Lisa Taddeo, GHOST LOVER

Lisa Taddeo, GHOST LOVER

The New York Times bestselling author of Three Women and Animal Lisa Taddeo returns to talk with Zibby about her latest book, Ghost Lover, a collection of short stories. The two discuss how they both use language to describe their grief to those who may have not experienced as much loss as they have, why Lisa wanted these stories to all focus on women and love without a male perspective, and what she does to make her writing literary but accessible. Lisa also shares which stages of development each of the adaptations of her books are currently in.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Ghost Lover.

Lisa Taddeo: Thank you for having me. It’s one of my favorite podcasts in the whole world.

Zibby: You’re so sweet, oh, my gosh. Then you may remember from our first podcast, but after I read Three Women, I ravenously devoured everything you’d ever written online. I stayed up and was like, what else has she written? I can’t get enough of this author’s voice. Then of course, we met. All in the past. There is something about your writing that is so amazing and different and just stops me in my tracks, the way you write. I am a huge fan of yours, as you know, not to be too sycophantic here, but I am.

Lisa: Thank you.

Zibby: Ghost Lover, first, tell everybody what it’s about. Then I’m going to read a couple amazing quotes.

Lisa: Ghost Lover, I dedicated it to all the girls who’ve loved before. The reason I wrote that in the dedication — my mom used to love Enrique Iglesias. Sorry, Julio Iglesias. Wrong generation. The elder Iglesias. One of the songs, obviously, is “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” For me, I grew up with such a man’s view of women, including my mother sort of inculcating that in me. What I wanted to do with Ghost Lover was write it for the women who’ve loved before rather than “to all the girls I’ve loved before” kind of a thing. Ghost Lover is a compendium of stories about women, young women, older women, women across the spectrum of wealth, socioeconomics, and everything, and just how we are told who we need to be. It’s a satirical look of the way that we self-punish ourselves after being told how to punish ourselves and then basically remonstrated for doing that punishing after having been told to do it. It’s a bit of a satirical look at how female desire works in the world and the way that it’s, frankly, affected by everybody else and then the way that we still decide to judge it after all of that.

Zibby: Do you love describing it? Are you just like, I don’t want to do this description ever again? Why are you asking me?

Lisa: No, no. In fact, it’s funny. I got really tired after describing Three Women because I would hear myself say the same words over and over again. I would be like, oh, god. I didn’t get tired of it. It’s more that I feel like if someone’s listening to the same thing, to me saying it three times — I remember when Lady Gaga was promoting A Star is Born. She was like, “There’s ninety-nine people in a room who don’t believe you. All you need is that one person to believe in you.” I remember listening to her saying it over and over. I was like, oh, my god, lady, say something else. Then Three Women came out, and I was like, “If there’s ninety-nine people…” Not that, but my version of it. I had a renewed sense of — no, I’m not tired of it. I’m excited about Ghost Lover. I love short stories. It’s my favorite form. I think that they’re an unsung hero of the writing world, or heroine rather, and that we need to start reading them again.

Zibby: I think there’s this misperception, though, with short story or short story collections that they have to be so deeply literary that you’re going to need to settle in and put your best thinking cap on to devour intricate sentences. You’re going to need to really exert a lot of effort to consume them, which is a detraction, I think, for people. Your stories are the exact opposite of that. Not that you don’t think, but there is no lift. There is no lift on the part of the reader. The reader is immediately pulled in. You know what? I’m going to just read a few examples of what I’m talking about. Not to say you’re not literary. You obviously are, but it’s not in a way that requires effort. It’s a way that is entertaining for the reader. Do you know what I’m trying to say?

Lisa: I totally do. In fact, it’s something that I work on because, obviously, literary fiction, sentences that are crafted, that — I always bring up Grace Paley’s story, Wants — I think it’s Wants and not Wanting — Wants, and how there’s sentences in there that just tell you the whole scope of a human life but yet are also effortlessly readable. For me, being literary and all of that, my first desire is to entertain because that’s what I want to be as a reader. I want to be entertained, so as a writer, I want to entertain. I want to do it as concisely and sharply as possible within the boundaries of a sentence. Ultimately, the desire is to entertain and to have someone go, oh, I know exactly what you mean. I think there’s some times when you write something and some people are like, what? What the hell does that mean? I think for each “What the hell does that mean?” there’s an “Oh, my god, I know exactly what she means.” I think there’s a risk that you take in that, but it’s a risk that I’m happy to take because when it is fruitful and when it lands, it’s really exciting for me as a writer.

Zibby: It’s awesome. It’s exciting to read because you’re like, oh, I’ve never thought about having sex with an iron, but I guess that’s what it would feel like.

Lisa: That might come from the fact that when I was researching , I watched an actual machine, a robotic machine — sorry if this is not good for your book chat — penetrate a woman in the air while she was hog-tied at the porn castle in San Francisco, now defunct. I saw that actually happen. That’s where that one comes from in my head.

Zibby: Wow. Oh, my gosh, I’m not sure I wanted to know that.

Lisa: Sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay. I think what it is a lot are the comparisons, all the analogies and similes and whatever. Here’s an example. This is from the first story. “And you would have sat looking at the waves thawing on your rocky bandage of beach in abject misery, waiting no less than three minutes,” blah, blah, blah, “in the refrigerated section –” This is so out of context. Now I’m not making any sense, but I guess “rocky bandage of beach.” Then in the next scene, you say — this is when they’re in line. They’re recognizing the Ghost Lover, Ari, who’s become famous. There’s this couple in line who are all over each other. He says, “Hey, you’re Ari the Ghost Lover, right?” Then you write, “You feel dizzy. A crouton in your mouth the size of a nightmare. You try to chew it quietly, but there is no quiet, fast way to get rid of a crouton. There is only slow disintegration.” So good. Croutons, even think about croutons? The way you describe Sunday is amazing. “It’s Sunday, which for you is a whale’s throat. Blue-black and forever.” Is a whale’s throat blue-black? Have you looked inside a whale’s throat? How do we even know this?

Lisa: For me, finding something that’s kind of out of reach — I guess this is a way — it might be in “Suburban Weekend,” which is in there. Not to bring it back to — not bring it back. Not to bring it into grief, but there is a lot of grief in Ghost Lover too, the collection, as there was in Animal. With loss and stuff like that, it was so hard after having lost my parents to figure out how to describe depression and how to describe loss. There were no words. There were no phrases that could adequately communicate to people who hadn’t experienced those feelings what it was like. For me, things like a whale’s throat — in “Suburban Weekend,” I say that having lost your parents, for the woman there, was like a tiger bite that nobody could see. I’ve just always struggled to communicate adequately how big an emotion can feel. I think we have this amazing language. English is really an amazing language. It is absolutely impossible to learn for people for whom it’s not — not impossible; it’s just really difficult — for people for whom it’s not their first language. With that difficulty comes so many things we can draw from, so many different ways of seeing the world. I just fall into it and try to find things that communicate something that I feel is incommunicable with regular thoughts and feelings.

Zibby: I struggle with the same thing. Not to be self-promotional here, but in Bookends when I was trying to describe my depression, I compared it to the heavy X-ray cloak that you wear, how it just sits on you.

Lisa: Communicating that like that, that’s beautiful. It’s so important to find ways to communicate things that someone who does not know, now reading your — you wouldn’t just sit there talking to a friend and be like, it feels like an — you might, but there’s something about the experience of putting it in a book or an essay or anything where you have the time to write it out. Then someone else has the time on their own time on a couch or at a pool or wherever they read to see that and be like, oh. To take that fully in is really a gift.

Zibby: Speaking of gift, I’m going to read a few more of your lines here. Hold on. Let’s see. This was just funny. “The less one’s body is perfect, the more it needs expensive garments, heavy crepes to position themselves like aid workers across the fault lines.” Oh, my gosh, insane. Amazing. Then you’re so funny when you have the saleslady at Morgane Le Fay come up. She asks if you want anything special. You say, “No. In fact, I’m looking for something really un-special. Tell me, what is the least-special thing you have in this store?” Then you feel so bad. You tell your friend about it. Not you. “This is how good you are at your job. You are a clinician of the text. You can eviscerate, palpate, abrogate with a mild word combined with cunning punctuation.” That should be on your website as the description of you and what you do with language. You say, “You wear the red dress that Nick bought you at that consignment shop in Cambridge. All these years later, all these diets later, you are still mostly the same size. If only people knew how much work went into your weight. The fluctuations in your mind rocket and plunge like an ambitious water slide. Your relationship with your refrigerator has given the cat an anxiety disorder. But on your body the movements are razor bumps.” That is so perfect. I’ve never heard weight loss and the effort it takes to maintain a weight with which you were dissatisfied described so perfectly. It’s something I think about often.

Lisa: Here’s the thing for me. We think about it often, but we’re kind of not allowed to talk about it and how much we think about it. That’s what that is for me. It’s kind of like a carnival of, here’s all the stuff we have to do. This is what we think about. It’s okay to think about it. It’s okay to have these feelings. It’s just okay. It’s okay.

Zibby: My mother was once talking to me about a friend of hers who’s always been sort of overweight but mostly the same. She goes, “I said to my friend the other day, what is your secret? You maintain your weight so well.”

Lisa: That’s awesome. I love that. That’s great.

Zibby: It does take a lot. It could always be worse or whatever. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, so when you write a story like this — I feel like they’re all linked. Everything made sense. Do you do it all in one fell swoop? Did you sit down and just write this story? Do you go back over and over? Does the first draft of a story just come out of you and then you go back and edit?

Lisa: Yes. I do go back and edit, but what I do more is I kind of don’t move on until I’m happy with a paragraph. Until I think a paragraph is great or good or whatever, I won’t have the temerity to keep it moving. I’m more like, sentence, sentence, sentence. Then I look at that. I’m like, how do I feel about those four sentences? Then I move on.

Zibby: Going back just for two seconds to losing your parents and trying to communicate that, once you feel like you can explain it, if it can ever actually be explained, what is our compulsion to get people to get it who don’t get it? What is that?

Lisa: It’s so funny you should ask that. I try to tell my husband all the time — my husband has never lost anyone super close to him. His experience of death is utterly different than mine because I have lost a lot of people super close to me. I am terrified of it. I walk through the world in terror. He walks through the world in less terror. I’m jealous of his less terror. He’s very empathic about listening about my parents and stuff like that. In terms of that actual loss, he says to me, he’s like, “Why do you want me to know what it feels like so that I’m walking around as afraid as you?” I’m like, yes, I think I do. I guess I want him to walk around afraid in the sense that I want to make sure he knows that at any moment something can happen. We have to be vigilant. For me, it’s about vigilance. It’s about, if everybody knows how bad this is, we can all work together to stop death from ever touching us. I know that’s obviously not possible. It’s not biologically possible. It’s not statistically. It’s not anything. I feel like if I can just communicate to everybody how bad it is, that everybody will ban together with me. We can all sit in a white room that’s all padded. We can just sit there and get really healthy and drink lemon water. I don’t know, Zibby. I’m just trying to get by.

Zibby: It’s not just you. I didn’t mean —

Lisa: — I know. I know what you meant. I’m just saying that’s how I .

Zibby: You’re right. I am not terrified of death. I am just in full recognition that it could happen any second, and so it changes the way I live every day. I feel like people who don’t believe that might not have that clarity of purpose, almost. I think it can go either way if you’ve had a lot of loss. You can be afraid it’s going to happen. It’s sort of all linked. You can’t tease it apart. I do believe strongly there is the camp of people who know that we could all drop dead at any second and then those who can blissfully go through life kind of thinking about it, but it’s not part of their everyday. You just want to pull the shades up and let them see out the window that you’re looking out of or something.

Lisa: That’s what it is for me. It’s the feeling alone in it. If I’m walking around and everyone’s happy, I’m just like, wait, you guys are all aware, right, that we’re going to die? You guys are all aware of that, right? Again, like my husband says to me, he’s like, “We don’t want to –” He was afraid of flying, then got over it. It took him a long time. Then he met me, and I was like, “Wait, you’re not afraid of flying? That’s crazy.” I kind of brought him right back to where he was.

Zibby: Well done, Lisa.

Lisa: Thank you. He was like, “What is your deal? The world doesn’t want to be afraid of flying.” I’m like, “Right, but there’s people for whom it is impossible not to be afraid.” It is for those people that I am writing. I always talk about that Cesar Cruz quote that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I don’t really want to disturb the comfortable. I’m like, you guys are fine. If you’re fine, good. I’m happy for you. For these guys over here who are not fine, I am here to tell you I am also not fine. Here are some of the things I do to feel more fine. That’s where I write from.

Zibby: I think feeling not fine and feeling alone is so much worse than just feeling not fine. Knowing you’re dropping into a crowded pool of people who also feel that way is better than alone in the big, vast ocean of it yourself. We’re in the community pool today, is where we are, community pool of grief.

Lisa: Exactly.

Zibby: Okay, now pulling out of deep philosophical discussions. Ghost Lover is done and out and beautiful and thought-provoking, of course, and just awesome. Where are you with the rest of your writing? What are you working on now? What’s happening with the film stuff? What are you doing? You have a million balls in the air.

Lisa: I do. I’m lucky and also totally exhausted. Three Women will be out sometime in the new year, I think. We don’t have an air date, but it’s all done. I mean, it’s not done. We’re still in the cutting all the episodes part, but all the principal photography is done being filmed. There’s a First Look on Vanity Fair. They did a beautiful job on it. It looks really cool. I’m writing the screen adaptation of Animal for film. A lot of the stories in Ghost Lover are going into TV land.

Zibby: Wow, so cool. When you wake up and go to your desk in the morning, how are you organizing your time for the day?

Lisa: It involves a lot of colored pens and things. Today after this, I have a lot of edit sessions back to back on the thing. I mostly do meetings. Then I try to schedule days where it’s just for writing, but it’s increasingly hard to do that. I try to carve out time in the day.

Zibby: Amazing. I know we spent a lot of time in the beginning just chitchatting, and so now our episode is shorter. I’m encouraging listeners to go back and listen to our other episodes too. Check out Ghost Lover. The sentences, you will underline, highlight, want to post on your fridge or whatever.

Lisa: Thank you so much, Zibby. Good luck on Bookends. I can’t wait to read it. I’m really excited.

Zibby: Thank you. Good luck, Lisa. Bye.

GHOST LOVER by Lisa Taddeo

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