An exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in 2009 inspired Dawn Tripp to put aside 60 pages of a work-in-progress and write “Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe” (Random House – 315 pp. – $28 – Five out of five stars).
While she began researching the life of America’s most famous female artist right away, Tripp waited a year for O’Keeffe’s voice to present itself.
What we know: O’Keeffe (1887-1986) came to New York City in the spring of 1918 at the request of famed photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), 23 years her senior. Stieglitz became O’Keeffe’s lover and was the first important champion of her art. They summered at the Stieglitz family compound on Lake George, north of Albany near the Vermont border. The two married in 1924.
“So many people don’t associate her with New York,” Tripp said during a telephone interview from the home she shares with her husband and two boys in Westport, Massachusetts. “People have been surprised to know how extensive her East Coast life was and how critical it was. So many of the really powerful innovations she made in art, she made when she was living in New York and Lake George.”
She believes the 10-15 years O’Keeffe spent in New York was a “crucible” for O’Keeffe.
“I wanted to use the facts as a jumping off point,” she explained.
Tripp went to work, digging deep into O’Keeffe’s life, writing drafts in longhand. She eventually spent six years on this project.
“I did research,” she explained. “I filled notebooks. I looked at her art. I looked at his photographs of her. I looked at the works of the other artists in their circle. I started taking photographs every day so I could see the world as a visual artist would see it. That was an important part of the process.”
However, Tripp “stayed away” from reading material written in O’Keeffe’s voice. She was waiting for the American icon’s voice to find her.
“For a year, I had glimpses and they got longer and longer,” she noted. “I needed to find the voice of the novel. I had to know I could sustain that voice for the novel-length work. It had to be right.”
The voice arrived on an unusually warm spring day.
“I was outside with my boys,” she recounted. “We had gone down to the river where they love to play. They had their jeans rolled up and were getting wet. I was just lying there on the dock in the sun. I suddenly had the first line of the novel.”
I no longer love you as I once did, in the dazzling rush of those early days.
“As soon as I had it, I remember feeling like the door was open, and I could go into the story,” Tripp allowed.
The novel is written in the first person, a decision Tripp explained at a book event in Dallas on Feb. 10.
“I always knew I wanted to tell the story from her point of view,” Tripp told the large audience. “The way I had grown up understanding O’Keeffe in many ways was a third person relationship. There are so many stellar, intriguing biographies of her out there. In ‘Georgia,’ I really wanted to get right up against what she experienced. I wanted to craft a story that was structured around the actual events . . . and this period of time [1917-1933] and I wanted to map the key events of that time, but I wanted to get right up against how she met those events. That was the driving force for me to write a fictionalized interpretation of her story.”
Tripp works hard at her craft, writing and rewriting until the manuscripts meet her standards. She runs each draft past her husband who is an “amazing reader” with “phenomenal” editorial instincts.
“He’s taught me to be more ruthless in my own work,” she noted. “I took out everything that didn’t feel true and integral to the voice of the story.”
The effort paid off. Tripp’s insightful prose puts her readers directly into the most intimate moments of this couple’s lives.
I kept waiting for the characters to look up and shoo me out of the room.
It was important to Tripp to capture the dynamics of their relationship.
“That stormy passion that characterized their marriage was so intriguing,” she noted. “The politics of that relationship and how those politics impacted her work were even more intriguing.”
When they met, Stieglitz was already an icon in the art world. He was the father of modern photography. He owned an art gallery and promoted the work of new American artists.
“He fell so deeply in love with her,” Tripp said. “He had such absolute faith in her greatness. He was the one who branded her and put her out there, for better or for worse. He had to control every element of his world, including her. He was blind to the risk of losing her as a consequence.”
As their years together progressed, O’Keeffe chafed under that control. It nearly did her in. No spoilers here, but Tripp says she believes O’Keeffe had to come apart to “reconstitute herself and move in a different direction.”
Tripp, who majored in French literature at Harvard, says she also connected with O’Keeffe in their shared love of the outdoors. When she was growing up, her family spent their summers in the town where she now lives.
“I have such a deep passion to the landscape of the town,” she confessed. “For me, that landscape fuels my heart and fuels my work. I really understood that aspect of O’Keeffe, of finding that level of connection to fuel that power.”
Tripp visited New Mexico to “understand the landscape. That was the most important aspect of me being out there – to feel what O’Keeffe felt.”
“Georgia” is Tripp’s fourth novel with Random House and editor Kate Medina, whom she credits with being a mentor, friend and guide, giving her the support she needed to step out of her “deep private self” as a writer and become a public figure.
Random House’s publicity machine has organized an extensive tour to promote the book. While she relishes appearances now, that wasn’t always the case.
“I remember my first public speaking events,” she said with a laugh. “I was a disaster. And you can quote me on that.”
The woman who stood before a full house in Wesley Hall at Highland Park United Methodist Church was light years removed from a disaster.
She was bright, confident, funny and her passion for this book was in full flight.
“I believe fiction can get to a different kind of truth,” she said. “The historical record is always incomplete. Fiction allows us to move into a different kind of relationship with the characters and their lives. I felt fiction and that first person voice would give me the opportunity to tell a story about O’Keeffe from that close, close perspective of what she might have felt and thought.”
Editor’s Note: This book contains highly-charged adult situations.
For more about Dawn Tripp, follow her on Facebook or visit her website, www.dawntripp.com.
For more on Georgia O’Keeffe, visit www.georgiaokeeffe.net.