This month, Elena Bowes caught up with New York Times best-selling author Lisa Taddeo, whose recent nonfiction book Three Women is a global phenomenon. Taddeo spent eight years and thousands of hours following three women in the States – Lina, Maggie and Sloane – focusing on their sexual desires and how that played into their life stories.
In the prologue you write, ‘Throughout history men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way. They love or half-love them and then grow weary and spend weeks or months extricating themselves soundlessly, pulling their tails back into their doorway, drying themselves off and never calling again.’ This resonated very much with me. Can you explain what you see as the principal difference between men and women’s longing?
I think that men are entitled to their desire in a way that women are not. I was very clear about my father’s desire, whereas my mom, I never really knew whether she had any, or even thought to ask. And my mom wasn’t being silenced in any way in the present, but she had been in her past, so I think there is a history of patriarchy, obviously, that is hard to shake. What I learned is that women are incredibly organised about the way they hide the things that they want; they are worried about someone seeing them not getting it. This is obviously not all women, but that is what I saw the most over the course of my research.
When your mother was an old woman she asked you to explain the internet to her so she could look up a man she knew before your father. Do you think a man would carry such longing in him for decades?
Your book Three Women is a riveting read about women’s desire, the true story of three American women’s sex lives. The women portrayed have really stuck with me, including the fourth woman, your mother. She helped spark your eight-year odyssey exploring, as the Washington Post put it so succinctly, ‘desire, infatuation and heartbreak in all its messy, complicated nuance.’
Yes, definitely. I’ve known many who have. I think that, for men, almost more than women—from what I’ve seen, that is—have a sort of ‘thwarted hunt’ aspect. They can’t believe, can’t handle, that they haven’t gotten what they’ve chased. Whereas for women it’s a bit more at: ‘Why didn’t it happen? What went wrong?’ In my mother’s case, it was her choice to not be with that man. I think her longing was based more on feeling lonely in the wake of my father’s death. So I don’t think it was continuous longing so much as, ‘Oh, well, let me check on this because perhaps it will alleviate my pain.’
What role does social media play in sexual desire? Does it inflame it, normalise it, debase it, something else?
Social media, in my experience, mostly inflames it, especially with the younger set. Sometimes it debases it. It can make people want others more, or it can make unrequited love or lust feel like a gut punch.
Did you realise at the onset that your project would take so long and be so all-consuming? What advice would you give writers contemplating an intense research and writing project?
I definitely didn’t think that I was going to be doing it for eight years. I think the original contract was for two years, and a couple of years after I had Lina’s story, I sent it to my editor and he was like, this is great, just do this a couple more times. And by that point I was thinking, oh my god, I can’t do this again, but my editor said it was OK, it’s just going to be a multi-year project, don’t worry about the deadline. It wasn’t like I made this decision to spend eight years; it was two years and then it was like, I have this, now I need more. To other writers, it’s difficult, but be patient with yourself.
Is there anything you learned during the eight years that you wished you’d known from the beginning?
I was surprised in many little ways throughout the process, but there was no grand way in which I was surprised. Talking to as many people as I’ve talked to, I think I’ve learned a great deal about why we do the things we do. The main thing I learned, which, I kind of learned before but the book hammered home, was that we most project our fears onto other people. That’s what causes the judgement. That’s what causes the pain. I only wish I had started writing all of my book projects earlier.
All three characters experienced some form of trauma when they were young that shaped their lives and their relationships with men indelibly. Did you consider following a character who
not suffered trauma as a point of difference, and if not, why not?
Every single person that I interviewed, without exception, had something—either one giant thing or 75 small things. With each story, I was always trying to figure out what the most formative thing was. With Lina, it wasn’t immediately obvious. She told that story of the three boys fairly early in the discussion group, not even privately to me. But she said, and I think I used the quote in the book, “Well I never got a disease from it, or got pregnant, so it’s fine.” It’s not that she forgot it, but she buried it to an extent. Every single person I went deep with had something like that. Men and women.
The three women you chose to portray
are relatively ordinary people. Together, are they supposed to
represent Everywoman in some way?
No, not at all. In the end, these
women are not all women or all men or all people or all sexual proclivities.
Their stories are three stories of three people. They are as important as
anyone else’s, and they deserve to be heard.
What was the most difficult aspect to writing this book?
I felt a responsibility to protect these women. And that weighed on the reporting process monumentally, but it’s weighing even more so now. I’m constantly worried about how people will react to their stories, and I’m worried that people will call Maggie the same names they called her before. I don’t want the other two women to be discovered, and I did a lot to ensure that hopefully that wouldn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t. I think about that every day. I think about it all the time. Literally, it keeps me up at night, every night.
I hope that readers
are able to take away that judgment is brutal and nuance is vital to understanding
one another, that we are all afraid, and we shouldn’t project our fears onto
someone else’s choices.
You are a journalist. This
book reads like a page-turning novel with a compelling immediacy
of voice. Can you discuss how you decided what voice to
for your nonfiction tale?
I was trying, to a
large extent, to create a distinct narrative voice. But, in a way, it came
naturally, because I really wanted each of their voices to be their own. Even
though I was writing it and I was the conduit, I wanted them to be the voices
of themselves. At the same time, I wanted there to be a cohesion to the prose that
wouldn’t feel stilted when you went from one to the other. I thought about it a
lot, and I wanted Maggie’s story to be told in a more youthful manner. With
Lina, Lina’s is the most sexually explicit of the group, because I think that
she was finding herself in those moments more than any of the other women were
in the actual intimate act. With Sloane, she’s very graceful, and her manner of
speaking is elegant, so I wanted hers to be the most detached, because that’s
who she is. It’s not that she’s not a warm, kind person, because she is, but
she compartmentalises, in a way, like a man, and so I wanted it to read that
“There are men and there are women. And one still
rules the other in
pockets of this country that are not televised.” Can you expand on your statement and what we
can do about it?
Women can stop judging each other, for starters. When we fight against each other, when we judge one another we allow for the status quo.
I travelled across the country many times. I lived in the middle of the country. There are towns that still have not heard of #metoo, or really comprehend the movement. When a husband and wife walk into a store, if the woman asks a question, the store owner will often ignore her and ask the man for a follow-up.
Which authors inspire you?
Joy Williams, Lucia Berlin, Natalia Ginzburg, Barry Hannah.
What books are on your bedtable?
William Trevor: The Collected Stories
Happiness, as Such: Natalia Ginzburg
Flights: Olga Tokarczuk
– Elena Bowes
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