An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Lisa Taddeo
Three Women (Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 9 July 2019; Bloomsbury Publishing, 14 May 2020)
Lisa Taddeo, a former Esquire contributor, is an American author, journalist and two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize for her short stories. Her first work of non-fiction, Three Women, is a riveting true story about the sex lives of three real American women, based on nearly a decade of reporting.
Three Women is a #1 New York Times bestseller, a #1 Sunday Times bestseller and a #1 Indie Next Pick. It’s been hailed as the ‘Best Book of the Year’, by The Washington Post, NPR, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Time, Entertainment Weekly, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Sunday Times, BBC, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Elle and many others.
Three Women is currently being adapted for the US cable network Showtime.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Taddeo, thank you for joining us here at Authorlink. We loved your work in Three Women – your gorgeous, descriptive writing; the clever use of your immersive POV and the almost obsessive examination of women’s desires. It made us consider how most people’s behavior should not be accepted at face value, and that to truly understand another human being, it should come without the taint of judgment.
You’re a respected journalist and a two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize for your short stories, but Three Women is your first non-fiction book. It went straight into the best sellers list in the New York Times and nominated as Book of the Year by many reputable newspapers and magazines. Rachel Cooke in the Observer described it as, “the best book on women and desire I have ever come across”. Dave Eggers wrote that it was, “one of the most riveting, assured and scorchingly original debuts I’ve ever read”. You have been regularly praised and interviewed since its publication six months ago.
How gratifying is it to be receiving this critical acclaim? Is your life surreal at the moment? How has it changed?
TADDEO: It is, of course, gratifying. Humbling, also. It’s been lovely. At the same time, the travel, et al, has been stressful because I really prefer to be home and write. As to surreal, I wouldn’t say so. I still wrestle my daughter to brush her hair every night. I am still an anxious mess. I am working all the time (more, in fact) so I genuinely have not “enjoyed” anything that’s come out of it, other than the wonderful feeling of hearing from people I’ve always idolized. But I don’t know that I’ve really had the time to consider what’s going on. I’m still looking from the inside out. Maybe in a few years I’ll see it for what it was, like all hindsight.
AUTHORLINK: It sounds like you need a holiday! You once said in words to the effect that it’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. That it is separate from sex or lust and is usually an uncharted area.
Is it your opinion that women’s desires are not written about enough?
TADDEO: I really just wanted to tell very specific, very insular stories. Just the lives of three people. I don’t know that desire is NOT written about enough, but I do know I’ve never read something that satisfied me wholly—nonfiction-wise. Whenever someone tells me a story, like, and then she went home with this guy and the next day he broke her heart. And I’m always, What was the guy wearing? When did he leave her house?
AUTHORLINK: We understand your journey in writing Three Women all began when your editor got in touch after you published a piece for the New York magazine called, ‘The Half-Hooker Economy’ about Rachel Uchitel after the Tiger Woods scandal, and suggested you write a book. He sent you several titles for background reading including, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, by Gay Talese. His book made an impression on you, however, it made you think that most men think and talk about sex in a gender-specific way, compared to most women. This inspired you to write a book about sex for the modern time.
Over eight years, you interviewed a fair cross-section of more than a hundred people for your book, (with 20-25 in detail), from all races, sexual preferences, L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ groups, and socio-economic demographics.
At first, the men you interviewed had a little bit of bravado and ego when describing their desire that you found it a bit singular.
Did Gay Talese ever read Three Women and tell you what he thought of it?
“I saw him [Gay Talese] a few months ago and he congratulated me on my success.”
TADDEO: I saw him a few months ago and he congratulated me on my success. I am fairly sure he hasn’t read it.
I have said before, I think it’s three women too many for him.
AUTHORLINK: (Laughs). After all those countless interviews and years of research, it was three people only upon which you finally based your book (who happened to be women – which we discuss further below). This is because you thought their stories were more compelling, more generous in their telling and had more emotional access.
With these women’s stories, we are also sadly reminded of how the ‘domino effect of family trauma’ can warp a girl emotionally, so by the time she grows into a woman, she might be confused about what she needs (and more importantly, who she needs) later on in life.
Your journey began when you had moved to Indiana for research because of the Kinsey Institute and met a doctor there who put you in touch with…
Lina was a Catholic, middle-class, homemaker, who had been the victim of gang rape by three classmates at high school, a horrific moment in time that affected the rest of her life. She later married and had children, but unfortunately, her marriage ended up being an unhappy one. Her husband was unwilling to meet her sexual or emotional desires or even to kiss her on the mouth – the one display of affection she craved more than anything else – which he found ‘offensive’.
We are introduced to her around the time she reconnects with her old high school sweetheart, ‘Aidan’ and launches into a passionate affair. He is a man with whom she finds her sexuality reawakened, but he has no intention of leaving his wife and family.
Eventually, he becomes indifferent to Lina. Perhaps, as you suggest in your book, he is uninterested once he has secured his conquest.
Maggie (her real name)
You found out about Maggie Wilken from the news. Maggie, who comes from a working-class background, alleged she had a sexual relationship with her high school English teacher, Aaron Knodel (his real name), who was once awarded North-Dakota Teacher of the Year. We meet her as she’s dealing with the emotional and legal aftermath.
Maggie’s girlhood years are colored by alcoholic parents, an early relationship with an older man, and the alleged infamous affair with her teacher. We see how the alleged attention of an authority figure, someone she really admired and respected, caused havoc on someone with such low self-esteem (in fact, most teenagers in general). Knodel allegedly used to leave love notes in Maggie’s copy of ‘Twilight’, so that she may interpret his seductions into a kind of fairy tale. However, it was Maggie, that was called a ‘slut’ and a ‘homewrecker’ all the years after.
She brought a court case against him for initiating a sexual relationship with her when she was an underage student, but a jury acquitted Knodel of the three charges against him, and the other two were dropped after the judge ruled there had been a mistrial (because of a rogue juror).
As a result, Maggie felt her story had been dismissed, but with your book, she had an opportunity to make herself heard.
When you were in North Dakota researching another article, you heard a rumor about a restaurateur and prep-school educated woman called Sloane who lived in a small town and the judgment that followed.
Sloane, who once suffered from eating disorders as an adolescent, married charismatic and powerful ‘Richard’, and enjoyed a voracious sex life with her husband. However, when Richard asked Sloane to include a third party into their bedroom, her world turned upside down. Sloane was then regularly invited to have sex with other people selected by Richard, and this led to an unhappy result, despite being in a very happy marriage and apparently to this day.
We wonder, have each of these three women now read your book? What was their reaction? Has it offered any closure? Have the men that featured in their lives read it? If so, how have they reacted?
“They [subjectes of the book] each read the book before it was published.”
TADDEO: They each read the book before it was published. They had the opportunity to make changes, and they did, and the changes they made bettered the book.
I will speak about Maggie because she is not anonymous. She has said it has given her closure. She went from a place of not being believed at all to having thousands of people believe her. Women from all over the world (Kenya, India, etc) have written to her, telling her how she has helped them/healed them. Among the most gratifying—Maggie’s hero, Abby Wambach, posted a picture of herself reading the book. I told Abby that she was Maggie’s hero and Abby publicly wrote back: Maggie’s MY hero.
You can imagine how that felt for Maggie.
AUTHORLINK: It’s such a wonderful thing that you did for Maggie. She could have been any of us. You once said, “One of the commonalities about these three women is that they never judged anyone else, and people judged them.” (Cosmo, 9 July 2019)
It is hard to understand why women sometimes oppress other women. After all your research, and in your opinion, are women judging other women more often than men?
TADDEO: Yes, absolutely, not out in the open, but privately, very much so. We don’t like to admit that. It’s the opposite of what we are trying to do as a gender. We are succeeding in rising up against men. But I think our sisterhood has a lot of chinks in the armor.
AUTHORLINK: Do you feel that people who have gone through unusually grave difficulties in life are often the ones with the most empathy and tend to judge others less?
“…the women in my book seem like “victims” to people. Because they are unswervingly honest.”
TADDEO: Yes, of course. Those are the people who will be the most generous with their time and emotions. They know how hard it is and they want to help others. That’s why the women in my book seem like “victims” to people. Because they are unswervingly honest.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, they are such great people for this reason. Once you found your subjects, you spent months and months with them, even moving to their towns to be part of their daily lives. Throughout the eight years of researching, writing and traveling around the country to interview your subjects, your husband, screenwriter Jackson Waite, was with you every step of the way and later, your four-year-old daughter, was in tow, with whom you have never been parted.
The book’s two-year advance quickly ran out, so you wrote articles in between long sessions of research. Your husband took on jobs in the various towns to keep you afloat, like at K-Mart. We understand he often believed in the book more often than you did (he sounds like a good one!)
How important is partner support when you’re trying to write a book? Could you have written it without him? Did you ever have moments where you wanted to give up? How did writing this book impact your physical and emotional health and relationships?
TADDEO: I would have written a very different book without him. I don’t know what book it would have been, but he encouraged me to not give up on certain people when I felt they had given up on the project, or that they were tired of my presence. He would tell me to just wait, just let things breathe.
That said, to the next question, yes, not as much then, but now. I’ve been busier than ever, with press and travel. My family supports me, but they want me to stop working at 7 pm. But I don’t have the time to do everything, so if I stop at 7, I’ll go back after my daughter is in bed and I’ll work till 1 am and be cranky in the morning.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds tough. Three Women was written largely before the necessary, well-overdue #MeToo movement (at least 97% of it), so it doesn’t feature in your book in any real way. Anyway, your intention was for your book to be about what women want, not what they didn’t want.
Even if you had written your book after, would it have changed the trajectory of your narrative even in a small way, do you think?
“…they don’t understand how very many people don’t really know what #metoo is.”
TADDEO: No. I followed up with all the women after the movement was underway. I don’t know that Maggie’s trial would have gone differently. Sloane definitely had some things change but they didn’t fully impact her trajectory. It was more of an interior sea change that affected her. And as for Lina, #metoo is STILL not a part of her life. People don’t realize that. People in big cities, people engaged with media, social media, et al, they don’t understand how very many people don’t really know what #metoo is.
AUTHORLINK: That’s remarkable. Do you feel Maggie’s trial would have gone differently if it was heard now?
TADDEO: I really don’t think so. After speaking (off the record) to several people close to the trial, I am almost sure it wouldn’t have.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting. We understand an early male reader of yours said, “…until I read your book I didn’t realize how indifference could be so wounding” (The Waterstones, 9 July 2019). It was gratifying to see this message in your book, that is, how ghosting, indifference or not responding to messages, can be so very devastating to a person, compared to a frank conversation about why they no longer wish to continue the relationship.
Have you been able to supplement your understanding of men in general while analyzing and magnifying the lives of these three women?
TADDEO: Yes, I spoke to very many men. I spoke to many of the men in the women’s lives (not mainly the ones in the book) and vice versa. I learned a lot not merely from one gender to the other, but from one half of an intimate coupling to the other.
AUTHORLINK: Do you think men can sometimes be indifferent because they can compartmentalize past hurts – the ones that have been inflicted upon them, as well as the ones they intend to inflict on others?
“Men by nature compartmentalize. Women, by nature, do not.”
TADDEO: Yes, definitely. Men by nature compartmentalize. Women, by nature, do not. This is not to generalize, but it is what I saw in the hundreds of people I spoke to.
AUTHORLINK: This rung true, “We often project our fears onto other people. That’s what causes the judgment. That’s what causes the pain.” (Esquire, 9 July 2019)
We agree it is often the case that when we judge something or someone that has nothing to do with our lives, it is a sign that perhaps we have to face our fears and shame.
Do you think this is the problem with social media trolls, and worse?
“Social media, I think, can bring about the absolute worst in each of us.”
TADDEO: Social media, I think, can bring about the absolute worst in each of us. We have these dark thoughts and we used to put them away. We wouldn’t say them out loud to another person. Often when you meet someone you don’t like from afar in person, you change your opinion, or at the very least some element of humanity breaks through like sunlight. But social media doesn’t allow for that. It makes ghastly room for the opposite.
AUTHORLINK: Absolutely. In the rare moments when you had some quiet time from being a partner and a mum; from either writing, or researching, or waiting to hear from another subject for Three Women, you, incredibly, wrote a whole other book and a collection of short stories!
Your debut novel, Animal, is being published by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, along with your short story collection, Ghost lover. Congratulations!
Are you able to tell us a bit about them? When are they going to be published? How different was it writing Animal, a work of fiction compared to writing Three Woman, a work of non-fiction? Did you work to an outline or plot or did you prefer to see where an idea took you?
TADDEO: Animal is a book about both sisterhood and female rage. It begins when a married man shoots himself in front of the main character, which kicks off this road trip to find the only person in the world she has left, a woman she has, in fact, never met. It’s very dark but, ultimately, I hope—hopeful…
Ghost Lover is a collection of pieces where I explore the parts of humanity we often don’t want to address/admit to. Some of it is borne from the research that didn’t make it into Three Women. I am very proud of the collection.
“Fiction comes much more easily for me. I don’t outline, which gets me into trouble.”
Fiction comes much more easily for me. I don’t outline, which gets me into trouble. When I find the right voice, it tends to flow rather quickly.
I believe Animal will be out in Summer 2021.
AUTHORLINK: We’re looking forward to reading both. Further and about your writing process, do you proofread and edit all your work, or do you get someone to do that for you?
TADDEO: I proofread it all. I spend a lot of time making sure the sentences are good. That the voice is right. When it comes to plot, et al, structure, my editor is heroic.
AUTHORLINK: And now for some final, light-hearted questions which we respectfully ask you answer in one line:-
- Which three famous living people would you invite to dinner?
TADDEO: Joy Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Barack Obama.
- What advice would you give to your younger self?
TADDEO: Things happen not by the day or by the year but by the decade. Stop freaking out.
Read even more. Stop playing Contra.
- What do you like to do when not writing, researching or spending time with your family?
TADDEO: Cooking, walking city blocks for hours, saunas, indoor pools, stacking books and reading like twenty lines from each book in a certain curated stack, looking up dog breeds.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Taddeo, thank you once again for your time today! It was so great talking to you about Three Women and your writing process. We wish you continued success and look forward to reading your next books, Animals and Ghost Lover.
TADDEO: SAME HERE! And thanks for the interesting questions! You know so much about the process already that it felt really great to discuss the other things.
AUTHORLINK: We’re so pleased. Our pleasure.
About the Author: Lisa Taddeo has contributed to New York magazine, Esquire, Elle, Glamour, and many other publications.
Her nonfiction has been included in the Best American Sports Writing and Best American Political Writing anthologies, her short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes, and she is the author of the instant #1 New York Times bestseller, Three Women. Lisa lives with her husband and daughter in New England.
About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a Senior Lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist.
She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors. She also tries to write novels in her spare time, reviews books and writes community pieces for reputable publications.