Author Lisa Taddeo is obsessed with how women think about romantic relationships with men — and what they want from them.
She spent eight years researching and writing “Three Women,” her 2019 best-selling nonfiction book that followed the trajectories of three U.S. women’s relationships — with a husband, a high school sweetheart and a teacher. (“Three Women” is being developed into a television series, set to debut next year, which Taddeo is helping to write, she said.)
Last month, Taddeo followed up “Three Women” with her debut novel “Animal,” written from the perspective of the protagonist, Joan, to her young daughter. After a lifetime of trauma induced by men, Joan commits an act of violence against one.
The author spoke to The Lily about approaching writing as a form of catharsis, wanting more “unlikeable female characters” in fiction and why she’s worried about the future of desire.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: “Animal” has been out in the world for about a month. Like “Three Women,” it also centers themes of women’s anger and oppression and inequities in romantic relationships between men and women. What drew you to writing about those topics a second time?
A: When writers or any human have obsessions, they keep going back to them. When I was doing my MFA at Boston University, someone said to us, “Why is it always about sex?” And our teacher was like, “All writers have obsessions.”
I think all writers who are writing to a point, wanting to get at a higher truth of something, keep excavating the same thing.
Q: How do you think about your relationship to readers and how does that impact what you want your writing to do?
A: Most of my desire with what I write is to make people who have been in similar situations feel less alone. A lot of “Animal” has a lot of darkness and trauma, and I myself have been through a lot of darkness and trauma.
“Animal” was for people who have lived similar experiences.
Q: You’ve spoken about trauma and loss you’ve experienced, including losing both of your parents in your 20s. In “Animal,” the protagonist, Joan, also loses both of her parents at a young age — an event that goes on to shape the rest of her life and her relationships. How much of yourself, if any, did you bring to her character?
A: When it came to the grief aspect, it was very much a lot — the grief aspect specifically, and the questions about motherhood and mothers and mothering oneself after having had your own relationship with a mother. The generational trauma, all of that is very much stuff that came from my own feelings in terms of grief. While a lot of things that happened in the book aren’t things that happened to me, the way that it felt is very close to how I felt.
Q: I imagine that writing about these topics could be quite emotionally draining. How did you decompress or practice self-care while you were writing “Animal” and “Three Women”? Or do you find the process of writing to be therapeutic in itself?
A: I find life to be emotionally draining, so writing about it I find to be cathartic and a way for me to expunge and handle and understand those feelings. For me, it’s like, if I’m walking around acting like everything’s fine, that’s impossible for me. What’s not impossible for me is actively talking about it and thinking about it. To actively talk and write about the things I can’t get out of my head are a way for me to cope.
Q: One thing that stands out to me about both “Animal” and “Three Women” is the ways in which they both illustrate how our parental relationships wind up influencing how we attach to partners in romantic relationships. What compels you to write about that? And what do you think makes creative nonfiction and fiction effective mediums for doing so?
A: One of the things that saved me from my own brain hell was when I was in my 20s — and single and going through dating stuff — was that there were so many times that I would give advice to my friends. … I feel like I’m good at it because I’ve given it so much thought and read so much literature about it.
My goal is always, “How do I get what I want?” Not, “How do I do it the right way?” I think the right way is something ascribed by other people — the character in “Animal” is like, “Use your sexuality to get this.” And those are unpopular ideas in current society — we’ve heard so much from women who have come before us, things like, “Nobody’s going to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.” We look at that and think that’s so ancient … but we still live in that patriarchal society.
To completely fight against it is fighting against your own desire. But it’s unpopular — whenever I talk to my younger friends or my niece … I’m always aware [of that], I’m just saying if you want to get what you want, this is how I think you should go about it. The unpopularity of those things I find really troubling. … We are canceling out the very thing that desire is.
Q: Building on that, when you’re writing, how do you think about balancing between illustrating the systemic natures of sexism and patriarchy while also accounting for differences in people and relationships based on factors like race, class and sexuality?
A: Let’s take for example the idea of “should you call a guy” — I’m a heterosexual woman who has been through that, but I believe that this goes for almost any kind of same-sex relationship. I told my niece — she was like, “I really like this guy and he hasn’t gotten in touch.” I’m like, “I would not call him.” She’s like, “Why?” And I’m like, “As a rule, everyone wants what they can’t have.”
When we want the thing, we want it so bad that we are blind to the appropriate way to get it. Sometimes the idea is, “if I want that thing, I’m going to crash through the door and grab it” — but that’s just going to crash the thing and break it apart. Whereas if you go to the door … you’re doing it in a way that has some forethought to it — which doesn’t make you a creepy weirdo, it makes you somebody who recognizes that in order to get what you want, you might need to tailor the way to get there for who the person is.
The response to that is often, “We shouldn’t have to do that.” And it’s like, “Yes, we shouldn’t have to, but life isn’t fair.”
Q: So it sounds like you’re interested in the mechanisms of desire and you find heterosexual relationships an easy way to explore them because of how men and women tend to be differently socialized.
A: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Q: How did writing about women’s anger and trauma and their romantic relationships with men through fictional characters in “Animal” differ from how you approached it in “Three Women,” where you were accountable to the actual people you wrote about?
A: It was a lot easier to not have to worry about human beings and how they would feel. “Animal” is a lot harsher in a lot of ways because I was able to get at truths that I didn’t have to worry about anybody but myself having to answer for.
I think the “unlikable female characters” is such a thing — we want all of our women in fiction to be plucky and have wit and get out of their jams with aplomb and shake off the pain. And I think for women sometimes more so than men, not only do we suffer more trauma … it’s harder to pick oneself up from the dark.
I think it’s important to make more room for women [characters in fiction] who have a harder time swimming to the surface.