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Photography by Lara Downie

Lisa Taddeo on Death, Desire and Her “Super Dark” View of the World

As her new book Ghost Lover is published, the American author discusses her quest to understand desire, the death of her father, and the spectral, haunted quality of modern life

Lead ImagePhotography by Lara Downie

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women (2019) was a work of devastating brilliance, flooring readers with its illuminating investigation of female desire. She spent eight years creating this compelling feat of literary reportage (which is currently in production as a new television series starring Shailene Woodley as the author). Immersing herself in the stories of her three subjects, Sloane, Lina, and Maggie, Taddeo moved cross-country multiple times, bearing witness to these women’s lives as they unfolded, exhaustively recording their testimony and speaking to those closest to the book’s trio of central figures. What emerged was a complex, candid, and deeply compassionate portrait of labyrinthine female sexuality.

Her most recent book, Ghost Lover, is composed of nine equally compelling and morally ambiguous short stories infused with obsession, jealousy, bereavement, friendship, and lust. Following her debut novel Animal (2021) – a febrile tale of women whose lives are capsized by grief and galvanised by female rage – Ghost Lover continues to investigate the unruly interior lives and shadowy recesses of the female psyche. There’s a heartbroken tech-millionaire with her legion of cool, hot girls poised to navigate the difficult dating text conversations of female subscribers, a bereaved young woman measuring out her misdeeds with the dwindling candies in her dead mother’s sweet bowl, a dead body floating in the immaculate swimming pool of a glamorous LA fundraiser for an up-and-coming politician.

Here, Taddeo speaks about unearthing her character’s darkest desires, why she always looks for the “most true, awful thing” she can say, and the spectral, haunted quality of modern life.

Emily Dinsdale: I wondered if you could tell us about some of the connotations Ghost Lover has for you as a title?

Lisa Taddeo: ‘Ghost Lover’ is the name of the dating service that the woman in the opening story invents, but it comes from her loving of ghosts, like the loss of her mum. Obviously, a lot of the characters in Ghost Lover – and the same is true of Animal – share the parental loss background, which is something that I also had. So, for me, Ghost Lover is about loving ghosts ... things that are dead, [when] all you have is a memory. Or they’re things that you can’t have, so they’re like ephemera; things that you can only chase.

“I don’t think that you can categorise desire as good or bad. Our desires come from the things that have happened to us” – Lisa Taddeo

ED: The book speaks so much of absence. Quite a few of the stories in the collection feature dating apps and frantic Google searching. Do you think technology and modern life have brought us into contact with a more profound or different quality of absence?

LT: That’s really interesting. Yeah, I do. I think that is the reason I’m so interested in dating apps. I think that they give you so much content and so much presence that an absence is felt more strongly. Bringing our phones everywhere, it only gets more pervasive. Even after my father died, being able to go into Google and look at pictures of him ... there is so much more opportunity to be haunted, in a sense. And that’s I think what online – social media, all of it – gives us; it’s just more of a haunting.

ED: How would you say this sense of feeling haunted manifests itself?

LT: When I was a kid, my parents would leave lit cigarettes in the ashtray, and I was like nine or ten and I would take a puff of the cigarette just to see if I could do it before they came back. I think that’s partly OCD too, but I always did little impulsive things like that. And with the internet, it’s just an open invitation to address every impulse, looking up someone you’re no longer with that might make you feel sad or hurt or weird to see where they’re at now. And I think the same is true for using WebMD, Google, et cetera.

After people die, I think there’s going to be more cataloguing of their life, which is something I desperately wanted when my parents were gone. I didn’t have an online history of them or anything that I could look at, and I think there’s going to be good that comes from tech being sophisticated in that way. But it does in fact contrive to make us lonelier by connecting us so much that any sense of disconnection feels horrific because of how much we are connected all the time.

I don’t know that we can go back. We now know that we can have all the information we ever need. So what does that mean? And I think that means we get haunted more. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, or what we should do about it. I just know that there’s more haunting going on.

ED: So much of your writing is about desire. Given that our desires are so much the product of a patriarchal culture, the romantic narratives we all consume and so much of what turns us on are arguably detrimental or problematic. Do you feel there's such a thing as good and bad desire?

LT: I don’t think that you can categorise desire as good or bad. Our desires come from the things that have happened to us, the things that haven’t happened to us, that we want to happen, all of that stuff. So to criticise a desire doesn’t really do anything for anybody. I think understanding where the desires come from is interesting, and that’s what I want.

For example, take Lina in Three Women; her desire was for her high school sweetheart – a man who did not love her back, who was never going to leave his wife for her, who had alcohol problems. The first thing against Lina is she’s married and she’s living in rural Indiana – a very Catholic community – everything she’s doing is wrong. Number two is that this man isn’t going to love her back in the way that she needs to be loved back. She’s attracted to this man because he fills in these holes. And these holes he’s filling in for her, only she can know how they work and put them together. So when people criticise Lina’s desire for this man, they were in essence criticising everything that had happened in her life that had brought her to this point. They were criticising her entire livelihood, they were criticising her generational trauma, they were criticising her teenage trauma.

ED: Have you ever heard the phrase ‘the teeth that fit the wound’? 

LT: Exactly that! I’m writing that down … I always say I’m interested in the dark side of human nature. And by ‘dark side’, I don‘t mean some people have dark sides and some don’t – I think we all do. But I think it’s really hard to be honest about dark sides. And it’s hard because often we don’t have an awareness of our own dark sides. And so when we get angry at Lina for liking this guy, or we call her pathetic – you know, I’ve heard that so many times – it became clear to me that people calling someone else pathetic was really their own stuff. If you are in a perfect place in your life, you probably wouldn’t use the word pathetic to describe somebody else, you’d probably say, ‘Oh, gosh, I hope she’s OK.’

“I wish I could write a Game of Thrones or a Hobbit – I love those worlds, I wish I could create a world like that. I don’t know that I can’t … but what I do know is that I’m really good at being very honest, and being right on the edge” – Lisa Taddeo

ED: I love the way these stories induct us into people’s inner psyches and allow us to hear the terrible things that we are all, at some point, guilty of. Did you ever pull back and think, ‘No, that’s too awful’?

LT: There’s a way to look at it like, ‘Oh my God, why is she saying these mean things about herself and women and the characters?’ But we’re taught to say these mean things; they’re not invented, these are the things that we think. I’m always looking for the most true, awful thing that I can say. And the reason I look for that is because that’s how I know that I’m being truly honest. And if I’m not going to be honest, if I’m not going to say something that’s kind of awful, then I am not really risking anything. I wish I could write a Game of Thrones or a Hobbit – I love those worlds, I wish I could create a world like that. I don’t know that I can’t … but what I do know is that I’m really good at being very honest, and being right on the edge.

I talk a lot about problems with weight and problems with acne and problems with beauty because we were flung into this world where certain things are valued above other things, where we have to care about this if we want to get that. And then, concurrently, we’re also excoriated for caring about the things that people have taught us to care about.

So everything I do is kind of looking at that. I’m just trying to break things down whenever possible, because, otherwise, I feel crazy. Like, wait, hold on a second, has no one else noticed this insane, deceptive weirdness we’re doing to each other? Where we have to pretend we don’t care about looks, even though we do? While pretending we’re all sisters?

ED: I don’t know quite how to navigate that.

LT: Yeah, it’s weird. And you have to navigate it. If you don’t navigate it correctly, you’re not a good feminist. And I think that’s part of the issue – we’re muting ourselves before we even start to talk. It’s just another way of keeping us down. It just gets worse and worse, with social media. I find it exhausting, and I don’t really want to play in that sandbox.

ED: There’s a sense of threat or menace that pervades the stories in Ghost Lover, but then there are occasional glimmers of optimism that feel so poignant and precious. Do you feel compelled to put them in, or do they come quite naturally?

LT: I mean, I’ve had moments of hope and then I’ve had hope dashed so very often that I am a pessimist. My life made me a pessimist, so much so that I have to really struggle to be grateful for the moments that I have without thinking about the doom that awaits on the other side, which is all I think about. So yes, sometimes I’m compelled to [add hopeful moments] because I know they exist, and because I want my work to be true. But for me, my own personal worldview is super dark. And it’s hard for me to remember that those moments of hope don't exist for me, but that they exist for others, and that others want to see them. Not that I don’t want to see them, but sometimes I’m afraid that if I put hope in, the god that’s been watching me will notice and be like, ‘There she is, again, thinking that she can have a nice life. She’s wrong. Smash.’ So that’s what keeps me from putting more hope in, because I’m afraid someone’s going to see and go, ‘Not so fast.’

Ghost Lover by Lisa Taddeo is published by Bloomsbury and is out now.