An Interview with Dawn Tripp, author of Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe

Dawn-photo-crop-274x300Dawn Tripp is a favorite among Boston-area writers and readers — and for good reason. I first met her at the Boston Book Festival, where I moderated a fiction panel we quickly dubbed “Three Blondes and a Brit.” There we were: James MacManus, author of the acclaimed forthcoming Midnight in Berlin, Holly LeCraw, best-selling author of The Half Brother, Tripp, who nailed the Massachusetts Book Award with her second novel, and me. Though I hadn’t met Dawn before or known her books, she had such an open-armed kind of warmth, and such a passion for other writers and their work, that I immediately grabbed all the copies I could. Beginning with her critically-acclaimed first novel Moon Tide, as well as the award-winning The Season of Open Water and Game of Secrets, Tripp’s work has straddled both commercial and literary worlds. Her writing is deeply visual and lush, resonating with image and sound to build a dreamy kind of momentum — but the overlay of carefully-crafted plot and attention to character bring that momentum to a fine pitch. Her style is a perfect match to Georgia O’Keeffe’s own, and so it’s no surprise that Tripp was able to embody O’Keeffe’s voice so fully in her biographical novel about the artist, which hit bookstores on February 9. Shelf Awareness thinks the same: “Tripp’s writing is the linguistic equivalent of O’Keeffe’s art: bold, luminous, full of unusual juxtapositions . . . By exploring one woman’s struggle to be seen and valued for herself, Tripp asks important questions about gender, love and the roles of criticism and public image in art.” And in a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly writes, “American artist Georgia O’Keeffe blazes across the pages in Tripp’s tour de force about this indomitable woman.”

Tripp lives on the southcoast of Massachusetts, so we don’t get to see her as much as we’d like. Still, we never tire of the beach photographs she shares with us from her morning walks. Now with Georgia, we can experience Tripp’s startling imagination on a fresh new page. 

I found many of your descriptions — in O’Keeffe’s imagined voice — of her process extremely stirring. She tells us, “When someone looks at something I have painted, I want them to feel what moved me to paint it in the first place. I paint as I feel it. Light, sky, air. As I want it to be felt” (25). O’Keeffe’s insistence on the body and feeling, as opposed to a more theoretical stance, reminded me of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation.” Sontag wrings her hands at the critic’s intellectualism, how it has diminished art, forcing us to categorize it in terms of meaning, instead of simply what it is:

None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did…. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

I wonder how you have grappled with this push and pull of the critical versus the creative, the intellect versus the emotive, in your own work.

O’Keeffe did insist on body and feeling — a kind of experiential revelation — to paint. She described her creative process as ‘that dream thing I do.’ But she was also intellectual in her approach to a canvas. She worked a painting through in an ordered manner. She was fluent in theory, but not bound by it. Although she eschewed ‘isms,’ her art and process struck a balance between the intellectual and the emotive, the critical and creative.

As I am beginning a novel, I have a rough sense of the story structure. I will often map the bones of an outline with the understanding that any early map must be open to change.

When I started Georgia, I was clear on a few things: I did not want to write the story of the O’Keeffe we know, bur rather the story of how she became the O’Keeffe we know. I wanted to use facts and the historical record as a jumping off point, and I wanted to get into her head. I wanted to get right up against what she might have felt and thought and questioned, what she loved and feared and ached for, fought, remembered, dreamed.

The greatest challenge for me writing Georgia was the voice. It took me over a year to find the voice of this book. I did research, filled notebooks. I looked at art — O’Keeffe’s art, Stieglitz’s photographs of her, the work of other artists in their circle. I wrote pages of half-scenes, fragments, but I couldn’t quite nail the voice.

During that first year of work, I stayed away from reading material written in O’Keeffe’s own voice, her letters, even her memoir. I knew that before I allowed myself to do that, I needed to find the voice of my novel — the voice that would tell her story to me.

I was not at my desk when it hit me. I was outside with my two boys. It was an afternoon in the spring. We were down at the river. They were playing in the water. I was lying in the sun, and the words came:

I no longer love you as I once did, in the dazzling rush of those early days…

For me, voice drives story, and it has to be true. With Georgia, even after the book was considered ‘finished,’ I went back through it twice and rewrote every passage that didn’t feel aligned with what I believed her voice needed to be.

O’Keeffe struggled with the way her work was described by critics. It seems she could never escape the label of “female artist” rather than simply “artist,” at least in her early years:

I’m not happy with the art I am doing. My forms feel too safe. They lack the bold force and freedom of my earlier things, and it strikes me that ever since his photographs of me were shown, my work has a different quality. As if I’ve been trying to undo the words he and the men trussed me up with. I remember how decisive it was — when I realized the danger of sending a free, abstract shape out into the world. If it had any mystery at all, they would only misinterpret it, sexualize, sensationalize it, reduce it to gendered terms.

And so I made thing on the ground. Nameable forms. Leaves. Trees. Flowers…. No longer from a fierce driving need but only as an answer to them. (212)

Have you ever felt the same in responses to your writing? Do you believe we’ve moved forward, or back, or not at all?

9781400069538I think when you are a female artist or writer, your work is almost always seen and interpreted through a gendered lens. Our culture is grounded in white privilege, specifically white male privilege. That is simply the default lens.

From the time I was young, I have admired O’Keeffe, but before I began Georgia, I knew little about her life. I knew her representational art — her cow skulls and calla lilies. The image of her I held in my mind’s eye was the iconic black and white portrait made by John Loengard that graced the cover of Life Magazine in 1968 — the year I was born. That was the image of O’Keeffe I held — inimitable, poised, the southwest desert behind her — an older woman, sure in her own power, who intentionally chose to build her life in a landscape she adored and who made art on her own terms. I knew little about how she became that woman until I saw an exhibit of her abstractions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009. That was when I learned that O’Keeffe, at 27, was creating gorgeous, stunningly original abstract works as early as 1915 when few other American artists were bold enough to explore abstraction. The critical language used to describe her early work was gendered language. On the surface, for the most part, it was praise. Wildly exalting, eroticized, gendered praise. It might have been intended to distinguish and elevate her, but arguably had the ultimate effect of diminishing her work, significance and revolutionary vision. Even now, that lens shadows our perception of her art and influence.

O’Keeffe was a strong woman, who recognized that passion, sexual and otherwise, can be a key inspiration for creative work. But she explicitly resisted having her art described in purely gendered terms. To me, this was a compelling counterpoint.

Vladimir Nabokov once called fiction “the shimmering go-between,” and in Georgia, that’s the space I wanted to write into — the space between what happened and what could have. I wanted to craft a story about true events and circumstances O’Keeffe encountered during the years she lived in New York, and explore how she might have experienced those events. I also wanted to reveal how our perception of her has been shaped by the politics she faced as a female artist in a predominantly male art world, and the critical language used to describe her and her art during that time.

In terms of responses to the novel — those will always be varied. In the months leading up to publication, it’s not opinions or reviews I brace myself for as much as that weirdly cosmic shift from private world to public space. I’m an introvert. I love connecting with readers and other writers, but I thrive on solitude. I crave the hours and years spent alone in my room, working a story onto the page.

During those years, I don’t think about how people are going to receive what I’ve written. If I did, I wouldn’t write well. This book is a departure for me and, early on, I wrestled with a fair amount of doubt: “Who are you to take on Georgia O’Keeffe’s story?” “Who are you to write from her point of view?” Doubt comes with every book, always in slightly different forms. You have to learn to put those voices in their place, and harness the energy they bring to spur you on, to stay clear in your vision and what you want to say.

To answer the second part of your question: I don’t know if we have moved forward as much as we like to think, but at least we are having the conversation.

I physically ached at the way your O’Keeffe mourns her lost youth, what she considers to be a lost vision, in making her choice of Stieglitz over herself for so many years. Near the end of her life, when she discusses the format of a retrospective of her work with a gallery manager, she thinks:

She doesn’t want me to stumble into the thought that I might have abandoned my best work, my vision, for him. I can’t say I haven’t asked myself that question. What would I have done with those early abstract forms if I had just continued working on my own? What kind of artist would I have become if I had not got to him that day in 1917 and the obsession between us began? (307) 

O’Keeffe seems to have also given up her chance at having a child under Stieglitz’s insistence. He tells her:

When you’re painting, Georgia, when you’re really in your art, that’s where you are. You disappear from the world, from me. And I understand that. I want that for you, because I know that in order to make the art you need to make, you need to give yourself completely to it…. A child would dismantle that. (126-127) 

Throughout, the novel wrestles with this problem of the woman/artist being alone with her work and her vision, against the pressures of marriage and family. Have you been able to find your own balance of family and career? Will we ever find a solution to this problem?

This struggle — to balance family and career, art and life — is central to me. And it’s a daily practice.

I am a private person. I love the hours in my work and the time I spend alone in the natural world. At the same time, I am engaged in our local community. I serve on the board of trustees at my sons’ school. I work with our local independent bookstore to host a Writers Series that features other authors. I lead the First Day School at our Friends meeting. For fifteen years, I ran a small marina. Occasionally, people in my life have said to me: “You need to quit that other stuff, and just focus on your writing.” But that “other stuff” has taught me so much about what it means to be present in the world. Key aspects of my evolution as a writer have been formed by my experience as a mother and a wife, and my service as a Friend. Working with the children in First Day School, for example, has taught me how to walk into that room on a Sunday morning with a lesson plan and then to let that plan be shifted and transformed by the children and their leadings. That “other stuff” has taught me how to stay open — how to listen, observe, respond. It has also shaped my understanding of how women continually work to move between their own needs and the needs of those around them. That fluency is a singular, powerful skill.

I am keenly aware of the hours in a day. The minutes in an hour. And I always want more time. More time with my kids. My husband. My close friends. More time to read that stack of books on my nightstand. More time to walk around in the world outside. More time to swim, surf, travel, be. More time to write stories. Different stories. Always more time.

I believe in life, which may seem like an overly simplistic thing to say, but for me it is a guiding principle. Life, art, compassion, integrity, non-violence, love.

Like all emotion, love is fuel for creative work. Part of being an artist is cutting yourself open to the world, to see and feel as much as you can bear. Then you take those feelings and reimagine them on the page. Love — no matter what form it takes — brings you right up against what you can’t bear to lose. That alone is galvanizing when you lean into it.

I think it’s easy to romanticize the life of a writer, or living with a writer. On a day-to-day basis, though, that life is hard. I can be impossible — my work all-consuming. When I am deep in the world of a story, I eat, sleep, and dream that story. I’ve only had one partnership in my life that could hold space for my life as a writer, and that’s my marriage. My husband and I have been together for 17 years, and I am lucky. He gets my need for solitude, but when I need to talk through some knot in a story I’m working on, he’ll talk through it with me. He reads every draft and has amazing editorial instincts. He is very direct, which has taught me to be more ruthless with my work. Growing older, I’ve realized that I can only live with someone who understands what it means to be an artist. If I didn’t have that in a partnership, I’d prefer to live alone.

Cynthia Crossen’s article “Real People, Made-Up Stories” in The Wall Street Journal (December 12, 2011) wrangles with the issue of writers fictionalizing the living and the dead. She seems to fall in the middle of the argument, naming great successes and small failures. Still she quotes Jonathan Dee from an article in Harper’s magazine (1999): 

Creating a character out of words and making him or her as vivid and memorable as a real person might be the hardest of the fundamental tricks a novelist has to perform. Simply adopting or impersonating an already interesting real-life character — Lee Harvey Oswald, J.P. Morgan, Amelia Earhart — cannot be considered as substantial an achievement as creating a character who enters the reader’s consciousness as a total unknown.  

I thought: Don’t we always base our characters on someone in our lives, even if these characters are a mix-and-match of a good dozen physical and character attributes from people we know?

There are some pretty stunning challenges to writing a real-life character, particularly when you are working to be true to the spirit of who that person was. I agree that every character in fiction — biographical fiction or not —- is an amalgam. Writing Georgia, there were days when I craved the freedom of writing a story that wasn’t based on an historical figure, because I did not want to feel so bound to my commitment to keep to the actual events and circumstances of O’Keeffe’s life and how she might have experienced them. In this novel, I worked to create a fictional interpretation of O’Keeffe’s story, and I also worked to create an authentic one, that holds a meaningful dimension of experiential truth — emotional, artistic, psychological. That is a different type of truth than what one might find in a biography, but I believe it has integrity and relevance nonetheless. Authenticity is the goal for any character, fully imagined or tied to reality. And it’s a challenge either way.

Though best known as a novelist, Roxana Robinson chose to make her 1989 book Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life a biography. On the other hand, Rebecca Makkai fictionalizes O’Keeffe further than most in her novel The Hundred-Year House. After a year researching O’Keeffe and Marianne Moore for her story of a 1920’s artist colony, she eventually abandoned both, melding them into a single character with a different name. In an article for the online journal, Signature (August 8, 2014), Makkai explains:

I couldn’t make them do anything. There sat Georgia O’Keeffe, taking a brief detour on her way from Taos back to Alfred Stieglitz, and I couldn’t alter her destiny. At the end of the day, she had to get on the train back to Alfred. She couldn’t jump out a window, or run away with someone, or commit murder. Not that I needed her to — but I needed her to be able to. Marianne Moore could not fall in love or become an alcoholic or die of whooping cough. And so she did nothing. These women — in real life so vibrant, so brilliant — were, in my novel, deer in headlights. 

Lily King stepped around this problem when she reimagined anthropologist Margaret Mead as Nell Stone in her novel Euphoria, giving Stone’s life a very different trajectory.

You seemed to have chosen the middle route, sticking to O’Keeffe’s general biography but giving yourself some freedom in choosing the novel form.

Roxana Robinson’s biography is one of the most mesmerizing works I’ve read about Georgia O’Keeffe. A masterful work of scholarship, it also captures O’Keeffe’s passion for the landscape and the influence of place on her psyche and her art, in a way that brings the artist’s soul alive within those pages.

It never occurred to me to write a biography. That’s not what I do. And with Georgia, it’s not what I wanted to do. When I began to draft the novel, I did have a fictional character — a young woman, caring for O’Keeffe when she was older. Her chapters were written third person and they framed the main story. But once O’Keeffe’s voice came alive, those chapters felt like cardboard against the rest, and I tore them up.

From the start, I wanted this novel to be O’Keeffe’s story from her point of view, in her voice — as I imagined it. I wanted to get into what she might have felt and experienced during those years she lived in New York with Stieglitz, because those were the years when her art was first recognized. Those were the years when she fell in love, craved a child, had her heart broken, became famous, nearly lost what mattered to her most, and resolved never to compromise again. Those were the years when she made choices and innovations in her painting that would set a course for the rest of her life, a course that would impact the evolution of American art throughout the 20th century — even if she is only just beginning to be fully recognized for that in the comprehensive way that she deserves.

I believe that fiction can get at a different kind of truth, an experiential truth that allows us to enter a character’s story and be transformed. Facts and the historical record are always incomplete. Truth is kaleidoscopic, continually changing and evolving according to our perspective.

O’Keeffe once said: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” I don’t know if I agree that there is a single ‘real’ meaning of things. But I do believe that fiction is another means of cutting past the surface to reshape our understanding of what is “true,” to cast new light on the weight and impact of a life.

The novel felt like a swim in a long, cold pool — a dizzying experience. I can’t help but imagine that your immersion in O’Keeffe’s life somehow affected you.

For me, writing is discovery. A kind of soul-excavation that is personal and, at the same time, transcends the personal.

O’Keeffe’s fierce spirit, her determination to build a life on her own terms, and the sacrifices she makes for the sake of her art, remain the most inspiring aspects of her story.

Growing older, I’ve come to understand that a key part of a creative life — whether you are a working artist or not — is recognizing that every day is a choice. You choose to dedicate more or less time to a given endeavor. You develop ways to balance your work with your personal life. To me, that awareness of everyday choices is exhilarating, and there is also an attendant sadness. Every choice comes with a sacrifice. That’s not a reason not to make it, or to apologize for a choice you’ve made. Choices made at one point in your life may change as the parameters of your life change. I believe in staying open to that. O’Keeffe was a strong, innovative female artist who achieved fame and success in an art world dominated by men — male painters, critics, gallery owners. She did not apologize for the choices she made, and she continued to make bold choices, again and again, as she aged. I feel like that alone makes her story intensely relevant to women today. It makes her story relevant to me.

O’Keeffe once said: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Yes. Exactly that.

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