In Lisa Taddeo’s Ghost Lover, Women Are Allowed To Be Bad

In Ghost Lover, Lisa Taddeo taps into the female psyche to set ugly truths free.

The ever-looming, ambiguous specter of “empowerment” permeates the makeup brands that promise a “no makeup” look; it attempts to eclipse carnal and wretched wants; it relegates the world of female desire to the shadows. But in Ghost Lover, Lisa Taddeo’s new collection of short stories, this world is illuminated, unpacked, and ultimately, understood.

Across nine stories, Taddeo’s prose cuts like a knife — sharp, visceral, and dripping with ugly truths. She understands the grueling nature of the female psyche with an almost painful precision. Some of Taddeo’s characters hate themselves more than they could hate any other woman; others stalk their exes like an emotionally damaged apex predator; they grieve the loss of their youth and their parents.

The anthology includes previously published works, as well as gripping new stories. In the titular “Ghost Lover,” a woman creates a dating service that outsources the agony of the texting stage to a group of cool, gorgeous girls. “When [Joan’s] pedicure was older than a week in the winter and five days in the summer, she actually hated herself,” writes Taddeo in “Forty-Two,” a cutting story of an aging woman’s unsteady place in the world.

Ghost Lover is dedicated to “all the girls who’ve loved before,” a tribute I found touching before I embarked on my reading. Love, obsession, desire, and grief are central themes to Taddeo’s work — from the the New York Times bestseller Three Women to her novel Animal. All deeply intertwined, unable to exist without the other, and achingly universal.

Ghost Lover is out now from Simon & Schuster.

How did the concept of the texting service in “Ghost Lover” come to you?

When my friends and I were in our twenties and single and dating in New York, there were so many nights that we'd be texting with whoever the current love interest or obsession interest was, and sometimes it would get so heated and nervous, where you just can't handle it. You would say to your friends, "Just take my phone for the night, just take it. I don't want to see it. Just respond for me." And when I started researching Three Women, I felt a lot of the same. It was wild to me that women in other parts of the country were just doing the exact same thing in just different modes.

For example, Lena in Three Women had the same thing, but was doing it over Facebook messages because she wasn't paying for a texting plan back then, and she was in Indiana. But it was the same hyper “ugh!” The idea, and it's kind of mild satire, but it's also mild wish fulfillment. The idea of outsourcing your emotions to someone who doesn't have them and thereby can act on your behalf with total strategy and no passion.

Ghost Lover’s Ari will stay with me for a very long time. I enjoyed how vicious she was. It’s become rare to read about a woman who obsesses over her weight, or her ex, so candidly.

We're not supposed to.

It's all about the power of female friendship, which is a beautiful thing, but it felt good to read about women being “bad.” Was that a freeing thing for you? What's it like writing these types of characters?

For me, I know what sort of sh*t I'm going to get into doing it. This is similar to Maggie in Three Women, the young woman who had the alleged relationship with her high school English teacher. It was important to me in the book and in the adaptation for Showtime that we showcase Maggie's desire quite clearly. And that even though Maggie's desire was groomed by an older man in a position of power that obviously does not change, what he did was wrong, but it also should not a hundred percent color what her experience of it is and was.

For her, it was the first time that she had an orgasm with a man. To take that away from her, to take away female need, wants, the ugly ones. We're still propagating that same fallacy of the Madonna and the whore that we've all hated our whole lives. We are doing it to ourselves essentially by saying, “Oh no, no, no! Female power, female power, female friendship!”

It's like, yes. When female friendship is working and firing on all cylinders, it is the greatest thing in the world. And when there is competition that gets layered in, and sediments of years of patriarchy and abuse, and self-shaming, and all of that. When we layer all that stuff in, that's the reality of what we deal with as women. And I want to show the reality, and I think it makes people feel less alone to show the reality. Sometimes the reality feels ugly and mean, and it is. And that's the thing, it's also beautiful. Just like everything in life. We wouldn't tell a story about life without showing grief, and the same is true of female friendship and womanhood in general.

Was there any character in particular that was harder to write or you found more challenging?

I think the story plot of “Padua, 1966” is probably the most challenging. That and “Grace Magorian,” those stories, it's older women, women who are considerably older than me. I think it's obviously easier to reach into one's memory for how you felt when you were younger than to reach into the future for how you don't yet know who you're going to be. I interviewed so many older women for Three Women, and just have friends and I listen to people. And “Forty-Two,” for example, I wrote that when I was like 36 or 37 and now I am 42 and I'm like, "Oh." And it feels really right on. So I feel good about that, for what it's worth.

I love “Forty-Two” and Joan in particular. The way her obsession manifested was very interesting to me.

I feel like we have so many obsessions as women. We are given them. It's like a rule book that we're given by, not even necessarily our parents and friends, but also the same stories and fairy tales that we read are what inform us, what inform our ideas of love and the way it's supposed to go. For me, it's not talking about a female obsession with weight or with age. I think ageism is one of the biggest issues that I do not understand. To me it's this wild thing where we are all literally in the same place. We are all aging.

It's the only constant that we have.

It's the only constant. And we're all aging and younger people will look at older people and be like, "Oh my God, they don't get it." And older people will look at younger people and do the same thing. And there's this blockage there. But I think that our obsessions, that even though they change when we're younger, as we grow older, it's still that same undercurrent of your obsession might change from eyelash tinting to getting the right hormones for menopause. And men have their obsessions, too. Obviously men have that “I'm going to learn how to play the guitar at 47,” or whatever.

But we make fun of those things when it comes to women. We make fun of them with men, too. With men, we poke fun at midlife crises. With women, we go, "How dare you still care about your looks after whatever age? You need to stop now." It's so cruel. And what I think is not cruel, frankly, is showing what we do and making it feel more normal and saying it out loud. I always look at Paulina Porizkova’s Instagram, and she's just this honest person in the world saying things. And sometimes she says things that rub people the wrong way. But for me, it's so interesting that there are these strictures that we are expected to follow as strong women wanting to ascend in our whatever.

I have felt my entire life as a woman, having my feet held as I'm trying to move up by people going, "But you can't talk about that. But you can't do this." So for me, it's just a roar of this is everything that people make us feel, and on top of that, these are all the things we're also not allowed to talk about after we've been made to feel them. That's where I'm coming from in how I write about that, about obsession.

In regards to aging or being made to feel badly for caring about it, I feel like no one can be crueler to me than myself. And then in general, women are so good at being mean to each other.

So good.

It's unbelievable how talented we can be at that. When someone wants to shut you down with a "Oh, why do you care about this?" And it's like, “I care because I care.”

End of discussion. That's the thing. It's the wanting to affect someone else's trajectory and the way that they go about their day. To me, it's just wild. I don't get it, personally. I want to control my husband's day. Maybe that's not cool, but anyone outside of that, I don't think about it. But there are people who do want to control. And I think we need to really look at that desire for control as what it is. What it is in me certainly is a fear. If I can control this, then I won't suffer the consequences of it. And I think that's what we try to do to each other. But I think it's the wrong tack. It's the wrong tack at all times, including what I do to my husband. That being said, I'm going to continue doing it. But outside of that, I just feel like it's confusing. It's confusing, and we've been confused for centuries, and we need some time to dig ourselves out of the hole that we've been buried in.

What is it about the themes of love, desire, and grief that keep pulling you back?

I think that the twin pillars of the human experience, for me at least, are desire and grief. With desire, you can tie in love and sex, all the emotions that come with the gender that you've been assigned, the one that you feel that you are, and all of the different things that come with one's desire. And then grief is the other thing that for me, I have suffered a lot of grief and I suffered it younger than most people my age would have lost parents and lost other things. I had a lot of it. I'm not saying it was unusual, there's plenty of people who have had more obviously, but for me, I was fundamentally reshaped by my grief. So I always come back to grief.

And one of the things for me, I think, especially being single in my twenties, in New York, which was a hellscape of “Oh God, what's going to happen?” there was an undercurrent of desire that I had within my grief where I was looking for someone or something to make me feel better. Often I would think that if I just found the right person for me, that I wouldn't feel alone and sad and scared anymore. Ghost Lover is those two things coming together: the grief at having lost something, and then the desire to find something to replace that, which is lost.

How did you find your way out of that?

It was really hard and it took a long time, and it didn't end up being a person, even though I did meet my husband in the middle of that. I did a lot of yoga. I walked around the city a lot.

Walking around New York is the most healing thing a person can do.

I'm out in Connecticut now. When I walk, I feel like I'm walking down rural country roads and they're lovely and it's fine. But there is something about walking in a city, specifically Manhattan, which is never ending, and you can walk to the other boroughs. You can just do whatever. It's so healing, and it helped me. Because my parents had died, and that was the reason for why I was thrust into this grief spiral, I had sold my family's home, and I had some money that I could use.

I was writing for Esquire and other magazines, but I also had money from my parents' house being sold. I used the grief of selling my childhood house to subsidize my living in New York. It was all dumb financial moves. Like “Oh, I'll just take this money from the house and put it into eight months of rent in New York City.” But I didn't really know what else to do. I didn't know how to function. And so a lot of Ghost Lover came out of the fortune of having the ability to walk around the city and not have to worry about making money eight hours a day, every day. I was making money, but I had space to grieve.

Fern in “A Suburban Weekend” must have been a really intimate character for you.

Yes, Fern is definitely the closest to my me. Obviously there's lots of differences, but Fern is definitely the closest to my story.

Something in “American Girl” that struck me, it’s about the talk show host: "In the past several years, Cremora had become extraordinarily wealthy and well loved by the sorts of women she never wanted to hang out with." What has the experience been like writing in a way in which women so viscerally resonate?

It feels really great. It is one of the other great fortunes of the success of Three Women and the success of people reading my work and having the ability to talk to people. When people super connect, I feel so lucky. The pain that I suffered being useful to someone else is the single greatest thing. I think anyone who has been through a lot of trauma or pain would probably say the same thing, that being able to pay it forward in some way is the luckiest feeling in the world.

But of course, there's also the flip side to that where people are like, "This is triggering." And I understand that, too. I get both things. After my dad died in a car accident, I was completely unable to see any movie, read any book, hear anything even about a fender bender. I had trigger warnings, and then same thing with my mother's cancer, and it continues to this day.

It feels really good to have the people who read it viscerally really feel seen. And then it also feels interesting to have the people who don't want to read those particular things and to hear from them, because I've been in both places. I understand both places and I rue the discomfort that my writing causes some, but I am so grateful for the comfort it gives others.

Many different characters in Ghost Lover suffer the same sort of losses. Is it a painful process to bring that into your stories?

If I'm writing about it, I'm probably really interested in how the emotion works, or I am so hung up on it that I can't think about anything else. So writing about it is the only, I suppose a catharsis is the right word, but it's also the only thing that I can do. The only thing that makes sense to me is writing through it.

You mentioned earlier your forthcoming Showtime adaptation of Three Women. What’s the status of that right now?

We are in post-production. All principal photography is done, and we are just in the cut phase and trying to really hone the last bit so that it can feel good. But I'm really excited about it.

What was the TV adaptation process like?

We had a small, but really great writer's room. I wrote about half the episodes, and I was there on a pretty much day-to-day production basis. We also shot in Hawaii and Rome and Montana and Utah. It was a lot of work. It is a lot of work. It is wildly a lot of work, but I certainly have a giant and renewed sense of just gratitude for anything that makes it to air. I think it's so hard.

I used to watch shows and be like, "Oh my God, that line is terrible." And then you see the life cycle of a line staying in or something bad happening. And you're like, "Oh, okay. That's how it happened." There's a lot of appreciation that I have for the process. And the amount of the people who work on it, the amount of hours, it puts it' s grueling. It puts all of my book, everything to shame in terms of the amount of time spent on single sentences. Sometimes it's wild.

I read around that you're working on a new book about grief. Is there anything you can tell me about that?

I'm going to do it in the same sort of vein as Three Women. Reported in that sort of intimate manner. Ultimately, what I really want is for it to be a hopeful book and not a sad one. Because for me, a lot of grief stuff brought me into all different paths of trying to figure out the life after death path and the acceptance path. And there's so many different ways to go. I am certainly not someone who's going to say, “This is the right way.” I think it's so different for everybody. But I think talking about my own experience and the experiences of several other people is the right way to go about it. I want it to ultimately offer hope, so I'm looking for subjects who have hope and wisdom to offer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.