Zibby Owens: Hi. I'm so excited to be interviewing Lisa Taddeo. Lisa is the author of Three Women, a groundbreaking nonfiction book about three women's lives intersected by desire. Winner of two Pushcart Prizes for her short stories including a riveting essay called “Forty-Two” from the New England Review of Books, Lisa has contributed to Esquire, Elle, Glamour, and many other publications. Her nonfiction has been included in The Best American Political Writing and Best American Sports Writing anthologies. She currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter.
Thanks so much, Lisa, for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Lisa Taddeo: Oh, my gosh, yeah. I've been following you on Instagram since -- I’ve actually heard about you for a while. I wasn’t on Instagram or Twitter until very recently. I'm like, oh, these are all people that I know. It’s been quite illuminating. I absolutely love your Instagram. I love what you do. It’s really cool, obviously, for a mom who doesn't have time to read. Anyway, thank you. It literally makes me feel so happy.
Zibby: Aw, that made my whole day. Thank you. I'm having one of those days today where nothing is going right. That actually just carried me a long way, so thanks.
Lisa: Good. It is funny when things aren't going right by like 10:15. Oh, my god. [laughs] There's this whole other part of the day to live.
Zibby: Totally. Exactly. As if I can't turn it around, right? It just started. [laughs] Your book Three Women, I'm so excited to talk to you about it because this is a holy-shit book for me. I could not get over this book. I was enthralled from the very beginning. I have so many questions. First of all, thank you for this book. It’s a work of art.
Lisa: Thank you for calling it a holy-shit book. This might be my favorite compliment ever. Thank you.
Zibby: You're welcome. Can you tell listeners what Three Women is about? What inspired you to take on this really massive nonfiction project that reads just like fiction?
Lisa: Three Women is about three distinct and ordinary -- I say ordinary meaning they're not celebrities or anyone that is known in the world. I wanted to take people who were just like everyone else and highlight that there's importance to every single life story since I feel like a lot of people, their life stories aren't told in a certain way. The first woman, her name is Lina. She is a housewife in suburban Indiana -- not suburban, I'm sorry, somewhat rural Indiana. I started a discussion group in Indiana after moving there from New York City because I felt that New York City, it wasn’t conducive to getting into someone else's worldview and out of my own. I had a life there. Anyway, sorry to be tangential.
I moved to Indiana, started a discussion group with the help of a doctor who had a bunch of patients that were talking to him about weight loss. He was giving them hormones. It was a very interesting group of women. One of the women who came into the discussion group, her name was Lina. On the day that I met her, she was deciding to separate from her husband, which is something that is not done in her family and her part of Indiana. She couldn't talk to anyone about it, but she was making this decision. The reason she was deciding to was because her husband, for over a decade, had not kissed her on the mouth and said that the sensation offended him. They went to a couple’s therapist who basically said, “That's okay. Lina, you know how you don't like the feeling of wet wool on your skin? That's the way that your husband feels about kissing you on the mouth. It offends him.” It was horrifying to hear that. It was just horrifying. She also was embarking upon an affair with her high school lover who she had been obsessed with her whole life. She had recently found him on Facebook. Both these things were happening. The immediacy of her story was so heartbreaking and also really wonderful to write about because it was happening in the moment. She needed someone to talk to. It was a perfect storm.
Zibby: Wait. Can I read a quote that you wrote about Lina, which was so beautiful about her and her lack of affection with her husband Ed? You wrote, “She felt life slipping. She felt that her body was being wasted, that her heart was resting like steak on a cutting board.” I loved that line. You can go on now.
Lisa: I found the second woman, Maggie. I'd driven across the country by this point four or five times. I would do it six times before finding all of the people. In North Dakota, I was researching this group of women that were immigrants working at a coffee shop during the day and being trucked into the local oil fields at night as prostitutes for the men. It was very interesting to me. I was in this coffee shop. I was reading a local paper. I read about Maggie’s trial wherein this young woman who had an alleged relationship with her high school teacher, who went on to win the award of North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, she has come forward with her story after several years. The trial went a certain way. Nobody in her town believed her, including people very close to her. The thing that struck me about the article was that there had been hundreds of hours of phone calls after eleven and midnight between the teacher and Maggie. Those were irrefutable. They didn't have the text messages anymore, but they had these phone calls and these notes in her Twilight books where he had written things like “Is this like us? I can't wait until you're eighteen.” He was comparing himself to the vampire lover in Twilight. It was shocking to me that nobody believed her. I drove to Fargo the next day and introduced myself. That's how Maggie began.
The third woman, Sloane, is a very beautiful entrepreneur whose husband likes to watch her have sex with men and other women either in front of him or somewhere else and she videotapes it for him. I had already moved into that town because I'd been talking to other people in the town as possible subjects. Then when I heard about Sloane, I heard all these rumors. The first rumor that I heard, which was shocking to me that it was a rumor, it was not even about the swinging but rather about the fact that her husband wanted to have sex with her every day. Not only did she “allow it,” but she also wanted to do it too. What was shocking to me was the “Can you believe it?” Whatever, it’s fine. Some people want to. Some people don't. It was the mocking of her which I found so interesting and kind of horrifying also. For me, these three women, they came to define the way that our culture, our society, the way we know if something is other than us, we revile it or we project our own fears onto others and then freak out. Those are the three women. I feel like I'm talking so much. Please stop me.
Zibby: You found these three women. You tied together their stories, which were woven in and out beautifully. You started the book with a passage that you wrote in the first person. Then you ended with a passage in the first person. Structurally, I found that really interesting. You open up by talking about your mother and how when she was a young girl in Italy, this dirty old man would masturbate behind her on the street and how she allowed that to happen. That sets the stage for this sexually tinted narrative which comes after. How did you decide to start off with your own story, or her own story, really?
Lisa: That came very late in the game. Nearly all of the book had already been written and was already interwoven. First of all, the publisher had said, “I think you need to, at some point, give a little bit of how you feel,” because I had left myself out purposefully. I considered that. I still didn't want to say how I felt because how I felt is not as important as the way that other people feel just hearing the stories, I think. What I did decide was that these women, indeed all of the people who I'd spoken to for the book which were in the hundreds, and twenty to thirty very in-depth, all of these people had given themselves to this book through no gain of their own and without ego, except for some of the men I spoke to. There's a lot of ego involved in them.
The women, for the most part, and a lot of the men were not getting anything out of it. They were talking. If anything, they were getting out of it just a release in talking about it. Because they had put themselves out there in such a way, I felt like I should do the same in a sense. I didn't want it to be about me. I wanted it to show what shaped us. A lot of people talk about the daddy issues, which are a thing. For me and a lot of the women in the book, I think all of them had mommy issues in a way. The weight of the mother is greater than we know until later in life, which is something I think about every day when I feel like I'm messing my child up for life with the wrong words.
Zibby: Totally. Can I ask you a little more about Maggie’s section to start? Maggie’s section, this was basically the first one you open the book with. You say, “Six years ago you were smaller, and he loved your little hands. Back then, his own hand fluttered inside you. A lot has changed. Your father is dead. In August, he slit his wrists in a nearby cemetery.” That is a lot for the first page of a book. Tell me about your writing style. I was so gripped with Maggie, especially with Maggie and the way you describe the teacher, the way you bring to life that abuse question mark with the two of them and how you crafted it. I was wondering, did you always write in this way? It’s super visual, sometimes second person. Tell me about your writing style and how it developed. Did you have to take a class for this? Is this just the way you write?
Lisa: The principle I lead with is that I never want to be boring. Specifically with nonfiction, boring is easy to slip into, even for me, for anyone. It’s difficult because there are these facts. You need to be honest about the facts. It’s more difficult to take the poetic license that one can take with fiction or poetry, of course. I had it very much in mind. Specifically, I had it in mind with Maggie’s story. I needed people to feel what she had felt from the inside out rather than the outside in. In order to do that, I chose the second person to start it with because I wanted there to be an immediate immersion in her feelings and thoughts. That's where I went to.
I write fiction. My novel’s coming out next year. Then my collection of short stories will follow. I definitely have a fiction background. I got my MFA at BU. While I was finishing the end of the book, I was reading so much fiction. I almost exclusively read fiction. I read nonfiction essays. I love Mary Gaitskill. Somebody with a Little Hammer is one the most recent collections of nonfiction that I've read, which is absolutely amazing. For the most part, I read fiction. That's where a lot of it comes from. In fiction, you can be free. In nonfiction, I wanted to bring that same freedom to it while still obviously having everything be true.
Zibby: I'm going to read one more quote from Maggie’s section about texting, which I think is the most beautiful thing I've read about texting. You said, “Lines of communication pile up like Tetris blocks. For the most part, their entries leave a good-natured slot for the other person to reply, except that some of Maggie’s don't. But there's enough in them for [indiscernible] to find a filament, pick it up and thread it forward into a new conversation.” You could’ve just said, “They texted back and forth.” It’s a literary event. I thought that was really cool.
Lisa: To give you a background in that, I would ask Maggie specifically, “What did you write?” Then she would say, “I wrote this.” She remembered it, I would say verbatim, because that’s what young women remember when you're in love with someone. She would tell me that. I'd be like, “He did text back?” She was like, “No. I didn't do anything for three hours.” We talked about that same instance because it was the first instance of them connecting in that way and reaching out in a non-teacher manner. I really wanted to get down the way that it happened. When it’s in the trial, it’s like, “And then there were these texts.” You need to know how the texts worked and who was pushing it in order to believe her, which I did implicitly and right away.
Zibby: In Sloane’s section now, sorry to jump around. I want to hear about all these girls. Sloane, who's the one who was having sex with her husband every day and that was shocking in the town --
Lisa: -- So terrible. [laughs]
Zibby: A lot of the press around your book and everything is about women's desire and how this is a commentary on women in some way. This quote is about women's perception of each other. You wrote, “Sloane, who was known for being thin and sexy, immediately there in the kitchen began to list the ways in which she was better than Karen and the ways in which Karen was better than her. Sloane was thinner. Karen was younger. Sloane owned the restaurant, and Karen merely worked in it.” You go on and on describing how they sized each other up right away. Do you think that women do this more than men? Why? Do you feel like it’s a detriment? Is this part of women making some sort of statement? Talk to me about that passage.
Lisa: I do think women do it more than men. I just read that piece in New York Magazine the other day -- I don't know if you guys saw it -- about the incels who get all this plastic surgery.
Zibby: I didn't see it.
Lisa: It’s absolutely amazing. I was looking at that. There's a passage that's awesome in that where the author writes this one young man that she had been talking to was saying that his ideal dream was to live in a plastic surgery office and have the doctor right there on hand so anytime he looked in the mirror and found something that he didn't like, he could just go into the operating room and take care of it. My friend had written to me about this story. I copied that passage and texted it back to her. I said, “Fuck. Am I an incel?” I want that same thing too. A lot of the women I talked to, like Lina who was constantly assessing her looks in the mirror, it affected the way she went about her day. Sloane has this part where she looks in a mirror and is seeing age around her eyes. She's like, “I can't drink anymore at night because I wake up looking like this. That didn't used to happen when I was twenty-five and even thirty-five.” There was so much of that in almost every woman that I spoke to. Obviously, some of the men had something similar. Most of the men, they were more concerned with their position in the world and financials. For them, they weren’t looking at their looks unless they were a particular kind of man.
For the most part with women, I do think there's a sizing up, especially when you're younger. Sloane was younger when she did that. I remember I had one friend in college who would not go to a party unless she was assured that she would be the most attractive person in the room. I've seen so much. I remember thinking that's insane. I also understood it. I don't feel that way, but I have felt something like that way in my life. I think that we do it in different circumstances, and almost everybody. I spoke to a group of swingers in Cleveland because I was interested in the whole thing. Then when I spoke to them more, it wasn’t that deep, whereas Sloane was. The swingers in Cleveland, they needed the other woman or the other man or whomever, they needed to feel better looking than them. Otherwise, there's a, “Is this person performing oral sex on this other person more because they're more attractive?” It’s a biological feeling that has also been molded by society.
Zibby: What is it about you that made you want to learn about all these stories? This is unusual that you spent so many years digging into other people's lives, crashing them into this really awesome book. How did you get here? I know you won a Pushcart for your great essay “Forty-Two” and another Pushcart. “Forty-Two” by the way, was amazing because I am forty-two. How did you grow up or what it is along your journey that made you attracted to this sort of a project?
Lisa: The two things that I'm the most interested in and the two things that I think drive most of our lives are sex and death, not to be [indiscernible]. I had a lot of loss in my twenties. I lost my parents, my dog, my aunt, my uncle. Almost all my entire family was decimated, again, not to be [indiscernible]. It was a lot of loss. This project started very differently than how it ended. When I started finding people that I really thought were both narratively interesting and relatable on a human level, because I had so much loss, I think that I was drawn to the aloneness that one can feel in desire. I didn't want people to feel alone. A lot of the kind of conversations that I had with people were me listening and making sure that they knew that there was someone seeing them on the other side because for a lot of these women, for Lina specifically, for so many of the other people I spoke to, the lack of being seen was heartbreaking.
This happened recently. The German editor of my book said to me that the thing that struck him the most was how the indifference of men or any person who is the alpha in a relationship, how the indifference could be so wounding. Whereas a man or a person might just not text back because they're busy. They’ve compartmentalized the other human being as something that see when they need to or want to see her or him. That not responding just because you don't really need to in that moment, it’s a heartbreaking thing. That was something that I was very in tune with and attuned to and that I wanted to understand more about.
Zibby: I'm sorry to hear about all of your loss. That's tragic and terrible. I'm really, really sorry.
Lisa: I didn’t mean to -- I just realized I used the world decimated, which is pretty aggressive.
Zibby: Please don't apologize. I want to hear. I wanted to get to know you. That's what it’s all about, seriously, finding out what motivates people to write and also how people handle loss. You took your own loss and made it into something like this. Whereas other people handle it in very different ways. I find that really fascinating. I love hearing about it. Please don't apologize for that. That was my favorite, not to say it’s my favorite part of the interview. Tell me more about your family’s decimation. This is getting juicy. [laughter]
Lisa: I totally get it. Thank you. Sometimes people, they don't know how to -- I'm like, “Look. I brought it up. I'm obviously fine with discussing it.” Death and desire makes people nervous. There's a lot going on there.
Zibby: I also had a lot of loss in my twenties.
Lisa: I'm sorry.
Zibby: No, it’s fine. I'm very open. I don't get scared away. I’ll just say that.
Lisa: Me neither.
Zibby: Once you've been through a lot of stuff -- some people who haven't been through stuff are a little trepidatious -- is that even the right word? -- about getting to close to it. I'm not one of those people. Don't worry. When you went through all that, did you use writing as a way to -- cope is such a cliché word. Did you find yourself writing to help you through that period of time? Did you handle it in other ways?
Lisa: I did. It took a while to get back into it, but I did. Again, not to be whatever, but after my father passed away, I moved back home to live with my mom because she was lost without him. I wrote this novel about a young woman taking care of her mother who was sick. What was funny is my mother was not sick at the time. I was likening what I was doing to dealing with somebody with a disease because that's how it felt because she was so depressed. Then she actually did get sick. Then she passed away. I had this new novel that I almost felt had foretold this thing. That was kind of devasting. I thought it was cathartic, but then it just became horrifying. Then from there, it took a little bit of time because I was scared. When I started writing short stories again in my late twenties and early thirties, that was when I started to feel a catharsis from getting back into it.
Zibby: Wow. What a journey. I feel terrible that you felt, not that you foretold it, but that something you’ve dreamed up had happened and it ended up being such a terrible thing. I would've been afraid to write anything. What if it happened? [laughs]
Lisa: Exactly. I definitely still am. There are things I won't touch, which is why writing nonfiction, it’s a lot easier in a way because it’s real. It’s someone else's story. It feels cleaner and more straightforward.
Zibby: Interesting. What is your new novel about?
Lisa: It is about a woman’s rage, I suppose is the best way to put it. It starts out with a man coming into a restaurant while a woman is having dinner with a married man who is not her husband. This other man walks up to the table and pulls out a gun and shoots himself in front of her. We don't really know why in the beginning. She drives from New York to California. It’s the kickoff for her. It’s the last straw because of several things that have happened in her past. She drives to California to find another woman. We don't know what the relationship is. Then they meet. They become friends. Then the following journey is figuring out why it was important for her to find this woman. Then there's a lot of devastation that happens at the end where she takes out her rage on several people.
Zibby: Wow. Oh, my gosh. I can't wait for that one. What's that going to be called?
Lisa: It’s called Animal.
Zibby: I'm envisioning the cover.
Lisa: I surprise me sometimes. It’s funny with Three Women, I really loved the cover. I also love all the other covers of the other countries that I've seen so far. When I saw it, I was like, “Oh, my god. I can't imagine it ever having been a different cover.” The designer, whose name is Alison Forner, her talent is so amazing. Other people who are being published at the same time who have covers by her, they're all so unique. You would never know that it’s all her. Sorry to go on a tangent. I'm really happy with it.
Zibby: Don't be silly. It’s a great cover. Do you find time to read? I know you're a mom like me. My daughter made a little cameo before. When do you find time to read, if at all with all the writing and the mom stuff and whatever?
Lisa: It’s really hard. It’s so hard, as you know. That was the one thing before I had a child that I did the most. Often, my favorite thing to do, literally, was to go out to dinner and sit at a bar of a restaurant and read a book with a glass of wine. I haven't done that. My other favorite thing was, I just love sitting at pools with a book. I could not be happier than doing that. That, neither, has happened. She's four, so I would say five years because I was pregnant and not really out and about too much. I forget what the Japanese word is. There's a Japanese word for when you stack books up on your bedside table or next to your workspace. I have that to a point that is obscene. I have seven stacks of books just on my desk. What I do is, I don't have time to read full books. I read passages of books, either books that I've already read or new books that I just start the first page. Then I’ll wait a day. It’s basically in these snippets of time. Then at night, I work until eleven because it’s been crazy lately. I put my kids to bed at seven thirty. Then I work from seven thirty to ten or eleven. By eleven, I'm dead tired.
Zibby: This all sounds familiar. My latest thing is reading in taxis because I'm in New York City. I used to mostly do stuff on my phone in taxis. That was a good time to deal with Instagram or whatever. Now, you know what? I'm going all the way to the [indiscernible] Center. I have a good thirty minutes. I could do Instagram or I could get through a whole section. I like what you said too about how sometimes you can only read a few passages or you can only read a chapter, half a book or whatever. It’s still good. You still get a sense. You're still in someone else's world. The pressure to read books start to finish can be overwhelming.
Maybe you should do this. I actually just decided I had such a towering stack on my desk. I had interviewed Gretchen Rubin who is all about outer order, inner calm and getting your desktop clean. I'm looking at my desk with this huge stack of books. Oh, my gosh. I just did a big giveaway on Instagram of all the books that I'm actually not going to get around to reading. You should do that. [laughs]
Lisa: I want to, but I don't know that I can. Whenever I read about the art of tidying or whatever, I'm like, okay, but not for books. It’s a good idea, but I don't know. I'm also a sentimentalist. I keep everything.
Zibby: My caveat is that these are books that I had a galley copy of as well or a second copy or that someone had sent me that I wasn't going to get to or whatever. Ignore my idea.
Lisa: No, I want to. I want to do that.
Zibby: I know we’re almost out of time. I have a zillion other questions. We’re going to have to meet in person or something. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Lisa: The main thing, I find it with a lot of younger people, is that there's a lot of waiting for some sort of thing to go off. You can't wait. You have to write because otherwise nothing's going to happen if you don't finish something. The other thing that I've told a lot of younger people that I've taught and stuff like that is perfectionism has no place in almost anything. I’ve always, my whole life, just gotten stuff out the door and then waited for feedback. There's a real fear with writing of being seen and being thought to be not as intelligent or not as creative. The truth is, that stuff, it’s all normal fears. It’s not something that's going to get you to the next place where you want to be. That's my main thing. Don't overwork a draft of anything.
I have a friend who is an amazing writer. She is a beautiful writer. She just works on things for years, like short stories. I'm like, look, this is good enough to get in almost anywhere. Just send it. Finally, I told her, I'm sending this to someone, to an editor I know today. You can try to stop me. I just couldn't take it. It was insane. Just do it. Just finish it. Don't worry too much about it. That's my main advice. That's the biggest hurdle that most people face. One more thing, I feel like the old adage write what you know is obviously so time-old. Time, age, whatever the word is. [laughs]
Lisa: Age-old, thank you. Time-old? I clearly should not be giving writing advice. The age-old adage write what you know, it really is so true. When people write what they're going through in the moment and not necessarily the exact thing, especially when it’s fiction, I always say take the truth of what you're feeling and attach it to a different character in a different world or place so that you can feel more free to invent but also stay true to this thing you understand very deeply. That's my other.
Zibby: Excellent. That was excellent advice. Thanks, Lisa, for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for this book coming out July 9th, is that right? July 9th?
Zibby: Thank you for everything. I appreciate all your time.
Lisa: Thank you for everything. Again, the thing that made me the most excited was seeing your daughter come into the room. Beyond everything else that you're doing, thank you for that.
Zibby: I can arrange that anytime. [laughter]
Lisa: Maybe they can Skype together while we do our work elsewhere.
Zibby: Totally. That would be great.
Lisa: Thank you so much. So lovely to meet you too. Nora and I will read a book in sections.
Zibby: Have a good day.
Lisa: You too. Bye.
Zibby: I had to comment on my interview with Lisa Taddeo. I feel like her book was so dark and disturbing in parts but so riveting. I felt like I really got to the heart of the matter when I found about all of the loss she's had in her life. I've been interviewing a lot of authors lately whose brilliance is inspired by periods of intense grief or something tragic and terrible. Once I find out where that has happened in their lives, it informs the book for me a little bit more. I just wanted to say that I didn't know about that ahead of time. It all makes sense a little more for me now. Maybe when you're reading the book, you keep that in mind, and it might just make the whole experience a little richer for you.