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Lisa Taddeo on Writing the Female Experience: “It’s Meant to Make People Feel Less Alone”


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Lisa Taddeo has become synonymous with the sex lives of other women.

Her explosive debut, Three Women, became a best-seller and an international cultural sensation for her provocative and sensitive retelling of the sexual experiences of real-life subjects. Last June she published her first novel, Animal, a spiritual follow-up to her 2019 book, and this week her first-ever short story collection Ghost Lover — the title story is about the owner of a dating service that farms out romantic text message correspondence to an army of cool-girl experts — hits shelves. In all of her work, she explores the things that make modern women tick, displaying a willingness to discuss potentially taboo topics.

The author, who is currently putting the finishing touches on the television version of Three Women (set for a fall release on Showtime) and working on the adaptation of Animal, sees the release of Ghost Lover as a return to form. Her first-ever major published piece was a short story, based on the final days of Heath Ledger, that ran in Esquire. “And when I was a kid, I started submitting short stories to literary magazines,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I would be in my parents’ basement printing out copies and having my dad drive me to the post office to mail them out with cover letters.”

Taddeo spoke with THR via Zoom from her home in New England to discuss how her latest project fits into her body of work and what she’s learned while bringing her debut book to the screen.

Do you remember the subject matter of the very first short stories you wrote? Were you writing on gender politics as a 12-year-old?

I read a lot when I was young. We would go to the municipal pool and I would pick up whatever book was around. I read a lot of horror and murder because of what my dad had lying around. And one summer my mom had Flowers in the Attic — reading that as a little girl is going to mess up your brain a little bit. In my tweens I wrote a lot about kidnapped kids. There was this boy who was kidnapped in the ’80s, Adam Walsh, and it kind of rocked everyone’s world and was a really jarring news story, and I remember ideas like that permeating. Dark or supernatural things were my go-to.

Did you set out to create a hat trick — a novel, a nonfiction book and a short story collection — with your body of work?

I’m very passionate about short stories, but it’s hard to make money doing it. Publishers and literary magazines pay so little for them, so even though I’m very excited when I publish one, I couldn’t do only that. I actually wrote my novel Animal and the stories for Ghost Lover concurrently as I was getting my fiction MFA. I went back to school after Three Women, and one of the reasons was that being a fiction writer was always my dream, and I knew that having a successful nonfiction book was going to take away from that — if you have success in one form, people are naturally skeptical of you working on other forms. I think it’s part of what we do to keep each other down, wanting to box people into things. 

After Three Women you spoke a lot about some of our more puritanical reflexes, especially as they influenced reactions to the book. I expect some of that may resurface as the show gets closer to release, but you’ve also now released two more books with similar subject matter. Have you seen a shift in the way we’re able to receive this material, culturally?

I think it really depends on the person and on the day. Some people feel seen by my honest writing, and some people do the pearl-clutching. It’s funny, I recently did a podcast and the host mentioned that something I wrote about eyelash tinting made her feel a little like, “Oh, wow, she’s talking about me.” But I’m talking about me, too. There is not one beauty treatment that has been within my budgetary reach that I haven’t tried. But what I do is I write about my obsessions and the obsessions of my friends and the women I spoke to for Three Women; it’s meant to make people feel less alone, not to point fingers. I’m not telling people how to feel, I’m saying this is how I’ve felt or this is how women I know have felt. I also think that culturally we have a problem with simply walking away from conversations or topics we don’t want to be a part of — instead of walking away, we get upset and tell other people what not to talk about. That’s more of the same subjugation, it’s just more shaming.

You’re a year out from the release of Animal, which uses some revenge narratives to deal with areas of abuse that arise in Three Women; how did your readers receive the — and I hate to use this rote description — complicated female protagonist in Animal?

I’m working on the film adaptation for Animal right now and I’m doing a lot of thinking about this. I’m generalizing here but I feel like half of the people who read the book were like, “I feel seen. This woman is clearly in a lot of pain and has created armor to protect against that.” There’s this saying that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable — and I’ve always been more interested in comforting the disturbed. I lost my dad when I was 23, at a time in my life where he still did so much to take care of me, so I, too, created a lot of armor around that trauma.

I’ve seen that anecdotally with some of the reactions to Frances, the protagonist in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends — people find her annoying, but I see her as a young person dealing with depression and endometriosis and some tough family issues…

That’s exactly what we can do to each other. We hold women to these standards — and we can criticize women when they’re not even a real person, they’re fictional characters. I think my work, too, can tend to make some people angry. People can get angry when they feel seen — like how dare you excavate this part of me? I think that reaction is really interesting, but ultimately I’m just trying to reflect life experiences that I have seen in an honest way, and especially for younger women. I’m sort of always writing to my daughter so that she has a compendium of what I’ve been through. I don’t want her to be surprised by the world.

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Shailene Woodley as Gia — a character based on Taddeo — in ‘Three Women.’


There are a lot of things about Three Women that pushed the boundaries, in a good way, for book publishing; do you think there are elements of the adaptation that will do the same for television?

It’s funny, you really never know what is going to be the thing that pisses someone off. It’s something we have to be cognizant of, because there’s so much competition in television, and networks don’t want people to turn off a show if a viewer doesn’t like something. There’s a desire to be both attention-grabbing but not push people away. One of the things I’ve been very vocal about [for the adaptation] is wanting to see more male nudity than female. We’re not used to seeing that and there could be viewers who come to a sex scene and get upset. But it’s very important to me that this show is from the female gaze as opposed to the straight male. I wanted to honor the woman’s experience in each of the relationships and sexual encounters on the show.

You’re working on the series yourself, as a writer and executive producer — are there any learning curves?

What has surprised me most about the process of making television is sort of just how nonstop it is, and there’s a lot of rewriting — for things like budget or production purposes. I didn’t know it was going to be that intense even on the day of, whether we can’t afford something anymore or weather isn’t cooperating with what we were supposed to shoot. There are so many more people, and a lot more money, involved in making a TV show than in making a book. You start to realize, “OK, one more person’s opinion is going to add two more hours to my day.” (Laughs.) But when you’re trying to make something great, you just deal with all of that. I hope it will all be for a reason.

Blair Underwood, who plays the husband to main character Sloan, mentioned on Today that the show is the most risqué thing he’s ever done…

He is such an amazing human being, and I knew from the beginning I wanted him [in the role]. It was the one thing I couldn’t let go. I was just, “Please just let me talk to him, and need to convince him to do this.” I talk about this all the time but literally any line he is given, no matter how well it is written, will sound good when he says it. So I’ll just say I’m really excited about it.

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