Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.

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Episode 20: "The way that their communities psychologically conspired against them was emblematic for me of much of America’s projection of their sexual fears onto others."

Published 7/9/19
In this installment, Lisa Taddeo talks about finding her subject(s), the throttle of desire, wounding indifference, and more.

Credit: J. Waite

Credit: J. Waite

Three Women, in many ways, was an immense undertaking. Over eight years, you embedded yourself in the lives of three women. How did your vision going into the project differ from how the project itself turned out? Were you ever worried that, as you watched their stories unfold, the project wouldn’t come together?

The genesis was to take the pulse of desire in American today. A sort of updating of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, but from a female perspective. Desire is at once all we think about and talk about, and at the same time our biggest secret. I wanted to explore the nuance of that intersection.

I began by talking to both men and women, but the men’s stories, though intriguing, began to bleed together. The throttle of their desire often ended once a conquest was achieved, whereas for the women, it was utterly the opposite. There were several subjects who dropped out, the most notable one about seven months into my research, when she began to fear her new relationship would suffer if her past were found out. 

I worried that the project wouldn’t come together every minute of every day…

Maggie’s story is distinct in a few ways—it claims more of the book than either of the other two, and it seemed, at least to me, more straightforward in its central dilemma. But most saliently of all, because Maggie was involved in a public lawsuit, her name (and others involved in her story) are public. This is someone the reader can Google (along with other journalism about the case). Did this fact change your approach to telling her story?

I didn’t know I was going to change names at the start of this. I thought that I wouldn’t. So by the time I got to Maggie, I figured all names would be accurate. That said, it now keeps me up, every night, the notion of people—her community, especially—reviling her all over again. 

Three Women is, at its core, journalism. But it’s very easy, once the gears start moving, to get lost in the story as one does a novel. There are many ways this is achieved—how you continually take the emotional temperature of the characters, for one. It almost seemed that you—just like the author of a novel—had complete control over the characters. Do you think this effect was owed to how well you came to know the characters?

It’s a book about desire, not about dogsledding (which I really want to write about!). And a real story about desire needs to assess from all angles. I asked these women the same questions hundreds of times, to fully understand each feeling, all the thought processes. I knew it had to get deep and also be relatable to as many people as possible. I told their stories taking into account their language and manner. Lina’s, for example, was the most sexually explicit because she was finding herself in those coital moments. She would call me directly after or send me play-by-play messages of her interludes. It’s unbelievable to me, in retrospect, to be that inside of someone’s experiences, but at the time it felt like speaking to a very close friend. So yes, I think it’s because I became close with them, but also and mainly because I asked them the same questions from so many different angles, so many times.

I think one of the most salient parts of the book is what is completely missing: politics. I could probably guess at where Maggie, Lina, and Sloane fall on the political spectrum—but maybe I can’t. They seem to be of different socioeconomic classes, but even that is left out of the spotlight. I found this incredibly refreshing. If the political moment has spurred a lot of morally unambiguous art, Three Women stands out completely. We are to empathize with these women no matter how well we would align with them at the ballot box. Was this a conscious choice on your part? Or was it only a product of what you thought deserved the book’s focus?

It was somewhat conscious. I wanted them to be as reflective of the core throttle of desire as possible. I wanted their personalities and histories to factor, but their politics was somewhat beside the point. Relatability, as I said, was my number one goal, and to that end, I focused on the way they loved and the way they hurt.

The title struck me as both a very truncated “foreword” and a constant reminder throughout the book: Pictured here are three women, and only three women. These three women come to stand in for what the modern American woman feels, grapples with, and strives for, but at the end of the day we have three specific personalities. Do you hope the reader comes to general understandings through the characters, or see them as they are: as particular individuals?

We are all unique but we are also, of course, united in how we pine and fear. My hope for the book was to illuminate a few windows into hidden places. To tell the stories of three people who do not stand for all people, but whose stories are as important as anyone else’s, on both an individual and a collective level. Three stories that should not be judged but heard. As all stories should, if they want to be.

The episodic weaving between the three characters was elegant, and lent the book cohesion. How did you come to the final ordering of the chapters? Was this played with from the beginning or only in the final stages of the book?

I began by writing each of the three chunks. (I actually began writing about 20 chunks of 20 different people.) Only in the near-final stages did the final subjects come together, and the final ordering of the chapters come together, and it was an involved process and a detailed conversation between my editor and me.

The question of “audience” always seems fraught. You’re not writing to one amorphous composite reader—you’re writing to thousands of individuals. But here I wonder if you considered how two distinct audiences might receive the book: men and women? My partner (a woman) and I (a man) both read, and I felt like my full understanding of the book only came after seeing it through her eyes. It reminded me in a way of Get Out, and how that film seemed to be speaking to black and white audiences differently. Have you considered the impact of Three Women through a gendered prism?

Yes and no. I think some men will see themselves in one or two or all of the three women. That said, a man did say to me that he didn’t know—until reading the book—the way that indifference could be so wounding. I think about that every day. I think it was one of the goals of the book, to explain to people how the simple pain of being unseen could be so cruel.

Can you name your inspirations and touchstones? Are there books you see Three Women arriving in the tradition of?

The scope of George Packer’s The Unwinding, the immersion of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Joan Didion’s essays, the nearness of Elena Ferrante, Tracy Kidder’s work, Renata Adler, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, the empathy of Grace Paley.

It seems that even non-fiction books now subscribe to the three act structure. But Three Women willingly forsakes it, or, for the most part, anything resembling a formal plot arc. And yet you never feel like we are merely following characters as the years fly by. Were you conscious of the balance between moments of tension and more diurnal insights? Did it hurt to leave some scenes on the cutting room to floor?

I thought a lot about structure. The idea tormented me. In the end I think it felt most organic and most respectful to the women’s trajectories to do it the way that I did.

It did hurt to leave things out, particularly because I felt that what I was leaving out might help people relate more to the subjects. What hurt the most was leaving whole people out. But in the end, I understood it was more powerful this way.

Sloane, Maggie, and Lina comprised the largest and rawest and most revealing segments of the book. Plenty of other subjects spanned the wide range of sexual proclivities, genders, races. But ultimately the three were the comfortable with my presence in their lives at length and across poignant moments. And, as a triad woven together, told the most arresting, individual and yet cohesive, narrative. Finally, the way that their communities psychologically conspired against them was emblematic for me of much of America’s projection of their sexual fears onto others.

The book, like all great books, offers no easy answers. The more you penetrate any given story, the less there’s anything in the way of resolution. If we root for someone or something to happen, it doesn’t necessarily feel morally “right,” if that makes sense; we desire like the characters do. Did you find yourself getting swept up in the women’s stories, wishing something would or wouldn’t happen? Were you, as a friend and visitor of these women, ever at odds with you, the writer?

Yes, definitely. I worked very hard to never offer my own advice, even when asked, because I didn’t want to alter their lives or their stories.