Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most remarkable artists in American history, but few know the intimate details of the woman behind the abstract masterpieces. In Georgia, author Dawn Tripp brings readers into O’Keeffe’s life and reveals the strength, ferocity, and drive this artist possessed. Earlier this year, Bookish editor Kelly Gallucci caught up with Tripp at the Newburyport Literary Festival to talk about the process of novelizing a true story, the importance of voice, and O’Keeffe’s legacy.
Bookish: In most novels, the author creates the events, the timeline, the plot points. When you’re capturing a real person’s life, however, those elements are dictated to you. Was it a challenge to work within the confines of a life already lived?
Dawn Tripp: It was a challenge because I felt very strongly that although this would be a novel, although it’d be written from O’Keeffe’s point of view, I wanted to stay as close as I could stay to the facts. I wanted to be able to explain or defend every choice that I had made in terms of what she said and what she imagined, and I wanted to be able to trace all of those pieces back to some element in the historical record. That wasn’t necessarily part of my original vision for the novel. But the more I moved into her story, the more deeply I began to understand the gender bias that she had faced and the gender politics she had to work through in order to define herself, her art, and her artistic vision on her own terms. It became more necessary and vital to me to be as true as I could be to what had transpired, to be as true as I could be to her story. My goal in writing this novel was really to bring more people to her remarkable life and her art.
Bookish: How did you go about crafting Georgia O’Keeffe’s voice in the novel? How did you decide which elements of recordings, letters, and memoirs were her authentic inner voice?
DT: I feel that voice—like artistic vision, like self, like the truth of who are are, what we want, what we come from, and where we’re going—is an evolution. We sometimes imagine that there’s one voice. If you go back through O’Keeffe’s letters you’d find that in one week she’d write a letter to Alfred Stieglitz and another to someone else and in those letters there are little tiny discrepancies. The are differences, sort of gradations, in those letters. She wrote two memoirs and the voice of those memoirs is so radically different from the voice in her letters from when she was younger. That was fascinating to me because we do imagine that voice is singular, but it’s kaleidoscopic, it’s multifaceted, and it’s continually changing according to where we are in our lives, what we’re opening to, what we’re closed to, and what we’re working to express.
As both a reader and a writer, I feel that voice is the most important element of a novel. It’s not something that I choose intellectually or analytically. Voice is instinctive; it’s visceral. Finding the voice is an excavation, not a constructed process. I spent an inordinate amount of time soaked in O’Keeffe’s words, historical anecdotes, and interview transcripts that she did in the 1920s. The voice came out of immersing myself in all of those different elements.
Bookish: You’ve said how the letters you read were “at odds with” the image you had in your head of who O’Keeffe was. What surprised you about her?
DT: Going in I knew that she was an incredibly strong woman. She made bold and innovative choices in her art and in her life. But she also understood that strength was about being open to the full range of human emotions and experience. During those years that she lived with Stieglitz, 1916 to 1933, I feel like she really opened to all of those complex dimensions of what it means to be a human being, a woman, and an artist. Her letters reflect vulnerability, anger, desperation, depression, elation, and hunger. I love all of those dimensions of her. That kaleidoscopic self is what it means to be strong. Like with voice, we imagine strength as just one thing: You’re either strong or you’re weak. I think that true strength transcends that binary.
Bookish: O’Keeffe believed she had lost her sense of self, and she reclaimed it in New Mexico. What about New Mexico did she connect with so strongly?
DT: We don’t think of O’Keeffe as a woman who would lose her sense of self. We think of strength being something intact and impenetrable, and strength is just much more complex. In my novel I describe how the instant she stepped off the train in New Mexico she felt that sense of her soul flaring off in all directions. What she discovered there, it wasn’t just the colors or the landscape or the light, it was also that sense of distance and vastness that’s really unique to that particular place. There is something transcendent about being in the middle of that expanse and I’d often wondered if it was almost like a sense of recognition when she met that place. As if she was meeting a place that was vast enough to hold that ferocity that she was.
Bookish: Was there any detail of O’Keeffe’s life that you decided to intentionally omit?
DT: There was an incident, and it still kind of haunts me, that took place shortly after she had been hospitalized for her breakdown. Her younger sister had a show in New York, and O’Keeffe wrote her an absolutely brutally, scathing letter. And her sister never painted again. In her life, there were things that O’Keeffe did or said that were so irretrievable. And I wanted to allude to that. There is a scene in the novel where her great niece says, “How do you do, Aunt Georgia?” and O’Keeffe slaps her across the face and says, “Don’t ever call me Aunt.” And that’s part of the historical record. But that was the only one of those moments that I felt like I could seam into the book in a way that I wasn’t going to upset the whole balance. Those instances didn’t happen all of the time, but when they happened they were so stunningly heartless and heartbreaking at the same time. I couldn’t quite grasp how to integrate the immensity of that and still not lose the driving force of the story. Moments like that demand a level of weight and attention that felt like a gravitational pull, moving the story too far away from the trajectory. The thing about fiction is that it can capture real life, but it has to feel as true or more true in order to be alive on the page.
Bookish: You’ve said that you believe fiction can capture truths that nonfiction can’t. What is one of the truths that you hoped to capture about O’Keeffe in this book?
DT: The most leveling understanding was that the years 1916 to 1933 were a crucible for her. Those were the years when her art was discovered, when she fell in love, craved a child, and nearly lost what mattered to her most. She made unthinkable sacrifices in her life and in her marriage, and she was also making key innovations and bold choices in her art. Those years forged her greatness. They took the strength and willfulness that young O’Keeffe had brought to New York and forged it into something more enduring. But as an older woman she didn’t want to talk about that time. She wanted to distance herself from it. I was working to reconcile the older O’Keeffe that we know with the younger O’Keeffe to find those strands of ferocity in both and how that kind of fierceness had changed.
Bookish: Your son is a very talented artist. Did watching him hone his skills give you any insight into capturing the mind of an artist on the page?
DT: It’s interesting you ask me that. I did go into my boys’ art room and play around with all of his different paints that he had in there. I also watch him work sometimes, and I would notice the way he would work and rework and rework a sketch until he had the composition right. That gave me insight into the way a visual artist would approach that blank page. In order to bring those scenes to life, I had to find points of connection and points of disconnect in the process of a visual artist and my process as a writer. As a writer, you’re always using words and language, which have an analytic dimension. But the best work you do is often when you’re completely open to the voice and the life of the work.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite story or tidbit that you learned about O’Keeffe when researching this book?
DT: My favorite tidbit about O’Keeffe is in the novel. It’s a scene towards the end when she’s tracing her nephew’s face when she’s lost her sight. For me, that was a really critical moment. A number of the biographies I read described an exchange O’Keeffe had with her manager Doris Bry that took place in the early ’70s when O’Keeffe was beginning to lose her vision. She called it holes in her seeing. They were planning a massive retrospective and looking at those early abstractions that she had done and hasn’t seen for decades. And O’Keeffe said, “We don’t have to have the show because I never did better.” I remember reading that and thinking, I don’t know if I can write this book if that’s where we end. Then I read an early biography written by Roxana Robinson that was done in cooperation with O’Keeffe’s family three years after O’Keeffe died. And Robinson described a visit from her great nephew. They spent a day together, and when he’s getting ready to leave O’Keeffe brought him over to the light, but she couldn’t see his face, so she traced it with her hands. I wanted to put myself right into that moment. What was she coming to terms with? That scene, for me, that moment of incredible human connection became the scene I knew I would be writing towards.
Bookish: O’Keeffe assumed, at first, that the intent of her work would be clearly interpreted, and instead her art became linked with her gender. Have you ever had that experience as an author, where your intentions were misinterpreted?
DT: I think that when you are a woman, you are almost always classified as a female writer, or female artist, female CFO, female CEO, etc. with few exceptions. There are subtle assumptions made about your opinion, the value of your opinion, and the weight of your work because you are female. This is not unique to art or publishing. It’s an embedded part of the sexism in our American culture. There’s implicit bias around gender, and we don’t have to look far to see it. It’s something we need to examine, and redress. The older I get, the clearer that is for me. I work to call out implicit bias when I see it, or experience it, and I believe it’s important to do that.
Bookish: This book was inspired by the fact that O’Keeffe never received recognition for her work in abstract art. Have you seen that change at all since publication? Do you think it ever will?
DT: There are still people who have an understanding of O’Keeffe only as the person who painted those sexualized flowers, but she’s so much more. O’Keeffe scholars understand that the body of her work is what is so profound. What’s underappreciated about O’Keeffe is not any given work but the force, range, and scope in what she was doing in art.
In the summer of 2016, the first major retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work went up at the Tate museum in the U.K. The first! A hundred years after she was first exhibited in New York. The goal of the exhibit was to reassess her place in the canon of art. There were periods of criticism through the 20th century where she was denigrated and dismissed as not having the level of importance and influence that she really had. The thing that I found so meaningful about the Tate show is that it reassess her influence on generations of artists, and that matters.
Bookish: Is there anything you learned from O’Keeffe that you hope to incorporate into your own life?
DT: Usually when I’m finished with a novel I’m done. I don’t think about the characters; I’m just done. I haven’t felt that with this book. Not that I’d go back into it or write about her story again, but I feel like the work of spending time in her life and really exploring and translating the challenges that she faced has been such an inspiration for me in my own life. We sometimes imagine that bold choices are what we make in our 20s or early 30s. The thing that I love so much about O’Keeffe and the thing that is still continuing to impact my life, my psyche, my choices as an artist and as a person, is how critical it is to make bold choices throughout your life, to keep making bold choices. I learned how to surf when I was 44 because of O’Keeffe. I learned how to skateboard when I was 46. There’s no such thing as now or never. It’s just now.
Dawn Tripp’s fourth novel Georgia is a national bestseller and was a finalist for the 2016 New England Book Award and winner of the 2017 Mary Lynn Kotz Award for Art In Literature. Tripp is the author of three previous novels: Game of Secrets, Moon Tide, and The Season of Open Water, which won the Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction. Her essays have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and NPR, among other publications. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and lives in Massachusetts with her family.