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Lisa Taddeo on trauma, her new book, and bringing Three Women to TV

As she makes her first foray into fiction, LISA TADDEO speaks to KATIE BERRINGTON about the pain that informs her writing, creating complicated female characters, and turning her cult non-fiction debut, Three Women, into a TV adaptation

Author Lisa Taddeo was catapulted to literary-sensation status when her debut book, Three Women, was published in 2019

Lisa Taddeo is drawn to the dark side of storytelling, tapping into the most painful elements of her characters’ psyches. “I often have to [ask myself], am I empathizing too much with this kind of inhumane character trait?” the author says, from her Connecticut home that she shares with her husband and daughter. “But, for me, I’m really interested in the fact that we all have this kind of devil side to us at different times… I think it isn’t something we should pretend doesn’t exist.”

Taddeo’s second book, Animal, is inescapably, palpably, viscerally dark. Charged with trauma from the very first line, it begins, “I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me.” The protagonist, Joan (an “anti-heroine” Taddeo says, though she isn’t necessarily comfortable with that description), is, by her own definition, “depraved”. We learn that she has spent her life enduring male violence and a chasm of pain and loneliness as the plot follows her journey from prey to predator in an unsparing onslaught of tragedy and horror.

“Sometimes, people say [that I am] condoning murder or something like that, and it’s like, I’m not condoning murder, or X,Y or Z. I’m saying: here is where these things could potentially come from,” she says. “I’m interested in the dark sides of human nature – and speaking to the dark sides of human nature.”

One of the things I have always wanted to get across is that I’ve really suffered, and had terrible periods of deep grief and loneliness. I think that sometimes it’s not easy to communicate that to other people

Taddeo has experienced huge trauma in her own life. Her dad died in a car accident when she was just 23, and then, over the next seven years, she also lost her mom, aunt, uncle and dog. “I’m always drawing on my grief, whenever something [in my writing] comes out dark, it’s because it started from a place of grief,” she says. “One of the things I have always wanted to get across is that I’ve really suffered, and had terrible periods of deep grief and loneliness. I think that sometimes it’s not easy to communicate that to other people, just how bad something can feel. Sometimes it feels like I was mauled to death by a tiger, but I’m just sitting there in my regular human form and people are like, ‘Oh, but she looks OK.’”

“When I’m writing, I’m trying to communicate a truth to myself and to like-minded people, and also to people who I think have never been able to understand my level of pain about something. It’s like sitting next to someone and saying, ‘OK, let me tell you how this feels.’”

Taddeo was catapulted to literary-sensation status when her debut book, Three Women, was published in 2019. A journalistic study into the sexual and emotional lives of three women in the United States, it debuted to critical acclaim and topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Taddeo wrote Animal before Three Women came out, so she didn’t have the pressure of following her debut book’s then-unknown success. In fact, she found the process of writing Animal easier in some ways: “I wasn’t considering any real people that I was naming, [so] there was a freedom there that I didn’t have with Three Women,” she says.

The pressure comes now, though, on its release, because she is a “people pleaser… I think what I’m always worried about is the readers who loved Three Women and aren’t going to love Animal. I don’t feel [the pressure] so much success-wise, but on a person-to-person basis I’m like, ‘I really hope you like this!’”

As well as preparing for the release of Animal, Taddeo has spent lockdown writing the highly anticipated TV adaptation of Three Women, which she is also the executive producer on. “It’s been a lot of work, but I have surrounded myself with amazing people, partly by luck and partly by having really great, honest conversations, so the collaborative aspect of it has been absolutely fantastic,” she says. “It’s exceeded every expectation I could have had.”

I like to read books about real women; I like to write books about real women; I like to watch movies about real women

She is diplomatically tight-lipped about who she would love to see cast in the leading roles. “There are a lot of actors who have reached out to me and I love all of them, so I don’t know who it’s going to end up being. But I have a lot of thoughts. Basically, I have a lot of people who I think would be amazing.”

The demand for roles isn’t surprising, given that the women Taddeo depicts are complicated, raw and multifaceted – unlike the clichéd criteria traditionally reserved for female characters. “I like to read books about real women; I like to write books about real women; I like to watch movies about real women,” she says. “I am excited about Joan in that way, too – I think there’s a shortage of the ‘anti-heroine’ – though even calling her that is its own issue.”

In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, Taddeo confronted the ‘crazy bitch’ narrative that curses women’s (lack of) right to rage. An emblazoned treatise on anger and her own history of apologizing, the writer vows to do less of the latter. It is one of many things she wishes she’d learned at a younger age, and has come with a growing assuredness of herself. “Even if it feels scary in the moment, being honest is always better than pretending to be someone else,” she considers. “The more I stay true to being myself, the more I feel seen by myself, and the more I feel like I’m on the same team as me.”

Taddeo is a central figure in the first wave of post-#MeToo writing, too. Does the author feel hopeful for tangible change when it comes to the way female characters are perceived?

“We’re always suffering from a lot of conversation and less action. You know, we’re totally OK with the movie where a man [who has] lost everything goes and destroys the world but, with a woman, she has to have lost everything in the exact, perfect, non-sexual kind of way,” she considers. “I hope I can be part of changing that. I think there’ll be a lot of pushback because [people] don’t want to hear that stuff, but I am hopeful.”

Animal, by Lisa Taddeo, is out now

Taddeo’s second book, Animal, is inescapably, palpably, viscerally dark – and charged with trauma from the very first line

Lisa Taddeo is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse any of its products