Sex and rage
With the release of her debut novel, Animal, Lisa Taddeo talks to fellow novelist Jessie Tu about the book’s exploration of female rage.
Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 book Three Women was a bestselling work of non-fiction investigating female desire. With the release of her debut novel, Animal, she talks to fellow novelist Jessie Tu about the book’s exploration of female rage.
Lisa Taddeo is trying to convince herself that her latest haircut, a thick, textured Phoebe-WallerBridge-in-Fleabag crop, is not a mistake, though she probably would rather we don’t publish a Zoom grab of it on these pages. “I’m trying to become the haircut”, the acclaimed author tells me. “It’s kind of exhausting.”
Taddeo is chatting over Zoom from her home in Connecticut, where she and her family have been hibernating since before the global pandemic. The attention she’s receiving continues after the titanic success of her 2019 debut Three Women, an eight-year deep dive into the sexual and emotional lives of three women from different backgrounds that landed at number one on both the Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists. Fans included Harry Styles, Gemma Chan and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the book is now slated for adaptation into a miniseries on Showtime, with Taddeo writing the screenplay.
Following its release, 41-year-old Taddeo started work on her debut novel Animal (Bloomsbury), which she says derived out of ideas from her first book that she wanted to explore further. “There was a lot of content from Three Women I was not able to include,” she says. “There was so much rage I saw that didn’t really have a receptacle.”
Is this haircut new?
“It’s sort of a mistake. I can’t even really deal with it. I know a lot of people like it because it looks crazy, but this is not who I am really am.”
Thanks for making the time to speak with me today. I get a whole hour to talk with you!
“I finally got an assistant, which is wonderful. I don’t manage my own schedule anymore. Which is both a blessing and not. Today I have one interview per hour. I try to keep full days just for writing.”
You know you’ve made it as a writer when you get an assistant.
“It’s been a long, hard working road, but yes, it feels good. My assistant is so great and so smart. She is more of a colleague.”
Why did you want to write Animal?
“I wrote Animal from a place of seeing how much female rage there is and wanting to explain where a lot of things come from. Sometimes we look at women going crazy and we make it like they’ve gone crazy, as though it’s this magical thing that women do.
There is always a reason why someone has gone mad. I wanted to show the history of a person who had gone mad and why they would be driven to that extent. There used to be that calming water, what is it called? Anti-hysteria waters? It used to be sold to women. You would spray yourself with anti-hysteria to be less nuts. I just like the idea of what drives women ‘nuts’.” JT: So the genesis of the book came from female rage, and the main character, Joan, came to you that way?
LT: “I think there are a lot of people who have had nothing really bad happen to them throughout their lives and then there are people who have had a lot of terrible things happen to them. I think there is such a staggering difference between the two sets of people, and it’s hard for them to understand each other. I wanted to write it for the people for whom not much has happened – to sort of go: ‘Hey, this is what it looks like when you’ve been pummelled by the world.’” JT: What was the transition like from non-fiction to fiction? LT: “I’ve written short stories my whole life, and other novels. I wanted to come out with Three Women first. I’ve written fiction more than non-fiction. I’ve written both my whole life.” JT: Where do you feel freer?
LT: “Fiction is freer because it doesn’t have to be true. But at the same time, fiction can often be truer than non-fiction, depending on how honest something is. I guess I feel more freedom in fiction for obvious reasons but also, it’s nice. I do feel freer. Fiction is easier, you don’t have to worry about anybody but the character you’re creating.” JT: There are strong elements of women feeling competitive with each other in this book. Was this something you wanted to explore? LT: “I think female competition is really interesting. It’s interesting that
male competition is considered something to sort of, you know, applaud, whereas female competition has a negative connotation. Female competition can be cool and lovely. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with competition as long as there’s a positive goal. Once, when my daughter was five, we were racing with her friends. We were running around a tree. I wanted to win against everyone, including the kids. I was trying to be the cool mom who could run. I ran past my daughter but I went so fast that I slipped and took her down and we just both fell on the ground. I was like: ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry, Mommy just wanted to win so badly.’ And my daughter said: ‘But Mommy, if I won then we would have both won.’ And I was just like: ‘Oh, oh yeah. FUCK! I am not a good mom!’
“With female competition we’re so capable of positive energy … competing and having positivity at the same time can be a really transformative thing for the gender.” JT: What was the most surprising thing about how your book Three Women was received by the world? LT: “I was surprised by the entire rite of [the reception]. I thought I was just writing an incredibly quiet book. I didn’t think that many people would respond to it. Whether for the positive or the non-positive.” JT: Congratulations on your partnership this year with Valentino – it’s so exciting! For autumn/winter ’21/’22, the label tapped a selection of literary talents for words that express the poetics of fashion. LT: “Thank you!” JT: Why do you think people like you and poet Ocean Vuong are being asked to partner with these brands who historically haven’t reached out to authors to promote them? LT: “There’s a real understanding of how to tap into different parts of a marketplace and the idea that marketing can involve other things. It can make people think and feel. You’re trying to sell clothes, but it’s more than that. It’s not always just to sell clothes but to figure out a different way of communicating with the outside world with different people. Reaching. This is one reason I think that in the US we don’t do a good enough job of trying to reach out to ‘the other’. This is why we had so many issues in our country.
“What I loved about the Valentino partnership is how doing a campaign where there are only words is a cool way to expand one’s audience – to both make book-lovers look at fashion and fashionlovers look at books. Knowing more about one another is the only definitive positive thing that we can do.” JT: Do you pay attention to style and fashion? LT: ”I do! I am very into fashion and clothes. My mother had a treasuretrove of clothes, bags and shoes she used to hang up in mint condition in black vacuum bags, and they were her special things. We rarely left the house, we weren’t party people, so three or four times a year she would break out one of these items. It was like this amazing thing. I also do this thing where if I buy a thing that’s expensive, I will keep it in the closet and wait at least six months to do anything … For me, it needs to sit there for a certain amount of time otherwise wearing something too new … I don’t know how to describe it.”
JT: Maybe the accumulation of time you have it means something?
LT: “I’m not so brazen as to purchase it and use it the same day, because only somebody who can do that again tomorrow would do such a thing.” JT:
You’re known for exploring this subject of female desire. What were your earliest memories about this concept?
“As a child, I watched a lot of HBO. My parents didn’t really put any kind of a moratorium on what I could and couldn’t watch. I think I was watching Top Gun at eight. I remember thinking that making love was kissing with your clothes on and having sex was kissing with your clothes off. My earliest memories are of learning about desire from television that I shouldn’t have been watching.”
JT: LT: “Sure.”
JT: My biggest influence in how I see the world is through film. Recently I saw Nomadland. Have you seen that film?
Let’s move on to influences.
“Yes, I have. It’s brilliant. I am enchanted by [director] Chloé Zhao.” JT:
Yeah, I wish I could write the literary equivalent of that film’s tone and texture. What kind of art do you reach for to help your creativity as a writer?
“Film is right up there. I’ve been watching a lot of film in general for various projects I’ve been working on. Art and photography. I love looking at photo books when I’m writing. Mostly, I read other books.” JT:
Has becoming a mother affected how you write?
LT: “It’s done so much. I find being a mother to feel very close to being a daughter. A lot of the things I’m learning through my daughter are things I learnt by watching my mother. It’s interesting to see how close motherhood and childhood are. I’d say that would be the thing that I felt in my writing the most – that one is the other and the other is one.” JT:
I would love to read a manifesto on motherhood by you someday in the future.
“Animal is a lot about motherhood, in terms of actual day-to-day motherhood. There are so many people who’ve done it well. It’s like when you think about the John Updikes of the world having written about married people in Connecticut; it’s like, okay, do we need more? When it comes to motherhood, there’s so much out there that I love, that it’s like, ‘well, who needs my take on that?’ Obviously, as I continue through the stages, I will certainly be turning more to that.” JT:
Finally, what keeps you driven and maintaining faith that the world will be a better place for women?
“The art that I’m seeing today. Knowing there are people like Amanda Gorman and Emerald Fennell who are doing brave things.” Animal (Bloomsbury, $32.99) by Lisa Taddeo is on sale from June 8. Jessie Tu is the author of A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing (Allen & Unwin).
“There is always a reason why someone has gone mad. I wanted to show the history of a person who had gone mad and why they would be driven to that extent”