
This comes up in the novel, when Nancy gets started in the business. When she meets a private madam for the first time, she's in an unstable phase of life. She is very conservative and doesn't take any risks that might jeopardize her relationship with the madam, such as giving her phone number to clients, which is one way that women steal business. A more established call girl would give out her number--the madam realizes that this is a risk she faces. A new girl is not in the position to take this chance.
Let's talk about the character of Jack.
Jack is the sugar-daddy from hell. I knew a girl who had this relationship with a client. He wasn't physically dangerous, but he was crazy enough to put her on edge. He was very possessive and paranoid; it was a difficult relationship for her--this guy was besotted but had no perspective on his feelings. It was a generational thing. The language my friend would use to try to talk with her client about their relationship was alien to him. He was a creature of the 1950s, had married right out of college, and had never had a serious relationship with anyone but his wife. The therapy-speak that people like us take for granted--"I'm responsible for my own happiness; I'm not responsible for your unhappiness"-- meant nothing to him. All he knew was that he was in love with this girl and he had no impulse control. He had been a perfectly normal, boundaried john; he was only a problem when he became a sugar-daddy.
Is it acceptable for a client to buy gifts for a working girl?
Of course--it's always acceptable for a guy to buy a girl a gift.
Was there ever a point in your career where you felt physically threatened?
Once or twice I had encounters with people who were a bit threatening. For a street hooker, it is very important to stay alert at all times. For me the solution was to get into a milieu where I wouldn't encounter menacing customers. I knew I wasn't emotionally agile enough to deal with that level of danger. I never had a problem like that when I was seeing clients privately.
What about the risk of disease?
We are very accustomed to using condoms. People say that they are not 100% effective, but if you know how to use them they are. Staying in control is the key.
Have you considered writing about this topic? I imagine you know more about safe sex than many people.
I think people will find my novel somewhat instructive. I'm not claiming that it's a manual for becoming a hooker, but there's a lot of information there. There's a scene where Nancy and Alison have a particularly rigorous afternoon with a client; he keeps losing his erection. People outside of the sex business were struck by how I depicted the frustration of a date that won't end. Others found it offered practical advice on being aware--how to be safe when playing with sex toys for example, or what the grooming and etiquette issues are when three people have an encounter.
How does one become "good" at sex?
Some of it is luck. It's important in the beginning to have partners who are more experienced than you are. I had older boyfriends who taught me a lot, not just about how to please them, but by setting an example of the standard I should hold my partners to. It improves your sexual self-esteem. Having partners of different ages and abilities is helpful. I've had a number of commercial sex partners who were not as virile as they'd been at other points in their life, and learning how to deal with that was important. Having to accommodate different men's turn-ons helps, especially those that differ from your own taste. Part of being good at sex is accepting your partner's quirks. You can avoid activities that you don't enjoy without making the man feel badly about his preferences.
What are you working on now?
I have a few ideas germinating. People asked if I will do a sequel about Nancy, and that is a possibility. I also want to write about other aspects of relationships.
I like the freedom of writing fiction. The Nancy Chan series might be frothy and entertaining, but it's allowed me to say a lot more about my experiences than I would were I reporting. Writing nonfiction makes me more restrained about emotional issues.
What books have inspired this one?
I pay homage to all sorts of influences in Diary--for example,
Daniel Defoe's Roxana was not a happy hooker; in my novel, the character Roxana Blair is a ditzy New Age sex worker-activist who wouldn't last five minutes as a call girl in Nancy's milieu. In the hookers' movement, you'll find that some of the most committed activists are not professional role models--they're just hard-working ex-hookers who want to make the world a better place for other hookers. In another era, they might have ended up like Defoe's Roxana--defeated--but now there's a place for them and this gives them a more positive outlook on prostitution.
One of Nancy's working names is Suzy. I threw that into the mix because I love The World of Suzie Wong. It's underappreciated as a novel and better known as a movie. Nancy Kwan was the actress who played Suzie in the movie--and of course Nancy Chan often feels that she's acting a part when she becomes "Suzy." (But that, by the way, is not why my heroine is called Nancy. There are other reasons for that.)
I had fun with my homage to Belle de Jour--another novel that we think of as a movie. I think I'll be spending many hours of therapy trying to figure out why I did that....
I'm sure you get a lot of feedback on that. How can your readers contact you?
I love to hear from my readers; I've learned a lot from them. I have a Web site: http://www.tracyquan.net. I want to know what people like or don't like about my writing. I'm stubborn enough to appreciate the feedback without letting the criticism get to me.
Interview conducted by Laura Buchwald