Isabelle Fortier was born on March 5, 1973, in Quebec, Canada. As a child, Fortier was creative and intelligent, but also tortured in her own mind as she struggled to live within the narrow bounds of her Catholic upbringing. After moving to Montreal as a student where she studied literature at the University of Quebec, Fortier was exposed to lifestyles and ideas that her religious upbringing had not prepared her curious and thoughtful mind for. She experienced what she described as a “debauchery of values” as a result.
To help pay for her studies, Fortier responded to an ad for escorts, and soon became a regular sex worker, at the same time as a gifted student, and then best-selling author. Her work as an escort compounded her difficulties with her body image. Fortier, who began to operate under the pen name Nelly Arcan, subjected herself to multiple cosmetic procedures, though struggled with the mixed feelings of having altered her appearance to gain attention, then simultaneously struggling with attention being placed on her image rather than her work as an author.
Her first novel, PUTAIN (English Title: WHORE), was originally written as a text for her psychoanalyst, but became a manuscript. Released in 2001 and based off her life as a sex worker, PUTAIN was nominated for both the Médicis and the Prix Femina, two of the most prestigious French literacy prizes. Arcan followed this with three additional novels that grew her star power in Quebec and France. Second novel, FOLLE (English Title: HYSTERIC) in 2004 was also nominated for the Prix Femina. In addition to her novels, Arcan wrote several short stories, opinion pieces, and columns for various Quebec newspapers and literary magazines.
On September 3, 2009, three weeks before her death, Arcan published a story in her weekly column in the Quebec French-language ICI MAGAZINE, entitled TAKE ME, OR YOU’RE DEAD, detailing an experience with a stalker. Three days prior to her death, Arcan submitted the final corrections to her fourth novel, PARADIS CLEF EN MAIN (English Title: Exit).
On September 24, 2009 at just 36 years of age, Nelly Arcan passed away after hanging herself.