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In Conversation With Lisa Taddeo On Her Explosive Debut Novel Animal

After the critical acclaim received by her non-fiction bestseller Three Women, the buzz around author Lisa Taddeo has been unshakable, and we couldn’t wait to interview her once again. Her latest novel Animal is an arresting exploration of trauma, grief, deprivation, and female rage, following one woman’s external and internal journey in an explosive, sharp narrative that will leave you both uncomfortable and wanting more.

We caught up on her inspiration behind the story, the impacts of motherhood and memory, why we shouldn’t shy away from conversations about miscarriage, drawing on rage in useful ways, and how writing for yourself can bring about the rawest forms of work. Taddeo hopes that through discovering Joan and her story, readers will learn that “some people live incredibly difficult lives, whilst others have not been touched by tragedy at all…Understanding that some people have lived incredibly bloody lives is important, as there’s always a reason for how we get to where we are today.”

I’m going to kick right off with the book...What was the main motivation for you to write Animal?

I had uncovered a lot of stories that I didn’t tell in Three Women and there was so much kickback on some of the conversations. For example, imagine a mother with suicidal ideations, people wouldn’t have wanted to hear the story. I was so struck by that and the idea that women can’t be honest about their desires, or their anger and grief. There’s this impression that when men need to, they can go off and sow their wild oats and take long trips away to reconnect with themselves, and women don’t really have that. I think we invariably are seen as being ‘bad women’ in some way if we do that. And so Animal was born out of a desire to let someone have a primal howl.

“Animal was born out of a desire to let someone have a primal howl.”

Can you give us an overview of the story, for those who are yet to read it?

It starts off with the protagonist Joan, or the anti-heroine as people have taken to calling her. She is having dinner with a married man and another married man comes in and shoots himself in the head in front of her. Sometimes you need a reason to leave New York or any city in which you’ve fitted in for a while, and that is the sort of kick-off for her. She realises she has to get out of New York and decides to go and find the woman who holds the key to her past; Alice who lives in Los Angeles. Joan takes this road trip and the book is both a physical road trip and an inner journey of going back and sorting through the moments in her past.

“The book is both a physical road trip and an inner journey of going back and sorting through the moments in her past.”

How would you describe the narrator, Joan, for those who haven’t read the book yet?

Joan is tired of the world. I think sometimes we get to a place where we are tired of everything and the way that we are being treated. Playing by the rules and acting like you’re fine can start to feel like you’re like your blood is being siphoned from you. Joan is done being a part of the world in a certain way. Yet she’s smart and capable and haunted. She loves to cook and loves the finer things in life but also has this inability to enjoy them. She has an appreciation for things but is always interiorising what it means to ‘like’ something because every time she does, it seems to be taken away from her.

What inspired the title of Animal? Did you come to this decision early on?

It was later on. I started working on this as my thesis for my MFA in fiction at Boston University. The title was ‘The Overheated House’ to begin with. There was always the idea of this heat and stifling oppression at the point she was at in her life.

Animal explores female rage, the effects of trauma and violence, as well as sex, friendship, and sisterhood. You’ve mentioned previously that stories of the women you interviewed for Three Women inspired you - did your own experiences also influence the narrative?

A lot of Animal and Joan’s grief mirrors my own experiences. I did not lose my parents in the same way as Joan does in the book but I drew some inspiration from my past. I wanted to interrogate the feelings that we have and to show that in order to completely empathise, sometimes we need to see things under higher pressure.

"I wanted to interrogate the feelings that we have and to show that in order to completely empathise, sometimes we need to see things under higher pressure."

Following a traumatic event with an ex-lover, Joan moves herself to a canyon in Topanga. Why did you choose to set the story in New York and then Topanga, California?

I’ve lived all over the country and I’ve lived in both those places. I lived in New York for the longest and LA is the one place that still feels so unknowable. It never really gelled for me – it always felt like a little bit out of reach and out of touch. I was taken by that. I also think it’s a very dangerous place. There are these canyons, steep drops, coyotes, and rattlesnakes, and there are always car accidents. It’s a lot. I wanted to really explore the Gothic nature of Los Angeles.

A line that reoccurs in the book is “I am depraved” and the way Joan narrates indicates she has a strong sense of self-awareness - she often acknowledges how her past experiences have shaped her current self. Why did you decide to portray her in this way?

In a way, she’s taking the language back from others. She’s aware of everything that’s happened to her and that she’s bobbing along unprotected. She’s also unprotected from what people may call her. I wanted to convey the idea that people aren’t born depraved or seething with anger, there’s often a series of events that lead us there.

Female relationships are key throughout Animal, as well as the idea we’re often performing for women as much (if not more so) than men. Why was it important for you to weave this idea into the story?

I feel that as women, we still insist upon making each other perform for one another. It’s so heartbreaking. For example, we have to pretend to be tired of our husbands or excited by something else – there’s constant pressure. There are all these different things and if you don’t fulfill them, you are kicked out of the club of women. That’s a point I really wanted to make. We have to do so much in order to be liked by our fellow women. I think it’s really dangerous and it just makes us angry.

“We have to do so much in order to be liked by our fellow women. I think it’s really dangerous and it just makes us angry.”

Joan revisits her relationship with her family throughout Animal. As a mother yourself, did you learn anything new about mother-daughter relationships through writing this?

I did, it’s funny. Whilst writing and recalling my own relationship with my mother and my daughter, I learned so much. I learned a lot about how I feel and think from building Joan’s story of her own impending motherhood, plus the impact her own mother had on her. This really is a story about motherhood, more so than anything else. As well as the effects of memory and how they sit with us.

The book also explores miscarriage - something we often don’t discuss enough. Why was it important for you to write about this and do so in a graphic, honest way?

The book is called Animal and at that moment, Joan is becoming her animal self. For me, it was metaphorical. I’ve had miscarriages and I know so many women who have, and there are all these stories that we don’t talk about. We don’t discuss what we do when we’ve had a miscarriage at home. Someone I know flushed it down the toilet and another person I know froze it in their freezer. That’s just what happened. It makes the most sense for where Joan is in the story and it’s open and raw because that’s often the reality.

The relationships in Animal are different, yet all equally fascinating. Which character’s relationship with Joan was the most interesting to delve into?

The relationship between Joan and Vic was one I had an interesting time thinking about because I didn’t want Joan to just feel like a victim throughout the book. I wanted her to feel an element of getting involved in something herself, with more agency. When we read this we know where she’s come from and what she’s lost.

Meanwhile, although Vic’s back story isn’t explored as much, the same things have likely led him to be needy and tentacle-like with his extremities. I wanted to tap into the idea that he isn’t just this terrible predator and she isn’t just this perfect victim. It’s a relationship that didn’t have to be rotten but ends up being so because of both of their stories and where they came from.

“It’s a relationship that didn’t have to be rotten but ends up being so because of both of their stories and where they came from.”

Which character can you relate to the most in Animal?

Definitely, Joan, although a little bit of everyone else too. I can identify with Vic and that sense of obsession. I wanted to capture it in a way that didn’t reduce him to this hideous human being. Obsession often comes from various sources, and I completely understand this.

Female rage drives the narrative of Animal, especially towards the end. Do you believe rage can be a useful emotion or a tool for change?

I do. I feel that sometimes I operate a lot on grief, pain, and fear. When grief turns into fear, or when sadness turns into fear, I don’t operate well at all. Yet if I turn sadness or grief into a rage, I feel much more capable in the world.

The word rage is fraught though, and I’m not condoning any kind of physical violence or being cruel to people. However, I think it’s OK to say ‘“this makes me angry” or “I don’t want to be anywhere near you.” I think that there’s as long as you take the rage and use it to push people back instead of aggressing onto them, it can be useful. I’m talking about the rage that is like “you know what, fuck that. I don’t want to take any more of this.” In Joan’s story, she has more extreme reactions, but this is a story. In general, I think pretending rage isn’t there is the most dangerous thing you can do.

"I think pretending rage isn’t there is the most dangerous thing you can do."

Many authors describe writing as a cathartic process, even when dealing with darker subject matters. Has this been the case for you?

It felt really good to write fiction and not have to worry about real people, in the way I did with Three Women. I enjoyed writing in my own first-person voice too, rather than taking on the voice of others this time.

Animal is written in a way that directly addresses the reader as “you” throughout, and only towards the end of the book do we discover who she is narrating to. Why did you decide to write in this way?

The first time I wrote it, I wrote the first 100 pages or so in the third person and it didn’t felt right. I then rewrote it in the first person, and sometimes the second person because I wanted it to feel much closer.

What’s your writing routine? Any tips for when you’re experiencing writer’s block?

It’s helpful to me to write exactly the way that I want to write, as though nobody is watching or no one will ever read it. That is the one thing that that stops me every single time from succeeding – when I think about someone else reading it. In some instances, having a specific reader in mind works well but often, letting go of that and writing for yourself is the best thing to do. Say exactly what you want to say. It’ll allow you to be less scared and more excited. It’ll all feel more real and honest.

What’s your writing routine? Any tips for when you’re experiencing writer’s block?

It’s helpful to me to write exactly the way that I want to write, as though nobody is watching or no one will ever read it. That is the one thing that that stops me every single time from succeeding – when I think about someone else reading it. In some instances, having a specific reader in mind works well but often, letting go of that and writing for yourself is the best thing to do. Say exactly what you want to say. It’ll allow you to be less scared and more excited. It’ll all feel more real and honest.

What have you been reading lately?

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge, and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz.

What do you want readers to take away from Animal?

That some people live incredibly difficult lives, whilst others have not been touched by tragedy at all, or anywhere near as much. Understanding that people have lived incredibly bloody lives is important because there’s always a reason for how we get to where we are today.

If we get to a point where we are pushing the world away, it’s important to ask why we are doing that. That’s what Animal was for me. It’s the origin story of how this woman, Joan, got to where she was.

“If we get to a point where we are pushing the world away, it’s important to ask why we are doing that. That’s what Animal was for me. It’s the origin story of how this woman, Joan, got to where she was.”

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