Aspen Winter Words: Author Lisa Taddeo on how she wrote the immersive ‘Three Women’
Special to The Aspen Times
Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction book debut, “Three Women,” has gotten a lot of hype. A No. 1 New York Times bestseller, this in-depth exploration of three women’s lives that have been upended by desire also landed on multiple best-books-of-2019 lists and has even been praised as the best nonfiction title since “In Cold Blood.”
And for good reason.
Taddeo, who kicks off Aspen Words’ Winter Words author series Tuesday, spent nearly a decade working on “Three Women,” including six cross-country trips in search of subjects who’d be willing to have the details of their innermost lives and deepest vulnerabilities published. Taddeo spent about two years — including moving to their communities — with each of the three final subjects: Lina, a housewife and mother in a sexless marriage who reconnects with a high school boyfriend; Maggie, who takes her high school English teacher to court for seducing her when she was his student; and Sloane, a beautiful, polished restaurant owner whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other men and women.
Fully immersing herself in her subjects’ lives was just one way Taddeo was able to reach such emotional depths in telling their stories, which were happening “in real time” when she was with them — so memories were fresh and feelings still raw. They also wanted to talk about their feelings, Taddeo said, and had both a high level of emotional intelligence and no other outlets for sharing experiences and emotions that are generally frowned upon by society.
And then there were all the emails and texts and Facebook messages that Taddeo exchanged with the women.
“With writing, it’s really easy to see personality come out,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Most often it’s nonwriters that express themselves the best in email and text writing. They’re not necessarily thinking about appropriate writing or how they should sound or convey what they’re trying to say. For me, getting their voices in that way was helpful.”
As for the at-times astonishing level of detail — the exact color of the bedsheets, the smell of the car — Taddeo approached this very deliberately. Knowing what she wanted to write about in each chapter, she wrote paragraphs that were somewhat like Mad Libs, the fill-in-the-blank word game, then asked them to fill in the blanks of the details, and afterward went back through it all with them to make sure it was accurate.
It’s this level of detail, both descriptive and emotional, that makes “Three Women” so immersive — as a reader you feel like you’re not only in the room but in the women’s heads and hearts. And that leads to a certain level of understanding, empathy and relatability — even if the actions themselves aren’t relatable.
“I think everyone’s done foolish things for love, and if they haven’t, judging their stories is not cool,” said Taddeo, who along with writing for magazines like New York and Esquire is a Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer, now editing her first novel.
Since the book’s publication in July, Taddeo has received plenty of positive reaction from readers.
“Most women have said it’s made them feel seen, and that they want to tell their stories,” she said.
A little more surprising was the reaction from men, which has come mostly in the past month (presumably as word of the book took longer to trickle down to men or as wives and girlfriends handed their copies down).
“From men, it’s like, ‘Thank you, what else can you tell me?’” Taddeo said. “There’s a lot of fear and confusion from men who want to change from the sphere of what they’ve done in the past.”
But Taddeo is cautious about how to think about the book in the era of #MeToo — which is not about what women want but what they don’t want.
“We want empowering stories about women, but some are not empowered,” she said, noting that in many places she traveled, people (including Lina) had not heard of #MeToo as the movement took hold during the tail end of Taddeo’s reporting in 2017. “So to leave these people in the dust and to say we’ve moved on, that’s part of the problem.”
That’s not to say, however, that the women’s stories are simply about being led on by men’s desires — Taddeo was quick to disabuse that interpretation. At the core, they’re about the depth and complexity of women’s desire, how desire intertwines with love, and how it all ultimately reflects back on oneself.
“If there’s not a connection or a commitment on both parts, it’s mainly about what you’re looking for in yourself or what you’re missing,” Taddeo said. “Whether it’s a man or woman is interchangeable.”
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