Lisa Taddeo Will Text Your Crush for You

The Ghost Lover author discusses the “math problem” that is writing for the screen, and her idea for “outsourcing pain” when it comes to dating.

An illustration of Lisa Taddeo in pink and green
Lisa Taddeo. Illustration by Ashley Peña for W.

Lisa Taddeo caused quite a stir when she published her first book. Three Women, which chronicled the sexual behaviors and desires of three American women in honest and intimate detail, was the result of nearly a decade of reporting—it became an international bestseller so popular among its intended audience that she is now adapting it as a series for Showtime. Her first novel, Animal, which was published last year, has already been plucked by MGM and Plan B for the big screen. And amid adapting her two biggest writing projects to date for the screen, Taddeo now takes her unflinchingly honest approach to storytelling and applies it to a collection of short fiction called Ghost Lover, which consists of nine tales about love, sex, grief, and obsession.

The inner monologues and secret lives of women are on display throughout Ghost Lover, peppered with pop culture references, intrusive thoughts about the perceptions of one’s body, and painful truths about the realities of intimacy. “It’s about making a comment on that stuff so that people—women specifically—who are affected by it can feel seen and less alone,” Taddeo says on a Zoom call from her office space in Connecticut. “It’s the same thrum of the same type of character throughout and the same seed of need, and fear and pain and desire.”

Below, Taddeo opens up about her approach to Ghost Lover, her highly anticipated Three Women adaptation, and why Capricorns are the perfect sign in the astrology universe.

You’ve written long-form nonfiction, prose-fiction with your first novel, Animal, and now you have a collection of short stories, titled Ghost Lover. Why’d you make the switch to short fiction?

I’ve been writing short stories since I was eight years old. Short stories are my favorite format. The ones that appear in this collection, I wrote some of them when I was in school at Boston University getting my MFA. I wrote some of them before that and I wrote some of them after that. They’ve been kicking around for a long time. I love reading short story collections—it’s my favorite thing to read, so it’s also my favorite thing to write.

The first story is about a woman who has become successful as an entrepreneur. She created a system or app through which people can have someone else write a text for them, particularly to romantic prospects. Where did that idea come from?

When I was in my twenties, in New York, my friends and I would be texting with someone that we were interested in, and when emotions come into play, you get nervous—unpacking four words in a sentence and all that. We’d often say things like, Here, just take my phone for the night. It’s the idea that if we could outsource our pain and our love when we want someone who is not affected to take control of it, to have a service for emotions—especially for me, somebody with a lot of anxiety and all kinds of emotions. It’s kind of satire, but it was also a deep-seated desire that my friends and I all had and that so many of the women I spoke to for Three Women had.

Since you’re a writer, were you the friend who was often tasked with texting back for someone else?

I was. [Laughs.] We helped each other. I am really good at that. It’s my favorite thing to do with people who are dating. The other thing that I tend to be good at when it comes to others—I’m terrible at it for myself—is to know how to leave someone wanting more. I grew up with an Italian mom, very old-school European, like, “Don’t give away the milk for free” or whatever the adage is. Not that I necessarily agree with that! A lot of it is antiquated, but a lot of it is also biologically motivated. When I was at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana for Three Women, I saw how that stuff would interplay. And so I was useful in my friend group for that.

Have you ever ghosted anyone?

Yes, but rarely. I usually prefer the prolonged goodbye of saying “maybe next week” over and over again. But my preferred method is not doing it, because I know what it feels like.

How did you decide which short stories to keep in the collection and which ones to cut and maybe save for later?

It was not easy. Whenever you’re putting out a book or any piece of art, there are the twin questions of do I like it, and are other people gonna like it? There was a desire from me and my editor for cohesion, but also to have it be varied with different ages, different characters. What we landed on was stories that are some of my favorites and some of the favorites that I’ve heard from other people.

You’re adapting Three Women into a series for Showtime starring Shailene Woodley, Betty Gilpin, and DeWanda Wise. What’s it been like going through the transition of writing just for the page to writing for the screen?

It’s really gratifying and humbling to see stuff that you’ve written and worked on be turned into something visual. It’s amazing to see actors recreating the stories in their own ways, and directors reimagining things. So while I have written many of the episodes and I’m there for all of the creative decisions, there’s also so much that happens that has other people’s art coming into it. But it definitely is harder work for me than writing short stories or writing prose. Just the mere task of having to worry about how many words are on a page is really stressful for a prose writer. It becomes more of a math problem.

Is there a form of writing you haven’t tried yet that you want to get into?

I’m doing a lot of TV stuff. I’m working on a book about grief; a non-fiction book somewhat in the vein as Three Women, to be reported somewhat similarly. But I really would love to write a song.

Let’s get into the Culture Diet questions. What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

My email. [Laughs.] We just finished production, but we’re in post production now for Three Women, so it’s just constant.

How do you get your news?

I don’t really go on Twitter. I probably get more news from Instagram. I get several newsletters a day—LitHub and The Washington Post newsletters.

What’s the last thing you Googled on your phone?

“Is XYZ cancer?” Probably.

Are you a WebMD stalker?

Not WebMD necessarily. I go to all corners of the Internet to get my hysteria either under control or to explode it into the galaxy.

What TV shows have been keeping you up lately?

I haven’t had any time to watch anything new lately. The last two things I binged were Fleabag and Game of Thrones. I am looking for something to binge, so I would put that question back to you.

I think you would like The Staircase.

Thank you. It’s literally on my list. Also, my husband has a ruptured Achilles tendon and is in a cast, so he’s hopping up and down the stairs every day.

So it could be good exposure therapy! It is gruesome, though.

Gruesome does not turn me away, because everything is gruesome to me.

Do you remember the last movie you saw in theaters?

I don’t, but I want to see Top Gun: Maverick really bad.

What about the last concert you attended?

Before West Side Story came out, Ariana DeBose came to a concert event in our town last summer. She was phenomenal. I was there with my kid, who is seven, and she was transfixed and couldn’t stop dancing to her music.

What’s the last piece of art you either bought or ogled?

There was an old Matisse pencil sketch that I was and am obsessed with, and it’s not monstrously expensive, but it’s out of my price range. I get transfixed by art that I can’t afford all the time. And then I also get transfixed by art that I can afford. I’m always thinking, I’m sure I can find something that I love that costs a little bit less. I can’t do that with clothes so much.

Are you into astrology at all?

Yes, I’m a Capricorn, which is the most perfect sign. My husband’s a Gemini, my dad was a Gemini, and my brother’s a Gemini. The amount of Geminis in my life I think has hindered my progression as a human being. I am a Capricorn through and through! I love the things that are terrible about Capricorn, I love the neuroses. I think it’s all additive.

What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?

Check on my kid repeatedly, sometimes taking her temperature more than once. That’s the truth.