Tracy Quan: My life laid bare

After 20 years as a call girl, Tracy Quan has revealed all. John Walsh enjoys a private audience with New York's latest literary sensation

The waiters regard you suspiciously as your drum your fingers, cough fretfully and look around.

"Can I get you something?"

"I'm waiting for a [pause] lady friend," I tell the waiter.Some moments later there is still no sign. Has she forgotten? To pass time, I run through the vast lexicon of hooker names, reflecting how strange it is that some are bluntly insulting, and some breezily romantic: whore, prostitute, tart, harlot, courtesan, strumpet, woman of the night, trollop, streetwalker, hustler, scrubber, fallen woman. And now there's a new term - career role-model for the modern woman, as celebrated in a new, funny and, um, penetrating book called Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, written by my expected guest at the café this morning, Tracy Quan. Surprisingly, in an America so easily shocked by bare nipples at the Superbowl, it's a bestseller, and has been reprinted nine times since it was published in 2001.

Nancy Chan, its semi-autobiographical heroine, will be a household name when the movie comes out next year. Soon we'll have Nancy Chan on the big screen, turning a dozen tricks a day while agonising about boyfriend troubles.

The waiter is talking to a nondescript person in a nylon mackintosh and a battered hat. Something about her holds my attention, and suddenly a serious-looking woman is mouthing "John?" at me - as she has mouthed hundreds of names before when meeting strangers (called "Johns" in call girl parlance), shortly before having sex with them.

We say "hi". She is studiedly neutral and watchful. By contrast, everything I say ("Would you be comfortable here?", "Shall we start?") sounds faintly hooker-ish. Tracy is good at not attracting attention. She removes her mac to reveal a simple black frock. Her hair is dyed jet-black. Her brown eyes are oddly inexpressive. Heaven knows what kind of call girl Barbie I was expecting, but Tracy ain't it. She seems about as approachable as a gunboat on the Yangtze.

She is no longer, she says, a working girl. "No, I had to give it up, to work on my book. To be a call girl and to do it right, your brain has to be on 24 hours a day, focusing on your business. It's like running a shop. I thought, if I get distracted from my book by turning tricks, if it messed with my contract, I'd never forgive myself." How did she tell her clients? "I just turned my phone off. Frankly, you can't be a public person and a call girl."

This note of white-knickered fastidiousness recurs throughout Quan's conversation. After an initial professional froideur, she warms up no end, discussing clients and boyfriends with candour and warmth, but she never loses an edge of watchfulness. She is, for instance, a firm believer in the work ethic. "Don't go into prostitution if you think it's your last resort or if you're lazy," she tells me sternly.

What did her clients got for their $600 an hour? "I would have a conversation with my guys, and they usually enjoyed that part. I was very practical. I believe very strongly that you've got to get the guy off. There are some lazy amateurs who, if it's getting too difficult, they'd tell him, 'Sorry I can't'. My girlfriends would refer to me as a good worker." Her caramel brow crinkles. "Although, at the same time, there were certain things I wouldn't do."

Mmm-hmm?

"Kissing is off-limits. I know some people think it's less intimate - they'll kiss some guy at a party but won't have sex with him. I guess I'm built for the business. I can have intercourse with quite a few people without feeling I've been particularly intimate with them. Kissing, though, is special for me. And - how can I put this? - not everybody flosses on a regular basis."

She's also not keen on anal sex and its refinements. "My mum is a Virgo, they're very tidy and I'm a bit of a clean-freak."

You can imagine her being rather jolly company. I like the fact that she says she enjoys dancing about with her cross-dressing clients. She even admits to finding it titillating, though she wouldn't want a boyfriend who was keen. "I'm more into a traditional guy."

Her book has the same old-fashioned quality. Her heroine, Nancy, is surrounded by a network of girlfriends (principally Jasmine, tough and focused, and Allison, fluffy and sentimental) who dish out sensible advice to each other. When Allison links up with a hookers' union, her friend's reaction is pure Daily Mail: "Ever since Allison got involved with 'the sex workers' community,' I've noticed a slipping of standards."

Well, lah-di-dah. Like her creator, Nancy comes on like a walking commercial for industry, hygiene and common sense. It's not entirely surprising to learn that young Tracy was a fan of Enid Blyton.

One question that reverberates through the book is, "What's the etiquette when a working girl becomes engaged?" Nancy has a boyfriend called Matt who knows nothing about her day-job. He pops the question and she accepts ("spellbound," she says, "by my own respectability.") Did Quan use the book to explore the problem of finding a life that's less sexually hectic and morally compromised?

"I've had a lot of issues about that. In the book, Jasmine is very independent and business-minded, and never has a boyfriend. Nancy doesn't know how she does it. I always had that problem. I was like a relationship-magnet.If you're good as being a prostitute, which I may say I was, without undue modesty, you have something that attracts men - but it may be the same part of you that attracts boyfriends. As much as you try and be businesslike and cold about it, it's very difficult. Unless you're a born spinster." I nod, sympathetically. What a burden it must be, to have real feelings rather than pretended responses. "By the way, a lot of this is about my dad," she says, apropos of nothing.

Your dad?

"I'm very fond of my dad. We had a really good relationship. It is what makes me predisposed to having emotional partnerships with men."

A psychologist would have a riotous time with Tracy's background. She was born in America to mixed-race parents from Trinidad. "It's probably the most multi-ethnic country in the Caribbean. My ancestors on one side are Chinese and on the other a number of races, part Indian, part black, even a touch of Caucasian, though it's unfashionable to mention that right now." Tracy grew up in Canada. When she was 14, her parents split and she ended up in the Welsh valleys with her mother.

"I saw all these cows and these children in uniform. I'd been to Canadian Junior High. We wore cut-off jeans. I didn't think I was going to fit in. Being stuck in the country was frightening to me."

So, at 14, she legged it to London and worked for an escort agency, where she was "tolerated as a kid who was around, but they didn't give me much work." She remembers it through rosy lenses. "You know when you want to be successful at something, and it's out of reach, it can be a very misty, romantic memory? That's how I recall it. Seeing all those older girls around, so grown-up and sophisticated, and wanting to be one of them." She claims to have admired Playboy centrefolds while still in single figures, and to have wanted to be a hooker from the age of 10.

Twenty-odd years later, she's now permanently given it up to be a novelist, revealing to the world the demi-monde of Manhattan's Upper East Side, "a funny area, part Mayfair, part Highgate. There's a lot of call girls, and they're living next door to these young families. In the middle of the day, there are a lot of guys, bankers and lawyers and doctors, popping in and out to visit girls in between meetings. In the evening, people take longer. They have 30 minutes or an hour to spare."

Her book has been translated into six languages (though it's banned in Beijing), the screenplay is in the hands of Claudia Shear, the author of a comedy about Mae West called Dirty Blonde and, as Quan artlessly says, "It's easier to get a boyfriend if you're a writer." She's also pleased that her book, despite being essentially chick-lit with handcuffs, is being read by as many men as women. Why so? "It's chick-lit guys can relate to. It's got a lot of insights into how women actually think and feel. Also Nancy really likes men. And she likes herself. I think men want to be around a woman who likes herself. Some feminist types don't realise that about prostitution. They think it's only about men ordering up a D-cup or this or that sex act. Yes there is that element, but what clients want is someone who can do that and hold her own and be herself."

I told her about a friend who once watched an escort and her client in Green Park. When she pulled out a packet of Marlboros, he said, "Hey - I ordered a non-smoker."

"Yeah, OK," said Tracy, "but really you shouldn't smoke if you're a call girl."

Such a schoolma'am. How about drinking, then?

"You shouldn't drink on the job," said Manhattan's most correct hooker, "but personally, I do like a glass of dry white wine." She sighs. "It's my only vice."

'Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl', by Tracy Quan, is published on Monday (Harper Perennial, £6.99)

Great literary lovers

THE BOOK: 'Belle de Jour: Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, 2005

WHAT'S THE STORY? The highs and lows of life as a hooker. It began as a weblog.

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? "I never sleep with any of my friends' exes, who are probably riddled with more diseases than a Bangkok kitty."

THE BOOK: 'The Sexual Life of Catherine M', 2002

WHAT'S THE STORY? An explicit semi-autobiographical account of the sexual adventures of Catherine Millet, the editor of a Paris art magazine.

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? "When André opened his fly in front of my face, I was amazed to find something smaller and more malleable, because, unlike Claude, he was not circumcised."

THE BOOK: 'Memoirs of a Geisha', 1997

WHAT'S THE STORY? Our heroine is an orphan who makes her name as one of these highly prized artists.

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? "Even the fish smell on his hands was a kind of perfume. If I had never known him, I'm sure I would not have become a geisha."

THE BOOK: 'Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure', 1749

WHAT'S THE STORY? A young ingenue is taken into a house of ill repute, and goes on to have sex with most of the men in London.

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? "...Had not even charity urged me to our mutual relief, it would have been cruel indeed to have suffered the youth to burst... when the remedy was... so near at hand."

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