Exploring Characters’ Choices with Lisa Taddeo

In our 250th episode, bestselling author Lisa Taddeo joins us on the podcast to discuss her writing career and her first novel, Animal. Lisa is also the author of the runaway nonfiction hit, Three Women, and she talks to us about the writing process for both of her books, her career as a journalist, and why she enjoys exploring the decisions people make in her writing.  Learn more about this episode!

In our 250th episode, bestselling author Lisa Taddeo joins us on the podcast to discuss her writing career and her first novel, Animal. Lisa is also the author of the runaway non-fiction hit, Three Women, and she talks to us about the writing process of both of her books, her career as a journalist, and why she enjoys exploring the decisions people make in her writing. 

  • Lisa talks to us about her journey as a writer, and she explains how an editor willing to take a chance on her sparked the beginnings of her successful writing career
  • Lisa tells us about her debut novel, Animal, how her research for Three Women helped inspire some of the characters in her novel, and she talks to us about releasing her new book during a pandemic
  • She discusses the experience surrounding the success of her first book, Three Women, and how her extremely busy schedule helped her stay grounded during the whirlwind experience
  • Lisa’s big break came from writing a fictional telling of a non-fiction event, and she talks to us about working in both the nonfiction and fiction spaces and how she employs some fiction-writing techniques in her nonfiction work
  • She tells us why she’s fascinated with exploring the reasoning behind decisions people make, and how even the smallest of choices, such as what to eat or wear, can influence how a reader sees a character
  • Lisa tells us about what she’s working on next, including the television adaptation of Three Women, and she gives us some excellent advice for writers

Useful Links

Lisa’s website
Follow Lisa on Instagram
Three Women
The Last Days of Heath Ledger
Black Water
Natalia Ginzburg
Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Diary of a Young Naturalist
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

Lisa Taddeo is the author of Three Women. She has contributed to The New York TimesNew York magazine, EsquireElleGlamour, and many other publications. Her nonfiction has been included in the anthologies Best American Political Writing and Best American Sports Writing, and her short stories have won two Pushcart Prizes. She lives with her husband and daughter in New England.

Episode Transcript

Transcript provided by Speechpad

Rachel: Hey, writers, and welcome to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast, where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, the author engagement coordinator.

Joni: And I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life.

Rachel: This week on the podcast, Joni and Steph spoke to best-selling author Lisa Taddeo. What did you guys talk about?

Joni: We spoke about Lisa Taddeo’s first novel. Her most recent book, her first novel. A lot of listeners will be familiar with Lisa Taddeo. She wrote “Three Women,” which was a non-fiction book that was immediately successful. She got a lot of attention for that. She is a journalist who turned writer. She was really interesting to talk to. I loved the book. I feel like it’s a book that you’ll enjoy too, Rachel. It’s very dark, very intense, but I really enjoyed reading it. We spoke to Lisa mostly about her writing process and her journey to publishing, her writing career. And it’s a little shorter than our usual ones I think, but I think it was a great conversation, and we hope you enjoy it.

Steph: Thank you, Lisa, for joining us today.

Lisa: Thanks for having me.

Steph: So, to kick it off, can you just tell our listeners a bit about yourself?

Lisa: I wrote a book called “Three Women” that was published in 2019, and prior to that, for which I spent 10 years researching, and during that time I was also writing for “Esquire Magazine” and publishing short stories. And now I have just, I’m coming out with my debut novel “Animal” in June.

Joni: Awesome. So, we know that “Three Women” hit the bestseller list immediately and was a huge, huge success. What was that like for you?

Lisa: You know, it was definitely less. It kind of…it was such a tornado that I didn’t really get to experience it because I was doing so much publicity stuff. And I had no idea that any of that was gonna happen. I thought I was writing a quiet book that, you know, that not a lot of people were gonna read, frankly. And when more people read it than I expected, it was a lot, but also there was so much going, going, going that I didn’t…it’s not like I was just sitting back and watching, kind of, it happen. I was, you know, traveling and doing interviews and stuff. So, and continuing to write in general. So, yeah, it wasn’t…it’s hard to say. It was both very destabilizing and also my life was already destabilized because of everything that I was doing. So, I don’t know, it kinda cancelled each other out.

Joni: Yeah, definitely. So, your new book “Animal” is coming out in June. How did the 10 years that you spent researching “Three Women”…did that contribute at all to developing the protagonist in this book?

Lisa: Yeah, I mean, there’s a good amount of things that were taken from my research in “Three Women.” there were a lot of stories that I wasn’t able to tell because the people were scared about their stories being public, so I was able to use a lot of different components in “Animal” to create an amalgamation, but at the same time I would say Joan, the main character, is just as much an amalgamation of, you know, people I’ve met through the book as she is of people I’ve met through my own personal life. It’s kind of hard to separate the two.

Steph: I would like to kinda go back a bit.

Lisa: Yep.

Steph: So, I read on your Instagram that your first short story was kinda published because an editor took a chance on you because you didn’t have any experience, and I was just wondering, can you tell us a bit about your, like, writing career and how you’ve become a success, basically?

Lisa: Yeah. Well, I was…short stories was always kind of what, you know, what I’ve kind of wanted to do my whole life. I always used to read short stories at, like, the town pool. Like, you know, I would always go to…they didn’t, there weren’t little free libraries back then, but it was, like, I’m done reading this, I’m leaving it on the wet banister of the pool. And what I really loved was how…just how you can slip into a world so easily, and if you didn’t totally love the world, you could slip into another one. I love short stories. I was writing those my whole life, probably, like…I probably wrote short stories once a week all throughout my life.

And then when I got into…when I graduated college and I wanted to work, you know, I wanted to be a working writer beyond publishing a novel or a work of non-fiction, I didn’t…I wasn’t really thinking about it that way. I was like, “How do I make money while I, you know, while I…” I started writing, I became an editorial assistant at…I think my first real job was at “Health” magazine as an editorial assistant, and then from there I wrote a note to…that’s how that short story came to happen, because he had read some of my fiction and I said…I pitched all these, like, crazy ideas of, like, you know, how to have sex in…just, like, whatever “Esquire” type headline I could think of for back then. And he wrote back and he was like, “Hey, these are great,” meaning, you know, these suck, “But I’ll find the right story for you, you know, because you seem to like fiction, so I’m gonna, you know, see what we can do to that angle.”

And then when Heath Ledger, unfortunately, passed away, he wrote to me that following morning and said…you know, because it was such a tragedy, and it was so…it was kind of, like, you know, this thing that everybody was just so taken by, and he asked me to kind of report on how it happened, but to fill in the rest with my imagination. So, that was my first thing, and I wouldn’t say it was, like, success from then on, but that’s kind of…that definitely was where I felt like a real writer.

Joni: How does it feel…I’m not really sure how to ask this, but when you’re talking about taking something non-fictional and making it into a narrative. Do you feel that you can be creative with that, or do you feel kind of anxious about keeping things factual?

Lisa: When it came to the book everything is 100% factual. The book is pure non-fiction. When it comes to, you know, that Health Ledger story or what Joyce Carol Oates has done with Marilyn Monroe or, you know, her book “Black Water” where she takes…or, you know, anybody, or what Curtis Sittenfeld is doing with “Rodham”. You know, when you have stuff like that, there’s a different sort of a thing. You have a public figure and you have information about the public figure but, you know, there’s obviously stuff you can’t know so you have to make that up. I think…not you don’t have to, but that’s, you know, that’s one thing that people do with historical fiction, obviously.

For me, with Heath Ledger, that’s obviously what I did. With my book, I wasn’t…with “Three Women” I wasn’t doing that, I was telling factual stories. Even though I employed a lot of the, you know, the sort of things of fiction, which is to say using a lot of detail and stuff like that. I didn’t have any sort of ethical questions about it because…well, I mean my ethical questions were telling these people’s stories in this kind of raw manner, but I didn’t have any ethical questions about truth because it was all on the record.

Joni: Okay. How did you find the switch from non-fiction to fiction? Was it fairly natural for you?

Lisa: Well, since I’d been writing fiction predominately, you know, my whole life, it was more of a switch to go non-fiction when I started writing for “Esquire” because after I wrote that short story for “Esquire” I wrote mainly non-fiction for “Esquire” and “New York” Magazine, etc. So, I’ve never found it challenging to go from one to the other.

Steph: Can you tell our listeners a bit about, like, what “Animal” is about?

Lisa: Sure. “Animal” is about, well it’s about…it starts off with a woman who witnesses an act of violence in front of her, and then leaves New York for LA to go find this other woman that has the, sort of, key to her traumatic childhood. But what it really was for me…so, it’s a little bit of, like, a road trip slash, you know…I mean, I don’t know if road trip is the right word, but there is a lot of driving.

Steph: I was gonna say journey maybe?

Lisa: Journey, yeah, journey. She, Joan, the main character, for me is an exploration of what it’s like to have been put upon, sort of, your whole life, and to have all these difficult things happen to you. How do you then…how are your actions judged by those around you who do not know perhaps what has happened? So, Joan is my look at…my sort of, like, here is the interior of this. Here is somebody who has made questionable decisions, and before you go and judge them, like, this is how they got from there to here.

Steph: Joni and I were discussing this earlier, but it was, like, I read a lot of romance novels, and it’s always…in books like that when there’s cheating involved it’s portrayed as the villain, but this kind of novel kind of opened my eyes to be like, “No, there’s always three different sides to anything going on, and we really need to think about that.” So, it was really interesting to read that since I heavily read that all the time, and I don’t know why. You know, like I don’t know why I’m always, like, “Oh, cheating is bad.” But it’s like, no, there’s more stuff going on and I think…it was really interesting to see that portrayed in the book for the first time for me.

Lisa: Oh, cool. Well, thanks, yeah. I mean, I think my interest in general lies in the sort of, the middle ground, and, like, the nuance of what, you know…because I think so many of us can, you know, I mean, the easiest example I can give is, like, before we had our kid who’s now six, my husband and I would do what every other parent, like, non-parent, does and look at kids, like, at restaurants watching TV on, like, phones, and we’d be like, “Oh my god, we’re never gonna do that.” And then, you know, cut to six months later and it’s, like, “Daniel Tiger” is playing over here and we’re drinking wine, we’re so psyched.

And, you know, I just…I think with cheating that happens a lot, and that’s not to say I’m, like, defending cheating or infidelity, anything. It’s not about defending that stuff, it’s more so about I’m just interested in…I’m not interested in saying, “It’s fine to do this.” I’m interested in saying, “This person did this, here’s why. Here’s where they were coming from. Here’s the sort of full story behind it.” So, I’m just intrigued by the full story of something, and then I’m intrigued by how our reactions might then differ.

Joni: Something else that we were chatting about earlier is the presence of food in the novel. And Steph and I both have Italian parents, so that was very resonant and very, very familiar. And just the association with pleasure and how important to you was that, was the presence of food as a backdrop?

Lisa: Huge. I mean, food is a big part of my life. It’s a big…it’s just a big part of everything. I grew up, you know, also in an Italian household, although probably not, like, probably not as food-centric as some others. For me, I think, like, from an early age I kind of wanted to experiment with, like, sushi, and, you know, other things. I’ve just always been so intrigued by flavor, and my favorite thing to do, or was before the pandemic, was going out to new restaurants and just trying new food. So, it’s really important to me. I just, I think food sets a scene in a really big way.

Steph: So, we recently talked to a stylist, kind of, about the clothes in a narrative, and me and Joni are now hyperaware of that, I think, when we’re reading or, like, watching something now. Did you consider clothes when you’re crafting your characters? Because what stuck out to me was the white dress that her mother wore and, like, kind of the implications of that. Did you think of clothes as furthering your storyline when you pick them out?

Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I think every detail of any sort of…of any kind of a situation, like, if you…the more detail you have about the way something looks, smells, and feels…just, the more that you are in it. So, for me, I…clothes and food…really clothes and food. And water. I, like, love oceans and pools. I think having…that stuff always appears in my fiction and non-fiction because it’s…and if I’m, you know, doing something about a subject, my interest is naturally gonna, like, be in those areas. So, even if a subject of mine is not interested in food, I’m still…there’s still something interesting about why is she not interested in food? You know, like, what…like, “What did you eat?” “Oh, I don’t know, well, something with, like, chicken.” Well, it’s like, I think that that, like, food and clothes, it’s just…anything that someone gets to make a decision with. I mean, some people can’t make decisions on those things, but for those of us who do and can, it’s interesting, like, what you do decide to wear and eat that day and why.

Joni: Was there anything in particular that was inspirational for you when writing “Animal”?

Lisa: Inspirational, like…

Joni: Like, in terms of…I feel like it’s relatively new to talk about some of the themes that you talk about, like, female rage, and pleasure, and how those can be tied up in some ways. But I think we’re seeing that a little bit more in fiction now. Like, I’m trying to think of examples, but the power or…I just think it’s something that’s being discussed more, and I wondered if there was a particular writer or storyline that had inspired you with this.

Lisa: No, nothing in particular. I mean, I think…nothing new. I mean, I’m really…I think Natalia Ginzburg was probably a really huge inspiration for the book. And I mean, it’s somebody that I’ve been reading and read for a long time, so I don’t know how, but she’s a big…I mean, I don’t know when she passed away, but she’s not a new, she’s by no means new, a new influence. But that’s probably the biggest one.

Steph: We also noticed that your previous book “Three Women” is going to be adapted into a TV show, and I think you are gonna be involved in the writing process of that?

Lisa: Yes, I’m the creator.

Steph: Have you started that?

Lisa: Yeah, we just handed in the 10th episode.

Steph: Oh.

Lisa: God, yeah, it’s pretty exciting. We’re, I think, gonna go into sort of casting and stuff like that next, but yeah, it’s pretty much done in terms of the pre part of it.

Steph: Did you find it weird to adapt a novel into…or, like, how did that kind of process work?

Lisa: Part…I mean, I’ve already been working, I’ve adapted one of my short stories, and I was in development with Netflix, so I’ve been doing other TV stuff, and I’m doing a lot of other TV stuff besides that, so there’s been a lot. It’s not like that’s the first thing. I will say that it’s the most challenging of the things that I’ve done because it was a woven narrative, you know, three unconnected people, basically, so there were definitely questions and challenges as to how to best adapt it for TV. So, I did find it challenging more so than most things I’ve done in the TV scope. Which has not been much, but I do have some experience.

Joni: Do you have any idea when that’ll be aired? I guess it’s still a while away?

Lisa: Yeah, I mean, they probably will be shooting it in the next couple of months, so I don’t know. I don’t know, I would assume sometime in 2022.

Joni: Awesome.

Steph: And what can readers expect from you next? Do you have anything upcoming?

Lisa: My collection of short stories will follow “Animal” probably sometime next year. And then I also, I just submitted a new non-fiction idea for another book, so, but that is…yeah, so a lot of things I guess. I’ve been kind of non-stop working with this, like, kind of hope that I’ll get to this end point and I’ll be like, “Okay, now I’m done.” But that’s…the opposite has happened. So, but yeah, no, I’ve been doing a lot and it’s been really exciting, too. And it’s been, you know, the pandemic has been really awful for a number of things, but in terms of work, I think that a lot of writers and other types of artists who do their work at home have been lucky in the sense that they can continue to have done it. And I’ve had more, sort of, freedom to do that. So, I feel that there’s a silver lining in that cloud.

Steph: Definitely. What’s it like…I don’t know how open things are where you are, but normally when you’re launching a book, not in a pandemic, you’re presumably be doing in-person readings and events, and that kind of thing. How does, “Animal,” how is the launch of that going to be?

Lisa: You know, I don’t exactly know. I have a lot of Zoom events planned with the sort of understanding that they could switch to live if, you know, things work out. But, no, I mean we’ve been finding, sort of, interesting things to do, like, events that involve kind of partners and, like, doing, like, eating things, drinking things with the people while they’re doing…we’re kinda, like, my goal is to make it be fun because I feel, you know, we’ve all been pretty Zoomed out and, you know, I think that…so I don’t know exactly how it’s gonna look, but so far it feels like there might some hope to have some travel in the future and stuff like that.

Joni: Let’s hope. And I wanted to ask also, how involved are you in the publicity and marketing side of things? Because I think we have a sense in the indie world that this is kind of taken care of by the publisher, and I think that that is no longer really the case. How much of that…

Lisa: I mean, the publisher does a lot. You know, I’m lucky to be working with the team at Avid Reader at Simon & Schuster, has been super…they’re really just, you know, they’re a fairly new imprint at a fairly large house, and they are very motivated to kind of do special things. And they’ve created, like, tote bags for the book, and they’ve been doing a lot of great stuff. So, I’m involved in the sense that I, like, I have ideas and I, you know, I like being a part of it. But they do do a lot.

Steph: I was wondering since you kind of have been able to write in different genres and stuff like that, I’m wondering if you would have any advice, since we have both established writers that listen and also new authors, advice to a writer trying to maybe start their career or are already pretty established and are trying to, like, make it to the next step or, like, worried about trying new things? Do you have any advice to writers? Or maybe best advice that you’ve ever heard?

Lisa: Well, I think, and this is more of a sort of writing for an outlet advice rather than, like, writing a book, but the best advice I got was, and this is how I sort of got hooked up with the editor-in-chief of “Esquire,” someone said to me that, “You should always call editors, editor-in-chief, like just start at the top, kind of a thing.” Like, first thing in the morning on like a Monday or a Tuesday, or whatever, because…and first thing meaning, like, before 9:00, like, 8:00 or 7:00, because some sort motivated…the people who kind of are in charge of their world in a certain way, and hold themselves in a certain way will be there answering their own phones instead of their assistants at that time. And just kind of formally, just be bold and introduce yourself and say, “I want to do this.”

That’s really…that and the other big advice that I give to everyone that, I mean, like, there’s a lot to be said for editing your work, and being, you know, and really making sure you don’t have, you know, clunky whatever and definitely no misspellings and stuff like that because I think that can be really disrespectful to your reader, but really send it out. Like, at a certain point, just send it out. Just do the scary thing and hit send, you know, there’s always…I think there’s this ideal that, like, “Oh, there’s this perfect way that this story, or this play, or this poem can be.” But there is no perfect way. I mean, you can change it and fix it forever. So, at least that’s what I feel. So, just send it out. Get it done.

Steph: Take the scary step.

Lisa: Yeah.

Steph: Did you join, like, writer’s groups or do you have a close circle of friends that you share your work with?

Lisa: No, I don’t. I mean, I have writer friends and I’m getting more by the day, sort of, as I, like, am more in this world, which has been so…which has been one of the most amazing things about my book being read widely. Just getting to meet people that I’ve always found inspiring, etc. But, no, I don’t share stuff. Sometimes I’ll ask my husband who I work with on a lot of things to read stuff, but even him, like, at the end of the day I am writing something for myself, and then after myself I’m writing it for the editor or whomever who’s looking at it.

So, I write it with that person in mind, or rather, with myself and my sort of audience in mind, but then the only person that I really…it’s like, my husband, let’s say, whose opinion I value still might say, “Oh, you know what? You can do better on this,” but I’m like, “No wait, I actually think this is great.” I send it to the person that is going to be either accepting it or paying me for it or whatever it might be, and it’s really their opinion that matters. So, like, I don’t find so much use in having, like, I kinda…so, no, I don’t have a group where I sort of share stuff.

Steph: And then our favorite question to ask people is what have you been loving lately? Any book, movie, TV show?

Lisa: I just started reading “Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” I believe that’s the title. I’ve also been reading “Diary of a Young Naturalist” which is a beautiful non-fiction book. This young, like, Irish teenager wrote it and it’s absolutely stunning. And “Luster” I read fairly recently, it was the last thing that I read that I was just like, “Oh my god, you know, this is just a huge talent.” And George Saunders is…”Puddle in the Rain” or “Swim in the Puddle” something that…you know, his book about Russian short story masters.

Joni: I know “Luster” got a lot of chatter at Kobo. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s one of the ones that was bounced around.

Lisa: It’s great, and you should try to have her, Raven Leilani, on with you guys. She’s just…we’ve done an event together. She’s just brilliant, I just think she’s a huge new talent, just massive.

Steph: That’s awesome.

Joni: Good to know. And where can listeners find you online?

Lisa: I am on Instagram @lisadtaddeo.

Steph: And then, just again, when does “Animal” release?

Lisa: June 8th.

Steph: June 8th?

Lisa: Yeah.

Steph: All right. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Lisa: Thanks for having me guys. Have a great rest of your day.

Steph: You too. Thank you.

Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life” podcast. We will have links to Lisa’s books on our show notes, and if you’re enjoying this podcast, be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. For more tips for growing your self-publishing business, head to kobowritinglife.com, and be sure to follow us on socials. We are @kobowritinglife on Twitter and Facebook, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Joni: This episode was produced by Rachel Wharton and Joni Di Placido. Stephanie McGrath was the co-host. Editing is by Kelly Robotham. Music is provided by Tearjerker, and huge thanks to Lisa Taddeo for being a guest on the episode. If you’re ready to start your writing journey today, sign up for free at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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