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How to Find Your Voice When Writing a Book: Inkandescent Q&A with Author Dawn Tripp


By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent

When best-selling author Dawn Tripp set out to write a book about American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she knew she didn’t want to write the story “of the O’Keeffe we all know.” Rather, she wanted to tell the story of how she became the O’Keeffe we know.

That meant imagining O’Keeffe’s thoughts and motivations, and creating a compelling work of historical fiction.

“Fiction is this curious tool to get at a different side of the truth,” she says. “Nabokov has this great expression for it; he calls it ‘the shimmering go-between’ and that’s the space that I wanted to write into — between what took place and what could have.”

Winner of the Massachusetts Book Award for fiction, Tripp is the author of three previous novels: “Moon Tide,” Season, “The Season of Open Water,” and “Game of Secrets,” a Boston Globe best-seller. Her essays have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, and on NPR. A graduate of Harvard, Tripp lives in Massachusetts her family.

It was during a 2009 visit to see O’Keeffe’s abstract paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City that Tripp recalls being “overturned.” She wanted to know: Who was this young woman, this artist who made these shapes? What did she think? What was she feeling? What was happening in her life at this period of time? And what was her 30-year relationship with famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz really like?

We talked to Dawn Tripp about her fourth novel, “Georgia,” shortly before it was published in February by Random House. Scroll down for our interview.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: What drew you to Georgia O’Keeffe and her story?

Dawn Tripp: I came to O’Keeffe’s story through her art, and like many, I knew her representational work — her cow skulls and her calla lilies. But I had never experienced her abstract art before seeing a 2009 show at the Whitney. It was a revelation. One hundred years ago, O’Keeffe was creating radically new abstract forms when only a handful of American artists were bold enough to explore abstract language in their art.

Her works of that time and the abstractions that she continued to create throughout her life were ambitious — they were these gorgeous shapes of color and form designed to express and evoke emotion. They were stunningly original and I wanted to know why I had never seen this side of O’Keeffe before.

In that exhibition, her art was shown alongside photographs that Alfred Stieglitz had taken of her as part of a serial portrait that spanned 20 years, comprised of 300 images. Alfred Stieglitz was a famed gallery owner and the father of modern photography. He was her manager, basically her dealer, and he became her lover and then her husband. His photographs of O’Keeffe at that exhibition were accompanied by excerpts of the letters that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz exchanged over the course of their relationship. They were both so sharply intimate — the images and the excerpts. There was longing and heartbreak and desire, and the language felt true to the pictures that I saw on the wall. I was fascinated. Here was a woman we’re all familiar with, and yet a woman we barely know at all.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: Let’s make this clear — your book about O’Keeffe is a novel. You dove into her psyche, what you imagined she must have been feeling and thinking. What was it like to get into her head, into her heart?

Dawn Tripp: I made a choice to make the book a novel, I knew I wanted it to be told in first person. I wanted to write it from her point of view with imagined thoughts and dialogue but grounded in actual events and peopled only with real-life characters.

It was actually harder than I had first expected it would be! It took me about a year to really find the voice of the book. I did a ton of research, read five or six biographies, and filled notebooks because I still write longhand. I tried to see the world the way a visual artist might see it, trying to break the world down into shape and color and line. But I couldn’t quite nail the voice so the story stayed just beyond my reach.

I wasn’t at my desk when it hit me; I was outside with my two boys down by the river for the first time that spring. They had their jeans rolled up playing in the water, I was lying in the sun, and I heard what became the first line of the novel: “I no longer love you as I once did in the dazzling rush of those early days.” I remember sitting up and feeling that voice in me and looking around and the whole world was different.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: How did writing her story change you?

Dawn Tripp: There were certain things that I learned about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be an older woman. I feel that by aging, I’ve really begun to become the person that I want to be, that I’m meant to be, and one of the things that O’Keeffe did in the course of her life is make bold choices. Bold and brave choices are not only reserved for the young, and they don’t have to be grand and sweeping — they can be small decisions and choices to live a life more intimately and intensely on our own terms.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: What did you learn about Georgia O’Keeffe that you didn’t know before this research?

Dawn Tripp: Everything. She was not at all what I had grown up expecting. I think that she had a ferocious kind of will. When she was older she really held the world at arm’s length. There’s a remoteness that we associate with her, but she was a passionate person in every sense of the word. She owned her own sexuality in ways that were progressive to her time. She allowed sexual passion to be an inspiration for her art, but explicitly resisted and ultimately condemned the kind of sexualized, eroticized terms that were assigned to her art. That’s not who she was — she was a naturalist, an abstract painter, and she was doing wildly innovative works. Her influence and impact demand reassessment.

Dawn Tripp’s 6 Tips for Becoming a Writer — or a Success at Whatever You Want to Do

Be Inkandescent Magazine: What advice do you have about the approaches that are key to success as a writer?

1. Find a way to pay the bills while you’re becoming established. I taught writing in my late 20s. I found a job at The Charles Playhouse in Boston where I worked evenings so I’d be able to write in the mornings. I also catered events to patch together a life that would allow me to really focus on what I wanted to do.

2. Choose a story that holds your interest. “Georgia” took me about five years to write. You have to have a fire in you for a certain story, otherwise you couldn’t sustain it for 320 pages! You have to really want to write a story, in order to live with it for the several years it takes to get it down and get it right and rework it and revise it and polish it.

3. When you feel locked out, find your way back in. I think writing at its best is a kind of channeling. You feel like it’s running through you, but there are so many days when it’s a much harder road. When things aren’t working right and you need to find your way back in. Writing this book included stretches of time where I felt really closely aligned with the story and what it needed to be, and times that were much more challenging.

4. Learn from your failures. When I was at Harvard I didn’t write any fiction; I only wrote poetry. It wasn’t until I graduated college that I started writing a novel. I wrote it for eight years and it kept getting stronger — and it kept getting rejected. I probably got a hundred rejection letters, and I finally put it away and was done with it. After I moved back to the small town where I used to spend summers as a kid, I came up with an idea for another story, wrote it in about a year and a half, and it sold. Still, the failed novel, the one that is still under the bed — was really the greatest writing teacher I ever had.

5. Form relationships with other writers. I have close friendships with a number of other writers, and we read each other’s work, support each other, and share the joys and challenges of the creative process. I believe in the power of words, and I’ve been lucky to share that with my husband, too. He’s actually the person who first reads my work. When he reads through one of my early drafts, he doesn’t just comment on the pages, but points out aspects of the story where I could push deeper. He knows my strengths and weaknesses, and he’s helped me become more ruthless with my own work. Finding people, whether a friend or partner, who see me as an artist and believe in my work sustains me.

6. It’s not about wishing or wanting. I think you have to want to do it, but it’s also about necessity; it’s just something that you’re driven to do. I wrote a piece for the Virginia Quarterly review where I talked about how writing isn’t always something that makes me happy or I always love, but it’s something that I’m driven to do, that I have to do. That necessity — in all its joys and challenges and burns and scrapes and cuts — is actually what makes the difference.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: Tell us a little bit about O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz. What is your assessment of their marriage?

Dawn Tripp: It was a wild one. Their affair was so loaded — there was desire and ambition and love and sex and fame, and the search for artistic freedom. They had this intensely stormy passion and that characterized their marriage and intrigued me.

Here you have a young woman — strong, fiercely intelligent and independent, with a stunning artistic talent and a revolutionary vision years ahead of her time.

And then here is a man, the father of modern photography, the famed gallery owner, who at the tail end of his artistic career fell so deeply in love with her. He had such faith in her greatness, but he needed to orchestrate every element of the world around him, to the point of blindness to the risk of losing what he wanted most.

Their relationship was a source of intense freedom and expansion for O’Keeffe at the beginning, and then slowly it became something from which she had to break free.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: I want to give our readers a taste of what they’re in store for in “Georgia.” Will you read from the first few pages? The language is so gorgeous and powerful.

Dawn Tripp:

“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, your fingers inside me, mouth grazing my throat, breasts, thigh. The metallic scent of the darkroom, smells of sweat and linseed oil, a stain of cocoa on the dining table. It was all smashed together back then — art, sex, life — mixed into the perfect color. Every shadow had a substance, shape, and tone. Your bowler hat, the lead rolled gleaming whiteness of an empty canvas, tubes of paint lined up.

“My dressing gown on the floor and you above me, light moving on your shoulders. Your eyes did not leave my face. When you touched me then, you moved me, so close and hot and fast and deep. I no longer love you that way. My hands are cool now, the past remade and packed away. Sometimes though, late at night, the air lifts and I feel it. The faint burn of your eyes on my closed lids still, that sense of you rushing back in.”

Read the reviews of ‘Georgia’ on Amazon.com, or visit Tripp’s webiste at www.dawntripp.com.

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