Whistles Women: Lisa Taddeo
Author and journalist Lisa Taddeo has had quite a year. Not quite 12 months on from its UK publication, the critically acclaimed Three Women has garnered a loyal following, spawned a limited TV series into production, and—like many highly praised art forms—a smattering of controversy.
The nonfiction book takes a detailed look at the sexual lives and desires of three American women, with whom Lisa split 8 years of her life—moving to their towns, shadowing them on dates and immersing herself in the minutiae of their daily lives. There’s Maggie, a high school student from North Dakota who finds herself in an illicit relationship with her teacher, Lina, a married thirty-something who begins an affair with her first boyfriend to escape an undemonstrative husband. And finally Sloane, a privileged and beautiful restaurateur from Newport, Rhode Island, whose husband likes to watch her have sex with other men.
The resulting impact is a book full of heart-wrenching prose, with sentences that knock the wind out of you, detailed accounts of sex that feel neither salacious nor corny—just startlingly real—and a level of relatability that, at times, strikes a note of recognition so sharp that it almost causes physical pain.
We joined Lisa via Zoom (naturally) in her home office in leafy Washington, Connecticut to discuss the immersive process behind the book, writers she adores and what success looks like to her.
So I’m going to dive right in with the book. For those who have not yet read it—could you describe the premise of Three Women in a couple of sentences?
It is a book about desire—not necessarily the sexual lives and desire of all women in the country, or the world—but a deep dive into the desires of three specific women, with whom I spent the best part of a decade. My goal was to get as insular and microscopic into their worlds as I could, so that hopefully the reader would be able to see elements of their own desire reflected in at least one of the stories.
Can you tell me about the incredibly immersive process of writing Three Women?
I drove across America six times. The first thing I did was paste up signs in bathrooms and started approaching strangers in bars to talk to me about their sex lives. I was trying to find people via different methods—posting on university boards, posting on forums, calling lawyers, doctors and asking if they had any clients that might want to talk to me.
Moving to Indiana was the first thing that I did that was really fruitful. I found Lina in Indiana when I started a discussion group in the back of a doctor’s office, and I stayed with her for two years. After that I came across Maggie [and her court case against her former teacher] while I was in North Dakota, following a lead about a group of women who worked in a coffee shop by day, and at night were trucked out to be prostitutes for the men in the oil fields.
Then I was introduced to the third woman, Sloane, by an acquaintance shortly after moving to Newport. My friend told me that there were two interesting things about Sloane; the first was that she was a swinger—that her husband enjoyed watching her have sex with other men—and the second was that she and her husband had sex with each other every day—and, honestly, I think she was more shocked by that. And I found that really fascinating, because not only was Sloane’s life interesting in itself, what was perhaps more interesting was the response of her community and peers to her personal and sexual choices.
You spent nearly a decade travelling, researching and writing this book - how did this impact your life and that of your family?
My family came with me towards the latter half. My now-husband was incredibly supportive, taking on jobs in the various towns to keep us afloat, and my daughter loves to travel—she’s happy as a clam. It was difficult then but sometimes it’s harder now because there has been a lot of press about the book—and a lot of international travel with that—which now we have a five-year-old child in tow is a logistical challenge.
Three Women is a form of creative nonfiction, how did you manage to make nonfiction so lyrical and arresting to read?
By spending as much time as I did [eight years] with Lina, Maggie and Sloane. It’s similar to having a best friend, you get that unbridled access to their interior thoughts. But on top of that it was also a matter of asking the same question multiple times—because every time somebody asks you a question, and you really think about it, you will think of a new detail. I must have asked Maggie one hundred times about that first evening at Aaron Knodel’s house, and each time we spoke she’d tell me something new—like the colour of the shirt she had on, or how she felt when he opened the door, or exactly what he was wearing, how he smelt.
When telling these women’s stories, was it difficult to stay unbiased? Or avoid inserting your own preconceptions into the narrative?
It wasn’t difficult because one of the things I learned through the process of writing the book is that we all do things that are quote “wrong” unquote—and I’m always shocked by people’s judgements and predilections. I have a lot of anxiety and I told a friend years ago that I’d had a panic attack and she reacted like I was broken in some way—and now she’s having daily panic attacks. Having lost both my parents and a lot of other family members early on, my store of empathy is somewhat deeper—this is not me bragging, by the way—but that was always there in the background, so I think I’m a little more attuned to people and their pain.
Did you relate to any one of the women more than the others?
I think Lina is the most relatable for me because she was so viscerally honest—both with me and with herself. Her emotional intelligence and her understanding of what she needs, and her ability to convey to others what she needs, is incredible. And because she had all that honesty, totally unapologetically—it’s hard not to see yourself reflected in [her story].
What has the feedback been from male readers? Do their assessments differ from those of women?
Yes in a sense that every single man that I have spoken to, or reviews that I’ve read by men, have been unequivocally effusive about it. There’s been no real criticism I think—because of the world we’re living in right now—a man feels as though he can’t be too critical of a book about women. I’m not trying to be reductive about what men can do, but I think it’s where we’re at right now.
The first man who read it—beyond my editor—was an editor from another publishing company, and he said until he read the book he didn’t realise how “indifference could be so wounding.” And that’s exactly what I would have hoped for from a reading—especially from someone, be it a man or a woman, who might assume the ‘alpha’ position in a relationship—is to take note of the things that Aiden did to Lina and realise the pain it can cause.
What was your main motivation to write Three Women?
At the beginning it was to write a good book [laughs]. A book that I would want to read—a book about sex unlike what I had read before. Gay Talese’s book Thy Neighbour’s Wife [an exploration of sex culture in America in the 1970s] which was meant to be the model for mine—the first time I read it years ago, before I even had this book assignment, I was like; ‘Oh (!) this is amazing.’ And then I read it a couple of years later in my twenties and I was shocked by the way that he saw women. I felt he didn’t write about women in a way that was honest at all. There was a lot bravado and machismo—just seeing sex from a male perspective. So when I read it again I decided I wanted to tell a story about sexual desire through a female lens.
I realised what the book was going to be when I moved to Indiana and met Lina—she was right in the middle of this situation with Aiden back then. I called my friend in New York to tell her about this woman I’d met, who was having this illicit relationship with a guy [Aiden] and how fascinated I was by her story and my friend said, “Oh my god [she’s] so pathetic.” And I was stunned by that, because—for one—I had to remind my friend that she had done the exact same thing recently with a man, only he worked in finance as opposed to being a crane operator. The fact that Lina was driving four hours to have an affair with a crane operator, to my friend who lived an upscale life in New York City, seemed pathetic. So I guess I was trying to write to that friend—and all the people who may feel someone else is “pathetic”, who refuse to spot the parallels between these stories and their own lives just because the window dressing is different.
How do you measure success?
The thing that I want to be the most successful at is controlling my inner thoughts [laughs]—so it’s not so much about the exterior world and more to do with the interior. Obviously I want people to read my book. I want people to feel less alone—and I hope I’ve been successful with that.
One of the pieces that made me feel great is that Maggie now has a sense of closure—she’s finally been heard by the world in a way that she wasn’t in her small town. So that was a giant success for me
What advice would you give someone writing their first book?
Find your own way into the topic and don’t worry if it has been written about before. Do not be afraid to bring your own experiences into something, and if it’s nonfiction—ask someone else about the things that you are scared to remember about yourself.
Which books have left a profound impression on you?
A lot. Elena Ferrante, Natalia Ginzburg, Lucia Berlin, Joy Williams, James Salter—I’m naming these authors because I don’t really think it’s specific books by them, it’s almost always all of their books. Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is one of the most propulsive books that I’ve ever read. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—the same thing. I didn’t think I was going to like Gone Girl but it was one of the last books I read where I was like [gasps] dying to get to the next page.
Elena Ferrante is one of our favourite authors and I think your book and her books are similar in that they write about the female experience so accurately...
I think one of the things that draws women to [Ferrante], and one of the things that I always want to do with my writing is to tell the scary bit—the bit that you don’t want to tell. This is a perfect example: Gillian Flynn and I were both commissioned to write a Corona Correspondence for The Sewanee Review, and the last paragraph of her piece is just shocking, in the best way. One month into lockdown she writes; ‘my son catches me trimming my pubic hair with the kitchen scissors. I can’t remember why I thought the timing was correct. Or the place…’ And then her 10-year-old son says; “Mom, one really bright side of this pandemic is getting to know each other better.”
And the fact that she went there (!) that to me is the kind of thing you read—and whether or not you’ve done that exact thing—you’ve definitely done something similar, you know? And that makes you feel normal.
Do you have a preferred environment that helps you focus when writing?
I can be anywhere as long as it is totally quiet and there is nobody around. So any kind of cave-like atmosphere—I’m not a coffee shop writer. My husband always comes into my room and wants to hang out and I get livid. I have these [novelty] panda headphones and he gets really pissed when I put them on—he feels like I am shutting him out, and I’m like, ‘I am!’
As a journalist, who would be your ultimate interviewee?
Bruce Springsteen. I think he is one of the most interesting, most intelligent, most talented and creative people in the world. He never ages inside his brain, I don’t think he even seems to age physically? He’s incredibly sexy. I can’t think of another person like that. His talent is just…shocking, his pain is giant and the way that he metabolises his pain and puts it into his work is beautiful.
And what’s next for you career-wise? What do you have coming up this year...what are you writing?
There’s a lot, and every time I say that I feel like a sociopath. I’m adapting Three Women for Showtime as a limited series, which is exciting but a challenge as screenplays are not my world. I’m also working on another TV show for Netflix and a third TV show for Annapurna Pictures. My novel is coming out next year, and I am currently working on one other novel and another nonfiction book.
Wow - a lot!
Which is why I’m always up ‘till 3am! I just want to produce as much as I can now so that later I can just relax, write short stories and live in the Cotswolds—that’s what I really want to do. So I’m trying to get to a place where I can just do that for the rest of my life, and chill out.