Start Writing vet Nerissa Martin on the appeal of self-improvement stories, the desire for connection, and the duelling alter-egos in her debut novel, Girl Tracy.
Tracy June Leonard is unemployed, single, mid-thirties, with no kids and a limp career in public relations. Since sex work was legalized and showed up in Toronto, her focus at work has become scattered. During the day she maintained a clean, corporate image. At night she fantasized herself as Gemini, an alter-ego who lives the life Tracy wants to live, and through which she could imagine what it would be like to be a sex worker.
Q: Tracy and Gemini are both fully realized characters—but very different creatures. Who came to you first?
A: An idea came before the characters. The notion of a person looking at their own life and comparing it to the people’s lives around them. I pictured a woman watching people on their phones, and her belief that other people had people. Seeing others texting and calling highlighted a void in her own life. What she wanted was to have people. A sense of community. But more than community, what she wanted was autonomy. This evolved into Tracy’s story. Someone who wanted to pursue being a sex worker but didn’t think she could because of the way her life was set out.
Q: And Gemini becomes her alter-ego.
A: Tracy doesn’t speak about a higher self and betterment—she doesn’t talk in Oprah terms—so Gemini is a way to introduce intuition while still being authentic to Tracy’s background. Oprah’s got great ideas by the way. And I’m interested in self-improvement stories. I’m just more attracted to people seeking to change themselves without access to millions of dollars.
Q: What attracts you to self-improvement stories?
A: Watching everyday people attempt to improve their lives is a powerful narrative. To watch the steps someone would take in real life, watching their moves play out in a 3D world. If someone can make a real, lasting change for themselves, even in a fictional narrative, then it could provide a blueprint for other people to follow.
Q: A lot of people claim to have that blueprint.
A: I have a deep frustration with the self-help / guru world. I memorized Tony Robbins’ stuff for example and got so frustrated. After a point you have to ask yourself, what do people like him even know what I’m doing? Where I’m from? As much as I’m attracted to that content, I have a bit of an issue that all the “successful” people in these stories have higher profiles. I’m more interested in people who attempt change without all those resources. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen hits some of those marks for me. It’s more of a thriller but we’re in Eileen’s mind and experiencing her choices and changes through her perspective.
In some ways, Girl Tracy is a thought experiment. What would it actually look like for someone to remake their life when what they’re striving for isn’t considered a traditional improvement? I thought that someone might read her story and think, “if Tracy could make that kind of change, what could I do with my life?”
Q: So Girl Tracy started as an idea. When it did become a novel?
A: A year or two after I left your workshop, the legalization of marijuana started to take hold. I thought, OK, this is happening now. What if a similar legalization came through for sex work? I wanted that framework in place so that Tracy could pursue her path without fear of going to jail. I wanted to follow her journey as she goes through this process to see who she is and how she lands. That meant having to set the book in the near future, once sex work had already been legalized.
Q: You had a lot of ideas to track. What was your writing process?
A: The first draft was written between jobs. I find being between jobs helps a lot with my writing process. I can write evenings and weekends but daytime, 9-5 writing is my prime. The first few drafts came between jobs, then I switched to writing evenings and weekends.
When I started writing, my intention was to be done with it fast. Get it out into the world in a year. I’d always expected this book to be my dip into self-publishing, to learn how that process works. But the story refused to cooperate.
As Tracy’s story deepened, I realized that if I was going to write about a character going into the sex industry I couldn’t do that without talking about her privilege and address sex trafficking in some way. To honour her story and these themes became more important than a deadline. So the entire process ended up taking four or five years.
Q: That’s a long journey. You must have been surprised along the way.
A: I knew who Tracy was as a character early on. She took me some places I didn’t expect but those places made sense. Gemini too. Over time the secondary characters surprised me more. One of Tracy’s new friends (a contractor) had an alcoholic mother. At first I wrote the mother so that Tracy recognizes the signs quickly, as they remind her of her own stepfather. This unlocked a need in Tracy to confront her mother about her past. When Tracy’s problems start multiplying, an incident with this woman forces Tracy out of her own head. She ends up playing a big role towards the end of the novel. I didn’t plan for this at all. But as I was writing it just fell into place.
Those characters were a lot of fun. They were my friends.
Q: Girl Tracy is out in the world. What’s next for you?
A: There’s more to tell. Even after all the time invested in Tracy’s story, you can’t help sometimes feeling like a novice. Sometimes I wonder if I wrote the book right and if I could have done more. But I know I told the best story I could at the time I told it. I’m glad Tracy’s out there.
Read an excerpt from Girl Tracy and more about Nerissa at http://nerissamartin.com/