Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is one of the buzziest nonfiction releases of the year, and Bookish named it one of the season’s must-reads. In it, Taddeo reports on the lives of three women who are grappling with the complexities of relationships and desire. Lina is missing the intimacy in her marriage and begins an affair with someone from her past. Sloane negotiates a relationship that often involves more than just her husband. Maggie is dealing with the fallout from a relationship with one of her high school teachers. Here, Taddeo chats with Bookish about her research and writing process, earning her sources’ trust, and the message she hopes readers take away from Three Women.
Once you’re done reading the interview, enter to win a copy of Three Women!
Bookish: The title of this book is clear about the fact that these are stories about three women, rather than all women. Why was this distinction important to you?
Lisa Taddeo: I did not seek to write the book about female desire. I wanted to take these three stories and do them the justice and fullness they deserve. They are as important as anyone else’s, and they deserve to be heard. The idea is that desire is universal, but these are three individuals. Separate and yet the same. One for all, and all for one.
Bookish: What inspired you to write this book? How did you find the women you would eventually profile?
LT: The genesis was to take the pulse of sexuality and desire in America today. I wanted to write 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 our glassiest secret. I wanted to explore the nuance of that intersection.
To find subjects, I did just about everything I could think of, analog and digital. I posted on Craigslist. I posted on Facebook. I called lawyers, therapists, educators, and acquaintances. I posted signs looking for stories/subjects on message boards. I drove across the country six times and handed out business cards in surf towns, mining towns, talked to people and hung signs at gas stations, churches, temples, grocery stores, and all the Starbucks in between.
I was in Medora, North Dakota, researching a different subject for the book, when I read about Maggie’s trial in a local paper. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, and the very next day I was driving to Fargo. I found Lina after moving to Indiana, where I started a women’s discussion group. The third woman, Sloane, I learned about by asking around in a community that intrigued me for its isolation.
Bookish: Your sources (Maggie, Lina, and Sloane) are incredibly vulnerable in this book. How did you go about earning their trust? How did you describe to them what you hoped this book would become?
LT: It was both easy and difficult with each woman, at various times. With some it was wholly easier than others. Lina’s story came the most organically, because she wanted to talk about this new love in her life, and the dissolution of her marriage. It was an immediate, trenchant moment, and I was there in the very moment it was happening.
For each of them, I’d like to think I was something in between a friend and a therapist. I told them my own secrets, because it was natural, and because it felt right, to give as much as they gave. But mostly, I listened, and I think everyone in the world likes to be heard.
I tried to describe what I thought the book might be, but honestly, it took form very late in the process. There were multiple people I was profiling, right up until the end, men, women, all sexual persuasions etc. Some dropped out very late in the game. But these three stories were always among the rawest/deepest/most honest for me. Throughout, I tried to keep everyone as in the loop as possible, with everything I was thinking and feeling.
Bookish: How did you know where to end each character’s story? Was it tempting to keep reporting, hoping that each woman’s unique situation might resolve further?
LT: Oh my gosh, yes! A former editor of mine said, “Lisa, you know, there’s a point at which you just need to stop reporting.” But that was about two years before I turned the first draft of the final book in, and I knew then it wasn’t done yet. I knew there was more, I just didn’t know how much.
Bookish: In the epilogue, you write that one woman stopped participating in this project because she believed that if she talked about being in love, it would go away. Do you think many women have this mindset? Do you think it affects the way lots of women do or don’t talk about love?
LT: Yes, 100%. In fact, another writer just told me that she interviewed a friend of hers about the last time she had sex, and the friend told her the story, and understood it would be utterly anonymous, location-less, age-less, everything, and yet she said, “Please don’t do this, please forget I even told you!” Because she had fallen for the man and she didn’t want the experience to feel oxygen on its face for fear it would disappear.
Bookish: What is the single biggest thing you learned from following Maggie, Lina, and Sloane?
LT: I learned that we are all together in this. I learned that comprehending someone’s heartache is, unfortunately, very often the only way to stop condemning them. Maggie, Sloane, and Lina want to be loved, and they want to love, and they do and they have had moments of exhilaration and have given up a lot for those moments. They were the heroes and the victims of their own stories, sometimes that changed by the hour of the day. I learned that most of us wouldn’t necessarily do certain things over again—like not partake in a moment of passion—even if we know how long it might stay with us/hurt us.
Bookish: Do you envision this book as speaking primarily to women, or do you think it will find a large male readership too?
LT: A man who read it told me that he was so very struck because he had never once considered how the indifference of men (or whoever is the alpha in a relationship) could be so wounding. He went back and reconsidered every time he had not written a lover back. I hope that will carry. To all people.
Bookish: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
LT: That we should be able to tell each other the truth. That we should not judge. That we should see other humans in the world. Even outside the microcosm of sex and desire, we should write back to an email. We should say, I see you there in the world. You are seen.
Lisa Taddeo spent eight years and thousands of hours tracking the women whose stories comprise Three Women, moving to the towns they lived in to better understand their lives. She has contributed to New York magazine, Esquire, Elle, Glamour and many other publications. Her short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes. She lives with her husband and daughter in New England.