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Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women, tells a story of female pleasure and pain—of three women’s search for sexual fulfillment and the different ways society punished them for achieving it. She spent nearly a decade with these women, embedding herself in their lives to paint an intimate, breathtakingly reported portrait of desire.

Lina is a homemaker and mother in suburban Indiana, languishing in a passionless marriage to a man who won’t even kiss her on the mouth. Starved for affection, she reconnects with an old high school boyfriend and embarks on a life-changing affair. In North Dakota, we meet Maggie, a 17-year-old high school student who begins a romantic relationship with her married English teacher. A few years afterward, with no degree, no career and no dreams to live for, she steps forward with her story—and is met with disbelief by her community and the jury that hears her case. Finally, we meet Sloane, a gorgeous, successful restaurant owner in the Northeast who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women. For years, Sloane has been asking herself where her husband’s desire ends and hers begins.

We asked Lisa Taddeo some questions about the reporting process for this provocative, unparalleled book.

 


 

In the book, you talk about how the process of selecting your three subjects was somewhat organic, with some subjects taking themselves out of the running or dropping off for various reasons. Among the three women whom you ultimately wrote about, there’s a fair cross-section represented of socio-economic status. Maggie comes from a working-class family, Lina seems solidly middle class, and Sloane comes from money and is upper class—and it obviously colors their experiences. Was this cross-section intentional?
To an extent, yes, the cross-section was intentional. One of my many hopes for the book was that it would be geographically and socioeconomically and racially variegated. I also wanted there to be a wide range of sexual orientations. I was also still looking for male subjects, in some capacity. One of the first drafts I turned in to my editor had a wide range of subjects, satisfying most, if not all, of that range. But it was these three women whose stories were the most infinitely relatable and also the longest of the segments, because they had given me the most, told me the most. They were the most trenchant and clear and raw. The ways their communities reacted to them were the most indicative of the way society treats the marginalized, the disenfranchised. While the other smaller segments were interesting, they were not anywhere near as powerful as these three final subjects. And it felt that including anything more would have watered down their narratives.

 

One of the best things about the book is that it’s narrative journalism that reads like fiction. There’s rich internal monologue supplied for each woman. Are these detailed, private thoughts things they explicitly spoke to you about? Or were they things you extrapolated from the intimacy of your time together and the things you did talk about?
The depth of the internal monologues came from my asking the same questions multiple times and spending a great deal of time with them. It also came from being open about myself, from rendering myself as vulnerable to them as they were with me.

 

Obviously some considerable intimacy was achieved between you and the women you profiled. Can you talk a little bit about that process of earning their trust?
It was slightly different for each. Maggie was difficult because she had felt so terribly misused by the press in her state. Sloane is a very private person in a small community and was concerned about her reputation and that her children might find out. Overall it was a matter of spending a lot of time with each of them; of making the commitment, in two of the cases, to move into their communities; to assure them of my goals and hopes, that I would not sensationalize their stories but speak their truths in the best way that I could. As I mentioned earlier, I also gave a good deal of myself, when appropriate. I told them my own stories, talked about my own pain and passion. I believe a two-way street is the only honorable way to interview someone about their innermost thoughts.

 

Do you remain in touch with any of the women?
Yes, with all three of them. I hope we will always remain in touch.

 

As I read the book, I found that there were some parts that troubled me. Like the women in the accounts you present, there were aspects of female desire that I hadn’t considered very deeply, and the ones that hewed too close to home left a sense of discomfort. Was that any part of your experience, as you explored this sometimes unexpected territory?
Certainly, at times. Though mostly I felt comforted that others had experienced the same difficulties and tragedies. I felt united by having felt the same sort of passion, of having sacrificed for it.

 

Were you present during any of the events you describe? Or did the bulk of your descriptions come from interviews after the fact?
I was present for a number of them. In the cases when I wasn’t, I would try my best to re-create the milieu of the experience. For example, with Lina, I would often drive to the spot by the river or the clearing where she had just come from seeing Aidan, and I would sit there and take in the smells and sounds of the surroundings. For Maggie’s part, after asking her multiple questions about not just the interlude with the teacher but about everything she saw and heard, I would visit the locations where she had described being with the teacher. I would look at the same things she had described looking at. I would sit in the parking lot where she told me she’d sat, waiting for him, outside the restaurant. I drove through the streets she named. I did the same thing with Sloane’s story.

 

How did you find each of the women who would ultimately make up the narrative of the book?
I was in Medora, North Dakota, checking out a lead about a group of women who were working as waitresses by day and then, at night, being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there and lived in trailers. In a coffee shop, I read about Maggie’s trial. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, and the next day I was driving to Fargo.

I found Lina after moving to Indiana, somewhat to be close to the Kinsey Institute but also to get out of New York City, where I felt I was too much inside my own world. Far from where Lina lived but close to where her doctor practiced, I started a women’s discussion group, of which Lina was a part. She was right in the middle of wanting to leave her husband and of embarking on this all-consuming affair with her high school boyfriend.

With the third woman, Sloane, I had already been talking to several other people who lived in her community and had fascinating stories. I began by speaking to those other people first, but then I heard about Sloane through the grapevine. Gossip, mostly.

 

Maggie’s family in particular was extremely traumatized by the events she went through and how much the fallout shook them. Was it difficult to speak to them about subjects that had resulted in so much pain?
Yes, very much so. That was one of the hardest parts.

 

Though one of the women had occasional female partners, the book overwhelmingly focuses on female desire in the male/female dyad. Was this intentional? Or was it simply because of the women who ended up being in the book?
Not at all. It was purely because the final subjects made up the largest and rawest and most revealing segments of the book. Plenty of other subjects (included in the first drafts) covered the wide range of sexual proclivities, genders, races. But ultimately these three were the most comfortable with my presence in their lives at length and across poignant moments. And as a triad woven together, they told the most arresting—individual and yet cohesive—narrative.

 

You began and ended the book with your mother. Tell us a little bit about her and why you made that particular choice.
I thought it was important to give of myself at least 1% of what the subjects in the book gave to me and to the world. I also found, through my research, and as I say in the prologue, that it is most often other women who impress upon each other the most—who can make us feel bad or good about ourselves. Moreover, I found that mothers are such a powerful and lasting force in our lives. Part of the societal-social lexicon has always been the notion of “daddy issues,” which I think is, in and of itself, a very male take on the way a woman walks through the world. With most of the women I spoke with, I found it was, rather, the influence of the mother that weighed the most heavily on their life decisions.

My own mother was very quiet about her past, as I think women have historically felt they needed to be. She was wise and omnipresent but also removed. Her removal—the way that I could never really grasp her beyond what she presented to me—was fascinating and horrifying to me. She had a life in her brain that wasn’t meant for anyone but her. I think women are more reticent to speak of that inner life, those inner fears and desires, and that was something I wanted to show.

 

Did you meet any resistance from the men who were involved in the women’s narratives? To what extent are they aware of their place in the narrative?
I did meet resistance. I tried speaking with most of them. In some cases, the women I was speaking to didn’t want me to speak to the men in their lives. They were worried. I knew that if I pushed on that, I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories of the women.

But that resistance also pushed me into a new clarity, which was that these women’s stories deserved to be heard without echo. I did confirm the facts and feelings of some ancillary subjects of the book, but ultimately I was very satisfied with telling the stories from these women’s perspectives, as though they were writing their own histories.

 

As a woman writing for Esquire (a men’s magazine), did you find that those professional experiences colored the direction of the book?
In the beginning, to the extent that I had been on a male “beat” for a long while, yes. But that quickly changed.

 

With each woman, there were elements of their story left unresolved. How did you decide where to wrap up each thread?
With Maggie I was fairly set that her story would begin with the alleged relationship and stretch through the trial and beyond into the immediate aftermath. It was a clear beginning, middle and end. With Sloane, it was after she told me about certain events that transpired when she was a child, which brought her own realizations about herself to a sort of “conclusion.” Though of course life goes on for all of us, and for these women, I had to find an end for each of them. That said, I remain so very interested in all of their trajectories. I find the way Sloane navigates her life to be very strong and self-assured. Maggie’s trajectory, meanwhile, has changed the most; she is now an incredibly empathic and strong social worker. She has alchemized her pain into being a succor for others. With Lina, I think I could have gone on reporting forever, but I stopped myself because it had been nearly a decade.

 

What do you hope for male and female readers to take from this book?
I hope that all people realize we are all together in this—that hearing about someone’s heartache in depth is, unfortunately, very often the only way to stop condemning them. These three women have had moments of pure passion and of feeling exalted and utterly seen and lusted after and loved; they have, in turn, given up a lot for those moments. They have faced public and private scrutiny. They have been in agony at the hand of their choices but also at the hand of the experiences that were chosen for them, against their will. They were the heroes and the victims of their own stories, which often changed by the hour of the day.

Finally I hope that readers take away the truth that judgment is brutal, that nuance is vital to understanding one another, that we are all afraid, and we shouldn’t project our fears onto someone else’s choices.

 

What are you working on next?
I am thrilled to say that Avid Reader Press is publishing my first novel sometime next year and my collection of stories to follow.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Three Women.

Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women, tells a story of female pleasure and pain—of three women’s search for sexual fulfillment and the different ways society punished them for achieving it. She spent nearly a decade with these women, embedding herself in their lives to paint an intimate, breathtakingly reported portrait of desire.
Interview by

Although it’s as well researched as any of the myriad George Washington biographies out there, Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First approaches its legendary subject with a healthy dose of irreverence. We asked the historian a few questions about what it was like to tackle the life of the ultimate Founding Father.


You infused a fairly serious subject with humor and liveliness. How did you do it?
That’s the ultimate compliment! If history is boring, it’s the historian’s fault. I happen to have a dark sense of humor, and I realized early in my career that it was a useful tool—but not the only one in my arsenal. Being funny, being original, being analytical . . . it all requires serious mastery over a subject. Years of careful research and a critical eye allowed me to be funny in one chapter and dead serious in another and, hopefully, seamless in the transition. Oh, and lots and lots of drafts! 

What did you want to bring to the table as a female biographer that would shine a new or different light on Washington?
Previous biographers and I agree on the big goal of a Washington biography, which is to chisel away at the marble statue he’s become, but we go about it very differently. I questioned things they took as a given, and a whole new world opened up to me.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of You Never Forget Your First.


What was your research process like? 
Why are people sleeping on Founders Online, an open access site through the Library of Congress?! I had the absolute best time reading 18th-century letters on there—so much so that I found myself messing around after work hours, too. I highly recommend using random search words like “slut.” You’ll get Jefferson lecturing his daughter, and Washington’s old house manager writing to say that his slut died in the straw, which editors took to demonstrate Martha’s love of dogs.

Your research reveals Martha Washington to have been a reluctant public figure. Were she and George a good match for the life he chose?
They were both homebodies, but when they were in public roles, Washington got to have a lot more freedom and fun with it. But I do think they were a good match. He got the rich widow he needed to make it big, and she got the hunky, same-age husband she hadn’t had the first time around. They worked hard to make each other happy. That meant she had to spend a lot of time out of Virginia, and he had to raise her ne’er-do-well son and grandson. 

If anyone could have changed the fate of black people in America, it was George Washington.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of your book is your unflinching reporting on Washington as a slave owner. How much does his reliance on enslaved labor tarnish his legacy?
If anyone could have changed the fate of black people in America, it was George Washington. No other founder had the stature, the reputation, the popularity. He could have set a powerful example in Virginia, then the biggest state in the country, by emancipating his slaves, but he didn’t until he was near the end of his life. He knew the world was changing and that he would be judged. And let’s not forget, he passed the buck to Martha. Half of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population knew they would be free when she set them free or died, and it’s pretty clear her fear of being murdered or burned alive motivated her to sign their manumission papers. She didn’t do the same for those she enslaved outright. 

Did this project change your feelings about Washington?
When I came to this project, Washington was a portrait, a hero, a myth. He wasn’t necessarily a real person to me, but now he is, and people are complicated. There are things I like and admire about him, and there are things that absolutely repulse me.

I had no idea our first president faced so many illnesses! And they had such names: carbuncles and bloody flux and quinsy. How much of an impact did Washington’s health have on his politics?
He took far more risks with his health than he did his politics!

What are your favorite books about American presidents?
I love anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin, whom I’ve had the great fortune to work with. I was so scared to show her the manuscript, and her blurb means the world to me. Also, Annette Gordon-Reeds’ work on Jefferson is incredible.

Your book Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis is being developed into a movie. How involved are you in that process, and what’s it like?
I went to Memphis with Jennifer Kent, the director and screenwriter, and walked and talked Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward for days. Since then, I’ve read drafts of the screenplay and given some feedback, but for the most part, I trust Jen! She’s managed to stay true to our girls and the spirit of the book but is also making something that’s also totally her own.

What do you think our Founding Fathers would think of the current state of American politics?
I can only speak for Washington. He would be enraged by the level of foreign influence Trump entertains and horrified at how Republicans continue to support him in order to stay in power.

You can invite any three presidents to a dinner party. Who would you choose?
Washington, of course, although he would probably be too distracted by technology and a woman wearing pants to focus. Still, I’m interested in experiencing his charisma, because that’s the hardest thing to get from descriptions. For that reason, let’s throw John F. Kennedy into the mix, too. And I’d love to talk to FDR! But honestly, with that crowd, I doubt I’d get a word in!

Author photo © Sophia Rosokoff.

Although it’s as well researched as any of the myriad George Washington biographies out there, Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First approaches its legendary subject with a healthy dose of irreverence. We asked the historian a few questions about what it was like to tackle the life of the ultimate Founding Father. You infused a […]
Interview by

After more than 300 recorded audiobooks, acclaimed narrator and voice-over actor Saskia Maarleveld knows that every audiobook requires something special. But what’s the difference between narrating a historical book versus a biography of a beloved icon? Comparing two of Maarleveld’s performances, The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History and Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, offers a look into an audio narrator’s preparation, devotion and ability to roll with the punches.

Here she discusses a day behind the audiobook curtain, what it’s like to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes and why narrating nonfiction is so much harder than fiction.


Tell me a bit about transforming books into audiobooks. How do you prepare, and what do you enjoy about the preparation? From one project to the next, how much do you change your approach to each audiobook?
Once I have a script, I will first and foremost read it through. That’s the most important prep you can do: knowing the book, its characters and flow. Depending on the genre, there will then be a certain amount of research to do. Looking up correct pronunciations is one of the most important. I also like to know about the author and more about the subject matter, especially if it is a genre like historical fiction or nonfiction. I tend to not “overprep” a book, as for me the most fun part is having the story feel fresh in the booth. You want to know it but not have belabored it such that the words and characters don’t feel alive. Being open to what might come out in the booth is part of the fun!

What’s a day in the studio like for you?
I live in New York City and am lucky to be surrounded by the best audiobook studios and producers, so I go into a bunch of different studios to record. I always have an engineer and sometimes a director. A usual day for us is 10 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. We take bathroom and water breaks when we need them and have a lunch hour, but otherwise I’m in the booth recording the entire time! I like these longer days, as you can really get on a roll with whatever you are working on, recording usually about three finished hours or more in a session. Surprisingly, it’s usually my brain that starts to fray at the end of the day before my voice!

“It puts a lot of pressure on the narrator when you are trying to portray an icon like Carrie Fisher—you need to get it right!”

I’d love to discuss two audiobooks you recently narrated: Carrie Fisher and The Queens of Animation. What was most important to you as a narrator as you approached each audiobook? Did one pose more challenges than the other?
Both of these were nonfiction, which was a thrill as I mainly record fiction. Being nonfiction, it was important to me that I respect the stories of these people, doing thorough research before getting in the booth. For Carrie Fisher, I watched a ton of interviews with her to get a feel for her voice, personality and sense of humor. I watched a lot of clips from Disney movies to revisit the scenes I was describing in The Queens of Animation. This prep helps the words not fall flat when they are being read; there is life and movement behind what I am describing to the listener. This comes through most when I have a clear picture on my head.

Carrie FisherIt was a special treat to hear your ability to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes. What is it like to tap into an icon like Carrie Fisher? How is it different from tapping into a fictional character?
I loved having the opportunity to learn more about Carrie Fisher, a person I knew from on screen but now had to embody in a much more personal way. Having read the book ahead of time obviously gave me so much of what I needed, but also the interviews and clips I watched helped me with delivering the Carrie lines in ways that embodied her. It puts a lot of pressure on the narrator when you are trying to portray an icon like Carrie Fisher—you need to get it right! Whereas with fictional characters, you have much more room for interpretation and imagination.

The Queens of AnimationWith The Queens of Animation, our audio columnist especially loved the way you draw readers in, “like [you’re] confiding a dark secret.” Is this something you set out to do intentionally for this book?
Nonfiction can feel a little impersonal if the narrator just reads the words on the page and remains removed from them. It’s hard because you aren’t narrating as a character, so the more you can make the listener feel like you are talking directly to them, telling them the story, the more personal it becomes. I’m glad that came across in this project!

Does your work impact how you read?
I have always loved reading, so unfortunately these days it is very rare that I have the time to read for pleasure as I am always reading for work! And when I do occasionally have the time, it takes time to turn off the narrator side of my brain thinking, How do I pronounce that word? How does this character avoids sound? I should highlight this! I thought when I stopped working to have my daughter, I would have time to get back into reading for pleasure again, but with a newborn, reading is a whole new challenge!

What do audiobooks offer that a book can’t? And considering how much audiobooks are booming, why do you think we’re being drawn to this medium more and more?
Time is precious, and these days so many of us are constantly multitasking. Sitting down with a book is a luxury, something you have to focus on not only with your mind but also your body. Being able to listen to an audiobook while driving, ironing, cooking, etc., is such a gift, as we don’t have to stop the busy work our bodies are doing while escaping into the world of a story.

What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a reader of books? What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
I was trained as an actor, so my skill at creating characters is something I take pride in, and I also specialize in accent and dialect work. Also, as mentioned in an earlier question, I aim to connect the listener to the story in a very personal way. I want them to feel I am speaking directly to them, drawing them into whatever world we are sharing. If I achieve this, I think my job is done!

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
I work on many projects that I get really attached to, and it is surprisingly hard to read that last word and know my time with this tale has ended. It is a very intimate experience to share a story and embody characters, so after hours and days of disappearing into a book, leaving it behind can be very sad!

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read about Saskia Maarleveld’s narration of Carrie Fisher and The Queens of Animation.

After more than 300 recorded audiobooks, acclaimed narrator and voice-over actor Saskia Maarleveld knows that every audiobook requires something special in its reading. Here she discusses a day behind the audiobook curtain, what it’s like to deliver Carrie Fisher’s jokes and why narrating nonfiction is so much harder than fiction.
Interview by

For Anna Malaika Tubbs, finding the inspiration to write her first book was a numbers game. After watching Hidden Figures, the 2016 biographical drama about Black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the space race, Tubbs left the movie theater feeling both enraged and inspired. “I wanted to do something where I helped this issue of uncovering more ‘hidden figures,’ ” she says from her home in Stockton, California. She wanted to write about women who “were there right in front of us that we just weren’t paying more attention to, or who were intentionally being kept from us.”

With a background in sociology and gender studies, Tubbs was well positioned for the task. But she also knew that, in order to entice readers, she would need more than her sharp research skills; she would need a hook. So she turned to Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X, three of the most brilliant leaders of the 20th century. Then she looked at their mothers: Alberta King, Berdis Baldwin and Louise Little, respectively. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Three Mothers.


When Tubbs learned that these women had been born roughly six years apart (though some accounts of their birth years vary) and that their sons were born within five years of one another, she knew she had uncovered an important connective thread. She followed it, and the result is The Three Mothers, a book that maps how misogynoir (the unique intersection of racism and misogyny experienced by Black women) shaped the lives of three young civil rights activists long before they raised sons who would become leaders in the movement. The Three Mothers discusses Louise’s work with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Alberta’s family history of faith-based activism and Berdis’ early years as a poet and spoken-word artist. As such, the book is part biography, part history and part running social commentary on the events of the past century. People might pick it up because they are interested in these iconic men, but what they will discover is an extensive and rewarding history of 20th-­century Black women.

Tubbs intentionally wrote The Three Mothers in language that is counterintuitive to her academic training. After countless days in special collections archives, poring over newspaper clippings, letters and interviews, Tubbs wanted to create something accessible to those outside the ivory tower, where emerging scholars are often encouraged to make their work “as elitist and complicated and boring as possible,” as she puts it. Because the activism of King, Baldwin, Malcolm X and their mothers was intended to benefit all people, Tubbs considered it unreasonable to write a text that was accessible to only a few. “I’m just not willing to play that part,” she says. 

In fact, The Three Mothers is the first step down what Tubbs calls the “public intellectual path” she has always wanted to take, sharing knowledge with people both within and outside the academy. With its conversational style and anecdotal imaginings of moments for which firsthand information is scarce, The Three Mothers tells a captivating story of women traumatized by the nation they and their sons would ultimately help transform.

In addition to shedding light on the lives of Alberta, Berdis and Louise, Tubbs also illuminates Black motherhood in general. Tubbs, who became a mother herself while writing the book, intimately understands what an undervalued vocation motherhood can be. Tubbs is the partner of Stockton’s first Black mayor, Michael Tubbs, and people often congratulate her high-­profile husband on the birth of “his” son while saying little to acknowledge the roles that she or her mother-in-law have played in the mayor’s personal and political success. Tubbs suspects this is because many people still assume that Black motherhood is neither an intellectually rigorous nor actively anti-racist endeavor, but she hopes her book can change that. “Black motherhood is about creation, liberation and thinking about the possibilities of the world that we can be a part of,” she says. “So many times our kids are painted as not human, and of course we see them as the most incredible humans in the world. Therefore, we have to change the world to see it the way we do.”

"Black women hold the truth and the key to the future."

This is illustrated time and time again in The Three Mothers as Tubbs explores how each woman worked to make her son see himself differently from the world’s harsh perceptions. For instance, Louise would reteach school lessons to Malcolm and his siblings to incorporate multiple languages and Afro-diasporic history. When a frightened young King and his father were harassed by white store clerks and policemen, Alberta would comfort her son but remind him that his father’s refusal to be treated like a second-class citizen was the right thing to do. And when a young Baldwin and his siblings were terrorized by his stepfather, Berdis stepped in, continually reminding her son that family solidarity and the fair treatment of others were important in spite of the abuse. In each of the book’s eight sections, Tubbs makes clear that, without these mothers’ instruction, none of the men born to them could have been the leaders they ultimately became.

Though Tubbs is both excited and anxious about this spring—she will defend her doctoral dissertation and launch her debut book within weeks of each other—she feels that now is the perfect time for her work to enter the world, and she has high hopes for The Three Mothers. “I want it to be that declaration that Black women hold the truth and the key to the future. People are quite open to that idea, maybe for the first time,” she says, citing the recent inauguration of the first Black woman U.S. vice president as proof that the conversation is ripe for change. 

There’s no doubt that The Three Mothers will be at the forefront of that changing conversation about Black womanhood, perhaps leaving readers as inspired and determined as Tubbs was when she walked out of the movie theater nearly five years ago.

 

Author photo credit, Anna Maliaka Tubbs

The Three Mothers maps how misogynoir shaped the lives of three young civil rights activists long before they raised sons who would become leaders in the movement.

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