Q&A with Dawn Tripp

1) Why did you choose to write a novel about Georgia O’Keeffe? 

I saw an exhibit of O’Keeffe’s abstractions at the Whitney Museum in New York, paired with Stieglitz’s photographs of her (clothed and nude), along with excerpts of their letters, and I was struck by the realization: here is a woman most people know of, but barely know at all. In 1915, at age 27, O’Keeffe was creating fiercely original abstract works when very few other American artists were bold enough to explore this new language of art. Today, she is more widely known for her representational works – her southwest landscapes, her cow-skulls and giant flowers. This split was intriguing to me. I started digging into her story, in particular her East coast life.

There are many stellar, insightful third person works that have been written about O’Keeffe, but 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. To me, 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.

In Georgia, I wanted to write a first person account from O’Keeffe’s point of view, in her voice, as I imagined it. I wanted to get into her head – into the sweeping and intimate world between her and Stieglitz. I wanted to get right up against what she might have felt and thought and questioned, what she loved and feared and ached for, what she fought, remembered, dreamed. I wanted to bring that internal world to life.

2) What intrigued you about the relationship between O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz?

Their love affair was a loaded one: Ambition. Desire. Sex. Love. Fame. Betrayal. A search for artistic freedom. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. The stormy passion that characterized their marriage was intriguing, but the politics of that relationship, and how those politics impacted the work of both artists, even more so. Here was a young woman – intelligent and independent – with a ferocious artistic talent and a revolutionary vision years ahead of her time, and here was a man – famed art promoter and the father of modern photography – at the tail end of his own artistic career. He fell so deeply in love with her, had faith in her greatness, but needed to orchestrate every element of the world that surrounded him, blind to the risk of losing what he wanted most.

O’Keeffe was a strong woman, who recognized that passion, sexual and otherwise, can be a key inspiration for creative work. That said, she explicitly resisted and ultimately refused to allow her art to be described in the purely gendered terms first assigned to it – terms born out of the power dynamics in her relationship with Stieglitz and cultivated by the primarily male modernist New York art world of the 1920s. Ultimately, O’Keeffe would have to leave this world – and Stieglitz – in order to reshape the direction of her life and career on her own terms.

3) Georgia is a highly researched historical novel. What was that experience like?

Research is always a process of discovery. There is so much you learn about a person, a world, an era. You see the underside of things and it sparks your imagination. That process itself is thrilling. One thing that did strike me – and continues to strike me – is that O’Keeffe has been a powerful force in the consciousness of many women over time – artists, writers, feminists, curators, scholars – who have consistently dedicated themselves to holding her and her life up in a way that, I believe, has ultimately precipitated a meaningful reassessment of her work and influence on twentieth century American Art. I am a novelist, not a scholar but, at the same time, in Georgia, I have worked to create a new interpretation of O’Keeffe’s life story and her art, focused on the years when she lived in New York with Stieglitz.

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 her sense of self and ground, and resolved never to compromise again. Those were the years when she made choices and innovations in her own creative vision that would set a clear 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 recognized for that in the comprehensive way that she deserves. Those were the years in O’Keeffe’s life I wanted to walk into because that time in her life is, to my sense, deeply relevant to women and artists today. That was the story I wanted to tell            

4) What was your primary goal in writing this novel? Why did you decide to take on the story of a key American figure and explore – through fiction – a part of her life that is less well known?

Vladimir Nabokov once called fiction “the shimmering go-between” and 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 in her lifetime, to explore how she might have met and experienced those events, and also to reveal how our perception of her – even to this day – has been shadowed by the gendered politics she faced.

I believe in O’Keeffe’s strength, her genius, and the creative innovations she made. I believe that the art she was creating as early as 1915 presaged some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century. My hope is that Georgia gives readers a glimpse into that. And I hope it brings people to her art.

5) What was the greatest challenge for you writing Georgia?

The voice. It took me over a year to find the voice of this novel. I did research, filled notebooks (I still write my early drafts longhand). I studied her paintings, the evolution of her art over time. I looked at Stieglitz’s portraits of her and other portraits made by other photographers taken later in in her life. I wrote pieces of scene, fragments of thought and dialogue, but most of those early pages felt like cardboard, and I tore them up. Throughout that first year of work, I’d catch glimpses of what I thought the voice would be, but I couldn’t quite nail it.

I was not at my desk when it hit me. I was outside, down at the river with my two boys. It was a spring afternoon in April. They had their jeans rolled up and were playing in the water. I was lying on the dock, and the words came:

“I no longer love you as I once did, in the dazzling rush of those early days. Time itself was feverish then, our bodies filled with fire…”

I sat up and looked around and the world was different. I started writing the following day.

6) Do you think O’Keeffe would have become the American icon she is today if she had stayed with Stieglitz?

She might have been an iconic figure, but she would have been a different kind of icon if she had not removed herself from New York and the confines of that landscape and that life. I think O’Keeffe is only just beginning to get her fair share of recognition in the art world. She has been known as one of the most famous figures of American art, but she has – often and incorrectly – been considered simply a ‘popular artist.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. The range of her work is stunning. Her abstractions are masterful – visceral, glowing, cerebral, strikingly original and precise. This summer The Tate Modern in the UK will hold its first major retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work and states its goal to: “review O’Keeffe’s work in depth and reassess her place in the canon of twentieth-century art, situating her within artistic circles of her own generation and indicating her influence on artists of subsequent generations.”

High time.