Newspaper article International New York Times

Dirty Talk, Reading Dostoyevsky and the Art of Writing on the Night Shift

Newspaper article International New York Times

Dirty Talk, Reading Dostoyevsky and the Art of Writing on the Night Shift

Article excerpt

A writer new to London finds her voice during a part-time job responding to sex messages from men who rarely want to talk about great literature.

In 2004 I was fresh to London and green enough to think I would establish myself as a professional writer within a year. Not quite the wannabe actress arriving in Hollywood and waitressing, but not far off. I came to love London, once I'd conquered its back streets and understood its secrets, but my first year living there was bleak and harrowing.

I secured an entry-level job in the publishing industry that covered my rent and nothing more. I lived in a house share in the badlands of South London, and one of my housemates was an actor who was paid one time with six months' supply of a breakfast cereal that he kindly shared with the rest of us. When he realized that my diet consisted solely of these sugary puffs he offered to help get me a part-time job where he worked between auditions: as a writer of sex- related messages to men who paid for the thrill of receiving them.

"Don't judge," he said. "It's flexible and it pays O.K." Feeling prudish, I turned him down at first, but that month my paycheck was barely in my bank account before it was thoroughly spent. So I asked him to tell me more.

The office was in Kings Cross, a grim part of London full of warehouses and alleyways best avoided. I was surprised to be led inside a room resembling a straightforward call center: beige walls, cell booths with individual computers and swivel chairs, a large pin board with a staff schedule and a kitchen area with tea-making facilities.

The guy in charge was a pleasant enough man in his late 30s. He led me to a booth and pointed to a screen where streams of messages were queued up, similar to a chat room. He said he would leave me for a minute and asked me to read the screen while he was gone. I looked. "What are you wearing?" "Hey, so what are you doing?" "Wanna talk?" Mild, entry-level chat-room openers. He came back.

"Does this content offend you?" he asked.

"Not really," I said.

"Do you know how to use a PC?"

"Yes."

"You've got the job."

It paid Pounds 11 an hour, and I worked two nights a week. Men (I never encountered anyone claiming to be a woman) sent messages in response to ads that said, "Looking for single women near you?" They texted from their phones, and I answered them via computer.

There were a range of identity options for me to click on and pretend to be: Inga, new to London; Susan, bored and looking for trouble -- that kind of thing. The aim was to keep the man at the other end replying because he was forking over Pounds 1.50 a text. The overall challenge was to win the Queen of the Night award for the receiver of the most texts, the winner getting a Pounds 25 bonus. The first time I achieved that lofty height, I felt oddly proud. …

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