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Author Podcast: Tracy Quan

abstract:Tracy Quan first entered onto my radar screen while I was researching Jared Diamond (Pulitzer Prize winner for, Guns, Germs and Steel) and his new book, Collapse.  There in the middle of an uber-geek website, between cognitive linguistics and intense scientific, technological and cultural conjecture was the short, alluring biography of author Tracy Quan. Her first novel Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, (Three River Press, 2003) has been translated into more than six languages. Her personal essays and other writings have looked at adultery, identity politics, AIDS, virginity, prostitution, technology, and numerous topics from a unique perspective. These have appeared in South China Morning Post, The Asian Review of Books, The Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Der Tagesspiegel (Berlin), San Francisco Chronicle, Men's Health.

Tracy is a former sex-trade worker of ten years who crossed over into writing with her popular Sex series under the Health category of David Talbot's then ground-breaking website, That series grew to 55 episodes (still archived on salon) introducing Tracy's protagonist Nancy Chan, "Manhattan Call Girl of the Millennium".


May 19, 2005

All About Tracy

Following on the heels of the successful HBO series, Sex and the City, which premiered in June 1998 and became a cultural phenomenon, "Diary" helps to define a new breed of modern women who aren't afraid to talk about men—and their desire for them. Quan’s forthright book will open discussion on the sex industry from a human perspective that says, “This is who I am, this is what I do and who I do it with,” that broadens into a larger socio-political forum.

Darren Star, creator of HBO's Sex and the City, has optioned the film rights. Tracy's second novel, Diary of a Married Call Girl (Three Rivers, 2005) is due out September 27, 2005.

There are a number of topics and levels of discussion book groups will find fascinating to debate after reading Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl. Click on the audio links and follow along with the text. After the interview there is a list of links for further interest and a short bibliography of classic works famously dealing with the topic of prostitution which gives an historical literary perspective.



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Part I: Prostitution in Literature

BookBuffet:Perhaps we could start off with the cause and effect relationship of literature. I'm sure you've done a study of works dealing with prostition.  What are your thoughts on what you've read? [Did you set out to modernize the perspective?]

TracyQuan: The study I've done of pre-existing literature about prostitutes has been very informal.  I never took a course where it was laid out for me, but I read things as they came up and that interested me.  That includes everything from 79 Park Avenue, which was I think a Harold Robbins thriller to Moll Flanders, to novels by Colette, and even some of the more current feminist influenced stuff which came out in the '80s and the '90s—which I don't find as enjoyable, quite honestly, as some of the earlier work. 

One of the biggest influences for me was Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe.  Moll has gotten swept under the carpet a little bit, and isn't getting as much attention as some of the other works have been getting, because she was the creation of a dead-white-male.

On the one hand I wanted to update the literature and tell a fictional story from a real prostitute's perspective, but at the same time I think it's really interesting that this man created, to me, such a realistic feeling heroine protagonist who is a prostitute struggling, finding her way in the world, and kind of on the amoral side.  She's not a ruthless killer or anything but she's not a victim. She is poor, she has to deal with her survival; she steals and she abandons her children. She's not a worthy victim, and yet she's incredibly lovable, likeable.  You identify with her and you're rooting for her.

Part II: Tracy Relates to Capote

In Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, I wondered for a long time who Holly Golightly really was, and it's coming to light that [she] was based on his mother, this nineteen year old prostitute. And it may interest your readers to know that Breakfast at Tiffany's was released as a summer-read last year in the New York Times. It was serialized for a whole week. So it was kind of like the serial Victorian novels.

BB: Right, like Dickens.

TQ:It was terrific. And I read it every day. I found that coming back to it now after writing my book was an interesting experience.  The first time I read Breakfast at Tiffany's I was nineteen, and I was living a life that was a little similar to Holly Golightly.  I lived in the West 20s of Manhattan, rather than the East Side, in a little walk-up.  It was so close to my life that I couldn't appreciate the story.  I actually thought, "Oh what's the big deal - another story about a hooker?" I was completely unimpressed.

When I read it now, having moved away from that lifestyle and being in a more adult frame of mind, I think, "Wow, this is quite a book," and I think Holly Golightly is quite a character.

The movie cleaned her up quite a bit; in the book she's a lot more of a saltier person.  What is really interesting... is today when we think about the migration of prostitutes, we are thinking about people coming from non-white countries to America from Asia and places like that, or countries that are in a state of transition where the economy is not as polished—like Eastern Europe, which isn't the Third World but can be seen that way.  

Holly Golightly is a rural girl who gets married at the age of thirteen or fourteen and has a lot in common with the young girls and young women who are coming out from the countryside of Thailand and going to Bangkok.

That's what was happening here, people were coming out of the rural parts of America to places like Los Angeles and New York.  And that's a dimension—you don't see it quite so clearly in the movie, although it's there in the movie, but when you read this you can really feel it. He used the idea of music to convey that by saying she would sing, whistle this little folk song, like a rural song...

BB: ...that would betray her background, in a sense, and establish her roots.

TQ:Yes, in the movie that song turned out to be "Moon River". (Editor's Note: listen to Audrey sing Moon River in prev link)

BB: It is interesting to consider whether prostitution is a profession of last resort.

Part III: Prostituion Worldwide

TQ: Click to hear reply, not transcribed.

Part IV: Sex in Popular Media Culture

BB:Sex and the City has paved the way for you in the sense that it looks at the topic of sex from the perspective of professional 30-something women living in Manhattan. Desperate Housewives is another series that focuses at the sexual proclivities of that sector, and now your book and the film that springs from it are going to delve into the work and everyday life issues of sex-workers. What do you make of this phenomenon?  Do you think television, movies and the media are barometers of social trends or catalysts in shaping them?

TQ: Oh I think it's a back and forth [process.] The media does influence how we think about things but it often reflects it.  Sometimes the media can be rather daring and sometimes cowardly.  The media is not a sort of animal that exists separately from us—we are the media, kind of like—we are the government in a democracy.  So, I don't think we can go one way or another.  And of course the media is redefined now, you have to include all the stuff that's going on with the Web.  That's a pretty democratic, free-for-all environment...

BB: I believe you've always kept a journal and your bi-weekly columns and regular feature article contributions elsewhere in addition to the two novels must keep you busy.  Does writing have any sort of mission or therapeutic value for you?

TQ: Different things are accomplished with different kinds of writing.  I decided to write fiction because I felt I could be more frank, more honest in fiction than I could in journalism.  My journalism is accurate and all that, but there are emotional things that you cannot express; even in first person essays, sometimes you feel a little more cautious and you worry about offending people.  And you don't worry about that in fiction because you create these characters who say things you wouldn't say in mixed company, or for that matter to your own sex.  Things you could only say comfortably to men... [laughs]

But of course I play around with that and we all have antisocial thoughts, you know, ideas that are not permitted in polite society.

BB:So the poetic license that you can take with fiction is a fun way to explore, not only the character development that you can create, but to test societal [mores and boundaries] and have fun for yourself.

TQ:Yes, absolutely.  In terms of my journalism, I was writing a lot of feature pieces and review pieces for Salon before I started writing the novel, and I got a lot of encouragement.  What I liked about working for Salon was that they were very adventurous, and where I thought some websites were more interested in writing about prostitutes and were not really open to the perspective of the prostitute, I felt that Salon really was just very interested in exploring that, and putting something out that was fresh, that was just not a journalistic equivalent of objectifying the prostitute—which you get a lot of in the media. 

People complain about how prostitution is dealt with in the movies, Pretty Woman for example, but I actually have more problems with how prostitution is distorted by journalism, because there you have people publishing things that have a political impact, or an impact on legislation.  In fiction and entertainment we have to give people permission to do things that don't necessarily seem compatible with our socially responsible ideas.

BB:Writing a novel in diary form is a natural framework to incorporate autobiographical experiences and perspectives, but I understand that the other two characters, Allison and Jasmine are also compilations of spectrums of your personality and perspectives: “the calculating business woman” and the “social reformer, sexual psychologist.” What would you say is the biggest challenge in creating and defining believable characters: convincing dialogue; complexity; consistency or growth?

TQ:I sometimes think it's easier to create believable characters in a first book because first novels, typically, are autobiographical. The question is, can we go on creating believable characters ?

You need to sympathize with your characters and you need to be able to attack them. During the writing of this first book every handbag I owned, I categorized as an Allison, a Nancy, or a Jasmine bag. Same with restaurants -- even if they do not appear in the book.

Elio's, which never made it into the book but which I enjoy a lot, is a "Nancy and Matt" restaurant -- Nancy would go there with Matt. Once, I felt sure that I spotted Nancy and Matt on a date together at a restaurant on Park Avenue South.

Once, on the corner of 86th and Madison, a girl came up to me and complained about the closing of the Gap branch -- she had trekked up there to do an exchange -- she was about twenty with a North American-West Indian look to her. I called my writing buddy and told him, "I just saw Miranda, Nancy's cousin, on 86th Street."

Once, when meeting this same friend for drinks at The Mark, he told me, "I just saw Milt, in the lobby." How to explain? You know you have something good when this is happening to you, when you live with your characters.

BB: [mp3 Segment 5] On page seven you mention that Allison has a natural talent for hooking. Can you elaborate on this, and tell us what you think attracts or drives people to the lifestyle: is it the game; the sex itself; the money; power; desperation; coercion?

TQ:Yes, that's a good question.  It has become really unfashionable to think of prostitution in terms of nature.  Well, that depends where you are; if you're in evo-psychology circles then it's fashionble, but among feminists and so forth, it's [considered to be] economically driven by the economic system. Those are kind of Marxist ideas: that the economic situation creates the prostitute. But the fact is, not everybody that is down on his or her luck becomes a prostitute; not everybody who needs money becomes a prostitute; and not everybody who is attracted to the business, or who wants to be in the sex industry can be good at it. 

People actually want to be in the sex industry, try to be, and fail at it. It's very interesting, and some people who need to be and are pulled into it by necessity also don't do well. For example I think it would be fair to say that Evelyn Lau's Fresh Girlsher fiction and non-fiction and her narrative seem to be about her lack of success in the sex industry. And that's a story to tell, but it's true that I have written about people who are successful and the stress, the tensions that they have to deal with, because success is not something that is easy to achieve. 

I actually think that it is something about the look of the people who get drawn into the industry. And I don't mean that these are people with the best figures or the most beautiful faces, but somebody with a—and of course this does not apply to everyone—but somebody who has a certain kind of easy, friendly look; [symmetrical] features. I think very often even if they are not incredibly beautiful but have that look that is very approachable, and there is an expression a friend of mine sometimes uses, he'll say, "Well, that person has a face that makes you want to like him."

And that is who is attracted to the business, because it is about a desire to be liked and a desire to seek admiration and you live off it.  But it has to come pretty easily to you if you're going to make a living off of it, and for it not to be a constant struggle.

[mp3 Segment 6] People in the sex industry are very looks-conscious obviously, but we don't think of ourselves as an entire class of more beautiful people. But what made me aware of it was sitting at a meeting with a friend who is an anthropologist and she was struck by the number of symmetrical faces in the room.  And she was right...

Now in the case of this character Allison in my novel, she has a natural talent for interacting with the men and for charming them, and they are always very interested in her and rejection is something she has not had to deal with very much.  And she has always felt pretty, she's a cheerleader type.  But because these things have come a little too easily to her, that may be one explanation for why she has never developed her business sense, and she operates on instinct a lot. So, that's one of the central aspects of the novel because it creates problems for her friends.

BB: [mp3 Segment 7] Nancy operates her life like a businesswoman, and yet she still has no long-range plan, she’s still pretty much dependent on turning tricks from rent day to rent day. I wonder how many prostitutes actually leave the profession or continue working beyond the time frame they might have planned?

TQ: Well some people are happily surprised to learn that they can work for longer. There is some anxiety about aging in the sex industry.  When you're sixteen or seventeen you think, "Oh my God, when I'm twenty-seven I'll be too old to work."

Then you find out that at twenty-seven you're just hitting your stride, and you may be making more money at twenty-seven than you ever made at twenty because then you finally know something about how to run a business, and how to keep clients.  So in fact if you look at prostitution as a positive rather than a negative thing, it's really a very good thing if a woman discovers she can still make a good living as a prostitute in her thirties, forties and fifties. 

I have known people who were successfully working past fifty. But you could not start at that age, you would have to have started earlier and built something.

BB: Nancy goes regularly to see a shrink and curiously she discovers that she is perhaps more engaged and has a better ability to keep her customers’ complex lives and stories straight, where Dr. Wendy fails at this with her patients. Both women are in professions where a certain amount of detached interest is necessary or considered professional.  Is this a metaphor for the measure of a relationship, a validation of Nancy, or an analogy between psychiatry and prostitution as services to society?

TQ: (transcription pending)

BB: Nancy goes through careful grooming rituals which she might view as standard procedure but others might view as narcissistic: from the between client freshen-ups, hair-perfect obsessions, Brazilian wax-jobs after a full moon, prosaic pedicures and facial masks, to the bleaching of her elbows with lemon; I’m sure this will be a topic of interest with the book group I’m meeting next week to discuss this book. As an expert on the art of attraction, if you had one piece of fashion, beauty or sex advice to pass on to them, what would it be?

TQ: I think the most important thing is to look natural.  

BB: You describe early sexual experiences and precocity which I assume are somewhat autobiographical, and it reminded me of a debate over Nabokov’s novel Lolita concerning the pedophile, Humbert Humbert’s so-called monstrosity/illness and the victimization/complicity of the pre-teen Lolita. Do you have anything to say about the nature of sexuality in this age group? If a person’s character is their destiny—perhaps I am asking a behavioral science question—how early is our character set and are we capable of change?

TQ: Sexuality doesn't just pop-up overnight when you are suddenly of legal age or about to go to grad school, that's not how sexuality develops in human beings. So I am one of those people who thinks it's a normal thing and there's some common sense prohibitions that have to be observed...

There are many different readings of Lolita.  I saw him as a victim of his urges, and maybe that's monstrous?—I've been called a monster, at times [laughs] by people who are close to me...  Because of things that I was aware of as a kid, I tend to see some pedophiles as victims—if they're non-violent, which quite a few pedophiles are—not all pedophiles are murderous, and I think we need to make a distinction. 

Sometimes a pedophile can be more understood if they are compared to a diabetic with a sugar craving, and it is actually very harmful for him to indulge it because in our culture there is a prohibition; there are laws against it.  Sometimes young people are aware of this and they've even attempted to blackmail the person who has been tempted by their sexuality. So it's very complicated, and a sensible adult who is concerned about their own self-preservation wouldn't get involved in acting out those urges. 

So I am inclined to see some of these people as unfortunates and I think we're a little too punitive in our view of these things. And this has even, maybe colored the way people look at Lolita.  I've seen some feminist commentary on Lolita that I thought was a little naive.

BB: Well there have been so many interpretations over the course of time..

TQ: Personally I just thought it was a damn good read, and I enjoyed it. I don't have alot of analytical things to say about it, I'll leave that to others.  But I enjoyed reading something from that point of view, of the so-called pedophile, because I've always seen it from Lolita's point of view.  And what I will say about the Lolita character is she is often, more generally in my opinion, rather cold to the person whom she has attracted.


BB: Hmm, cold, calculated, controlling.

TQ: Maybe not just controlling, but just emotionally not so involved; the ego is involved, not so much the heart, because it is very difficult for an eleven year old to empathize with a thirty-something year-old.  They just can't.  And the question is why is this adult male attracted to someone who can't possibly empathize with him or feel anything womanly?  Part of being womanly is feeling empathy for the man.

BB: Right.  It's as you say it's an interesting relationship which derives from both people's perspectives; what is the young girl looking for? Or if you want to turn it around to a young boy capitalizing on the attraction to an older woman, but not really being able to return similar feelings, but recognizing their power and control..

TQ: I don't know if we can generalize, because what we have to keep in mind about intergenerational situations is that it is always an individual who is involved, or two individuals. So there really are formed personalities.  And one thing that I find absent from discourse or the stuff in the media ...what people don't understand is that thirteen and fourteen year-old girls already have a type at that point. That I already had a type of person I was attracted to.

You're not just a blank slate that receives the attention of other people. There's guys that attract you, guys that repel you as you would have a taste for ice-cream. 

 I always liked male attention, male company. I liked having a man in my life. I went through a phase where I tried not to be like that -- I tried to be more like [my character] Jasmine, very self-contained.  As you can imagine, it's a very appealing concept -- to have lots of clients and no boyfriend interfering with your life as a call girl

And it never really worked. I always ended up with a guy somewhere, somehow -- well, sometimes more than one boyfriend, in addition to all my clients. And finally I learned that I was just a relationship-magnet, and I learned to accept this. When I accepted this about myself, I became a much happier person because I was not fighting my nature.

BB: You describe Nancy’s fiancé as being endearingly wholesome in his sexual appetites, whereas she seems to vacillate between tolerating and enjoying the fetishes of her regular customers. Like the warnings parents give their kids, “not to smoke pot because they’ll wind-up heroin addicts,” do you think media, the pornographic industry or Internet has made sex a more complex issue today than in the past? Do people come hard-wired for certain boundaries of behavior or are sexual appetites capable of becoming jaded or accelerated or fashionable?

TQ: Yes and no. Naomi Wolf recently declared that porn had changed the sex lives of 20-something year old women. I think she overreacted. I think that what has changed is that respectable women today are more fully aware than, say respectable Victorian women were, of what men are looking at because there is a free for all. So things have changed for women. The non-prostitute knows a lot of things that perhaps were once considered the knowledge of the prostitute.

However, a lot of prostitutes are ambivalent about porn. On the one hand, we can handle it, we know that men have these fantasies. On the other hand, porn has introduced men to all sorts of things that many prostitutes would be happy to ignore. Jasmine gets into this at the NYCOT meeting - lesbian sex, and more.

BB:  Discretion, secrecy and deception: you play around with this quite a bit. Nancy must use discretion to maintain her clientele but she is completely deluding Matt about a major part of her life. Jason, her future brother-in-law has something up his sleeve with Allison that he does not want revealed. I wonder how many people think of this as a black and white issue or look at—play at—all the shades of grey? How much room is there in successful relationships for deception and will this juggling act be a large extent of your next book Diary of a Married Call Girl? 

TQ: Even in my happiest and most loving, honest relationships, I have found that there is room for a little constructive dishonesty. I like to play games with the truth. It's part of being a woman, being in a romance, and being a novelist

I can't speak for everyone else but I don't think any man can expect a female novelist to be completely honest in her dealings with him. I hope I never get involved with a novelist!

BB: Tracy you are American but lived in Canada so you have a unique perspective of both countries. Canada has a liberal reputation: they’ve decriminalized possession of marijuana, are moving to decriminalize prostitution, and have legalized same-sex marriage. Conversely the re-election of a neo-conservative government backed by the moral majority in America seems to be headed in the opposite direction on these issues. The pros and cons between regulation, decriminalization and legalization are complex and the results of studies coming in from different countries with different practices are mixed. What are your views? Should there be legal enforcement of morality in consensual adults?

TQ: Well, I grew up in a town where prostitution was almost accepted in an informal way. Attitudes were more relaxed and, at the same time, if you wanted to be a sheltered prude, you certainly could be. It was not in everybody's face at all times -- but it was visible if you wanted to see it.

BB: Your book alludes to the danger Nancy placed herself in once when allowing herself to be tied up, and the various steps girls go through to be safe, but statistics for violent crime, abuse and death are higher for this segment of the population. Do you feel your book plays this point up enough?  Can you speak to the LULU element?

TQ: Sure, I think it plays up this point in a realistic way. Much of the abuse and violence actually comes from the police, at least in the US.

For which segment? Prostitutes themselves belong to population segments and it's hard to make generalizations about prostitutes based on statistics. However, Nancy makes it very clear that her reason for being such a snob—for working only with private madams and private call girls, for eschewing the newspaper ads and the Internet and the escort services—is the risk of violence and arrest. It would not be realistic for Nancy, who narrates this book, to harp on the violence itself: That's for another kind of writer. Or for another medium, like opera.  In Lulu, [the opera] the main character meets Jack the Ripper -- the death of a prostitute becomes a musical statement.  But Nancy is a survivor who has escaped many of those dangers and my novel is a comedy of manners about her life.

Links For Further Interest


 Videos & CD's Mentioned in the Interview:

Other Interviews with Tracy:

Novels popularly made into films that Tracy mentions in her book 

  • Fanny Hill a two volume novel that sensationalized prostitution in eighteen century London;
  • GiGi the 1958 musical adaptation of actress, Colette’s short story, “weary of the conventions of Parisian society, a rich playboy and a youthful courtesan-in-training enjoy a platonic friendship, that does not stay platonic for long.” 
  • Butterfield 8, John O’Hara’s portrayal of a city girl on the edge, and of her eventual destruction, is iconographic and, if it did not create Liz Taylor, it certainly influenced writers like
  • Truman Capote, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, one of my all-time favorite films as a self-confessed Audrey Hepburn admirer.

Literature & Prostitution

Community-defined standards have guided sexual behavior rendering practices normal or abnormal. In antiquity, these standards were somewhat different from ours today. In her book, Trying Neaira, Debra Hamel shows what it was like living as a self-supporting woman in the male world of ancient Greece. Since Neaira was a prostitute, Hamel also looks at the world of ancient prostitution.

It’s interesting to consider The Bible’s Old and New Testaments for Judeo-Christian beliefs as a starting point for North American attitudes and mores. Prostitution was not un-common in biblical times, but from the Jewish perspective men could only patronize non-Jewish single women, as the woman in the Hebrew culture determines bloodlines. Curiously, the prohibition was not against the desire for sex, but rather against squandering money and time.

Literary works and criticism since have catalogued professional women as fallen, harlots, courtesans, prostitutes and call girls with the varying denigration and hierarchal connotations those terms reflect. A correlation exists between literatures produced during liberal, conservative or totalitarian periods of government in the same period. E.g. Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (which became the movie Cabaret) portrays the post-WWI German cabaret culture that was crushed by the emerging pre-WWII Nazi totalitarian government.

Women have variously been portrayed as scapegoats, as in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage; romanticized by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment. John Steinbeck always portrayed a fictional version of his real-life friend and madam as characters in his novels Tortilla Flats, Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath as did Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove.

Looking at the topic of prostitution from an appreciation of literature allows one to discriminate between the profound and the superficial—which takes the place of good and bad, true and false. It exposes one to the other side of one's arguments—to opinions different from one's own.

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