Why I Killed Georgia O’Keeffe: Historical Figures in Fiction

Editor's Note: Rebecca Makkai is the author of The Borrowerand most recently The Hundred-Year House, a multi-generational saga about a mysterious house and the eccentric individuals who've inhabited it over the years. Here, Rebecca joins us to explain how she killed off Georgia O'Keeffe with the stroke of a pen, because inventing fictional characters interests her far more than channeling real ones. 

I’m always envious of writers who fictionalize actual, historical people. Their books get called "a novel of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis" or "a novel of Amelia Earhart." Those novels have a built-in audience of people who will read anything about Jackie O. or Eva Peron or Spiro Agnew -- people who already love and care deeply about your characters. My characters, you meet for the first time on page one. If you don’t care about them by page 20, you’re probably putting the book down. (Of course those novels have a downside, too; woe betide the author who releases her Jackie Onassis book three weeks after Joyce Carol Oates releases hers.)

When I was working on The Hundred-Year House, which involves, among other things, an artists’ colony in the 1920s, I very happily stuck both the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the poet Marianne Moore there as artists in residence. Not because I thought their presence would bring me readers, but because they belonged in the plot. The two women were born on the same day of the same year -- a fact I only discovered months after putting them in my story -- and it seemed like fate. I spent two years researching their lives. I applied for a grant to travel to Taos and see the land O’Keeffe had discovered just weeks before her 1929 appearance in my story. (A grant I didn't get -- fortunately, in retrospect.) I worked out in meticulous detail how Moore -- who never left her mother’s side -- could have gotten away for a bit in the '20’s. I read their collected letters to master their speech patterns. I wrote the hell out of those women.

One major problem: 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.

As it turns out, when I write fiction, I revel in the boundless possibilities of any character. The fact that a character can do or say anything is one of the things that lets me know them as my own. If I’m the one making the decisions, then I am she. If I have no real decisions to make, I've somehow lost my grip on the reins.

My paralysis, in this case, left these two characters peripheral. They wore the right clothes and said the right things and acted just as Marianne and Georgia would, but they didn't impact the plot. They weren't impacted by the plot. Which meant -- in my moment of reckoning -- that they were unnecessary.

I took a long day off from writing when I realized this, terrified to proceed, to kill the women I’d spent so long getting to know. In the end, I folded both of them -- as gently as egg whites -- into a third character, the artist Zilla Silverman. Zilla, being purely fictional, won’t draw readers of her own accord. She doesn't already have a fan base. No one will hand it to a friend saying, "You have to read this, because you have that Zilla Silverman print hanging in your den!" But she was a blank slate. She contained boundless possibility. And when fragments of Marianne Moore and Georgia O’Keeffe entered her characterization (like O’Keeffe, she wears either all black or all white; like Moore, she’s interested in cars) Zilla Silverman crackled to life for me.

Perhaps I’ll someday unlock the secret of channeling real souls, of taking charge of preexisting narratives. These are worthwhile endeavors. Shakespeare did it, for Christ’s sake! And who wouldn't love a good novel of Herbert Hoover? A novel of Gladys Knight and the Pips? If I could swallow the magic pill that would let me know other people’s hearts -- real people’s hearts -- I’d do it. For now, though, it’s enough to know myself. And to know that I’m in fiction not for the channeling, but the invention.