The Darkness and the Beauty: Lisa Taddeo Interviewed by Rachel Schwartzmann

A novel about female rage and the power to strike back.

Animal1

In Lisa Taddeo’s debut novel Animal (Avid Reader Press), we meet Joan, a woman on the verge of transformation. After a man in Joan’s life performs a horrendous act of violence in front of her, she leaves New York City to find Alice—the only person Joan believes can help her understand her past. Joan ends up in California, though her story unravels across time and space, and readers are introduced to a cast of characters that bring Joan’s lifelong trauma into focus.

Taddeo, widely known for her acclaimed book, Three Women, has written a novel adjacent to her exploration of female agency and desire. While these themes take up plenty of space on the page, for Taddeo, there is another side to Joan’s story. On the surface, Animal is rife with violence and rage, but it also shows us that unapologetically giving a voice to devastating experiences can help us acknowledge—and better understand—the root of one’s pain.

I mostly read Animal at night, in the dark, when every being in my household slept soundly. But no matter where you are in the world, Taddeo’s writing brings you back to your body. And if, like me, you found yourself breathless while reading Three Women, then just wait: Pulsing with life, Animal creates space for a long-awaited exhale—growl—that allows you to feel it all. To tell your story out loud, and then again, louder.

—Rachel Schwartzmann


Rachel Schwartzmann I stumbled upon a wonderful talk that you did for 5x15 about how we ask questions. It was given in the context of writing Three Women, where you were acting as a confidante to the three women you wrote about. But I’m curious how this idea of responsible questioning informed how you thought about writing Animal?

Lisa TaddeoAcross both fiction and nonfiction—and hopefully my personal life—I try not to levy judgment. Specifically, with nonfiction and with the women that I wrote about for Three Women, it was important for me to tell their stories unadorned without my own opinion—which I was not personally interested in, and I don’t think matters. I really just wanted to be the vessel for their stories. With Animal, I wanted the same thing. I think saying “responsible questioning” is exactly it.

I was talking to somebody the other day, and they had been sort of involved in a “scandal.” The person said to me, “feel free to ask me whatever you want about it,” which I thought was really open and generous, but I found it irresponsible to ask then because there wasn’t a reason for me knowing other than satisfying a curiosity. 

In Three Women, Sloane didn’t tell me a lot of things that she frankly didn’t want me to know or write about. So I wrote a story that I thought was compelling, but one that she was okay with having out in the world. For Joan, I think the same thing is true. I love getting as honest as possible, but there are places where I think for our characters, ourselves, and the people we meet, we should let them have their private selves. 

I try not to go into those zones because I think there’s enough outside. I think you can get more interesting material from people if you ask them about things that they’re willing to talk about—and they’ll go into depth about those things—rather than trying to skim the top of the things that you think might be more salient.

White woman, portrait, pink lipstick, face and brown hair and tan skin.

Photo of Lisa Taddeo by J. Waite.

RSJoan is a compelling narrator and creates vivid pictures of the people around her, but she’s also pretty tapped into herself. She says things like “I am depraved and curious” or “I am depraved. I hope you like me.” I think we learn that Joan is so much more than “depraved” as details of her story unfold, but I’m curious why this description felt like the correct way for Joan to describe herself?

LTThat’s a really great question. Joan is, in essence, mocking the notion of someone calling her crazy or depraved. She is throwing it back in their face by explaining the very traumatic events of her life that led her to where she is now—a woman others can easily call depraved or mad or wrecked. She’s showing how very little those words mean and how little truth they hold—how small and cruel they are, in general, as descriptors, when you take into account the full scope of what befalls a human being. 

She’s basically calling herself the name before other people can do it. There’s a sort of power in doing that and saying, Before you call me depraved, before you call me crazy, I’m going to say, here, I am crazy. And now let me tell you why.

RSGenerally you’ve cast such a wide net of characters: Vic, Big Sky, Alice, Leonard, Lenore, River, Mary, Eleanor… They are each devastating and unforgettable in their own way. Did one of them come to you first when you were developing the story?

LT What usually comes to me first and what is usually the only way into a story for me is the voice I’m telling it in. 

I was writing Animal as my thesis, and the wonderful novelist, Ha Jin, was one of my professors at Boston University. He suggested writing in the third person. He thought that would be the best vessel for it. I wrote the first eighty pages in the third person but it felt really dry and wrong, and I had all of the characters and everything. So I went back, and I rewrote it in the first person. That’s how I unlocked it. 

That’s what came to me first, Joan’s voice wanting to be heard in a more visceral way.

RS I don’t know if it would have landed in the same way if Joan wasn’t speaking at you directly. Another element that made Animal such an immersive read was how you describe the environment it takes place in. At one point, you write:

For many years my rage was dormant. I’d lived to survive. I could call up the hideous event, but in a far-off way. I could have dictated only the facts. I could not have called up each moment of horror. Back then not a second went by that I didn’t feel like something was eating my heart. But in the Canyon the pain turned to rage and the rage was growing around me the way the sunbaked bougainvillea grew around the older swingers’ mansion.

The book moves between a few different places, but what did you feel Los Angeles could bring to the story’s exploration of rage?

LT I lived in the canyons, so I had familiarity with that. But Los Angeles as a whole, for me, is such a gothic city. I lived in Manhattan for so many years, and I know every block. But for Los Angeles, no matter how many things I did there and how many places I drove around to, I always felt like there was something unknowable about it because it was so big. It’s so spread out. It’s so many different countries, in a sense. There is a gothic desperation to Los Angeles and also just a beauty. Those two things together, the darkness and the beauty of it, were just someplace that I wanted my characters to exist in.

RS It definitely set the tone. The way you paced how we learn about Joan’s life—what she’s endured and the people who have informed how she moves through the world—was also beautiful. It’s almost like time bleeds into itself. What did you have to consider to effectively demonstrate Joan’s full story but also show how we carry trauma throughout our lives?

LT It was important to me to build off of this one event that happened in her past. I think all of us have events from our past—positive and negative. And some of us have not one giant one or two or three giant ones, but maybe a hundred miniature ones that all accumulate. I wanted Joan to have one knowable, serious thing. But for me, that one thing was a stand-in for all of the things that shape us. 

Some are large, and some are small. We’re all unique in the things that shape us. But we are all the same in that if we go back into our memories, there’s either one or an accumulation of things that will sit with us for the rest of our lives. That was something I really wanted to explore. 

For me, the story is also a lot about motherhood, not exactly in a very “regular” way, but it is about motherhood. So I wanted it to be something that happened to her that came from her mother.

RSCan you talk more about the importance of motherhood? There are experiences that Joan has with other women in the book—I’m thinking specifically about Vic’s daughter Eleanor—and how she learns to mother in these unexpected ways.

LT Totally. I think a lot of mothering is, when you get down to it, taking care of someone else the way that you yourself wanted to have been taken care of by someone. Joan does not have a very solid mother figure to look back on, so she has to cobble things together and learn on the go. And Eleanor, for her, is a sort of mirror. Basically, the same kind of thing that happened to Eleanor happened to Joan, and Joan is able to take care of Eleanor, and in a sense, learn to take care of herself. I think without Eleanor there, she wouldn’t have had the desire to be a mother. I think that Eleanor helps her recognize that she can do it, and so that’s an important relationship for that reason.

RS As a mother yourself, what do you hope your daughter takes away once she’s able to read this story?

LTI hope Animal and Three Women and everything that I write is a kind of letter. Obviously, Animal is also written in the form of a letter to Joan’s daughter—for me, that is one place where it’s a big mirror. 

I want my child to know all of the things that I know. I lost my mother before I was really able to ask all of the questions you ask when you and your mother are both adults, so I don’t want my daughter to have too many of those questions. I don’t want her to ever look for, in someone else, what she thinks she is missing inside of herself. I want her to know that she is enough and perfect, and I want her to never second guess her being in the world.

RS I’m going to borrow a question I like to ask in my Slow Stories interviews that I think is also applicable to this conversation: Is there one question that you hope people will ask you more often?

LT Oh my gosh. I think you said it earlier. I would love to be asked more about responsible questioning in the same manner as you’ve asked me!

RS Ah! Well, as a follow-up to that, is there one that you hope readers will ask themselves after finishing Animal?

LT Have I been cruel to somebody without knowing what their story was?  

How many times have I been cruel to someone without understanding more about what was handicapping them from doing the “right thing?” 

Have I been cruel when I could have asked a question?

Animal is available for purchase here.

Rachel Schwartzmann is a writer and consultant based in New York City. She is also the creator of Slow Stories, a podcast/platform that explores slowing down in our digital age. Learn more about her work here.

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