I did not set out to write a novel about Georgia O’Keeffe. I was sixty pages into another book when I saw a show of O’Keeffe’s abstractions at the Whitney. That show was a revelation as I realized that O’Keeffe, in her twenties, was one of the first American artists—male or female—to explore pure abstraction in art. Her abstract pieces of 1915-1921 are bold, fiercely original works in watercolor, charcoal, oil, and she continued to make key innovations in abstraction throughout her life. The Whitney show also revealed O’Keeffe as a woman who claimed her sexuality in markedly progressive ways, although she explicitly rejected the gendered, eroticized interpretations of her art made by predominantly male critics in 1920s New York. I was fascinated, and I wanted to know: Who was Georgia O’Keeffe? Why have I never seen the full range and scope of her abstract art before? Why isn’t she known for this?
The work of creating a biographical novel involves a continual dialectic between the historical record and the fictional voice. This novel went through many incarnations as I absorbed new details of O’Keeffe’s experience. When letters exchanged between O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz were released in 2011, I reshaped whole sections of the novel. Even after Georgia was in production, I went back through the novel several times to be sure the voice of the story was alive on the page.
The five books below are slim, powerful reimaginings. They are short novels, less than 200 pages, with forms that reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of truth, self, history; how we assemble new mythologies whenever we create narrative, and how every narrative—whether it is designated fact or fiction—has consequence.
By Margaret Atwood
In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood recasts Homer’s account of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca from the point of view of the hero’s wife to explore the question: Why did Odysseus kill not only Penelope’s suitors but her twelve maids? From the opening pages, Atwood’s Penelope rejects her own portrayal in myth as “a stick used to beat other women with.” She is not docile, nor is she the entirely faithful wife. Patient, yes, but like her famed hero husband, she is also canny, resourceful, and determined. While Odysseus was off on his wanderings, she kept the kingdom of Ithaca in order, while cultivating a quiet spirit of rebellion among her maids. And whether she speaks aloud or not, she always sees. Chapters in her voice are intercut with revelatory bits of back story and the chanting voices of a Chorus, her twelve hanged maids. Penelope’s lyrical, scathing account reveals the quietly one-sided assumptions at the heart of Homer’s myth and reminds us there are many ways to protest—you can stand up, speak out, sing, march, sit in, sit down. You can make art, listen, bear witness. You can tell a side of a story that has never been told. Penelope’s incisive wit is quintessential Atwood—often biting, always shrewd, and The Penelopiad is a twisty, thrilling reinvention. At once a disturbing indictment of the patriarchal skew of Homer’s account and the easy glamorization of war, it is also a powerful exploration of the subversive and exacting tools of a woman’s dissent.
An Imaginary Life
By David Malouf
An Imaginary Life is my favorite novel of Australian writer Malouf—a spare, evocative reimagining of the Roman poet Ovid’s exile at the edge of the Black Sea, and a meditation on the variability of self and the nature of belief. When I read a fictional retelling, I work to discern how a novelist engages with the historical record—not only how facts and anecdotal details are woven in or recast, but which known events are selected to construct the narrative arc. Malouf chose Ovid precisely because there is little known about the poet’s life, which gave him the freedom to invent. There is a dreamlike immediacy to An Imaginary Life that echoes the Metamorphoses: the landscape of exile is, by turns, a source of solace and fear—visceral, bristling, inescapably alive. At times Malouf’s Ovid speaks directly to the reader in “his letter upon the centuries” to mark the split between the irreverent figure he was known as, and the man he is becoming who asks: “What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings?” As he moves into a more deeply felt interdependence with the denizens of Tomis whom he once viewed as “barbarians,” his account becomes a piercing reminder that when we open to what seems most unthinkably different and strange, our understanding of how we’re meant to live is reframed.2 .
By Kathryn Davis
There’s a kind of hurtling, revelatory power in Kathryn Davis’s novel Versailles—a reinvention of Marie Antoinette as a young queen with a voracious mind, trapped by her beauty, her fate, and rising revolutionary tensions in 18th century France. The novel opens with a quick plunge to the interstice of spirit and skin: “My soul is going on a trip. I want to talk about her. I want to talk about her. Why would anyone ever want to talk about anything else?” This singular fascination of Antoinette’s—both carnal and existential—lends a driving sense of life to every page. Hers is a mercurial intelligence, passionate and perceptive, blisteringly alive. She seeks out glints of magic shot through the mundane like “when you fly down a hill on your sleigh, it feels as if stars are beating against your face.” She zeroes in on the push of her soul to slip its constraints: the corsets and hairdos and boredom; the demands of the role she is destined to play; the scheming politics of her detractors who fuel a xenophobic distrust of her reign. Versailles breaks open historical events to scale their undersides, overturning our centuries-old caricature of a callous queen to reveal her failed and glowing human side: her searing love for her children; her tenderness toward her husband despite his insular, frivolous whims. And she recognizes what his court ignores: in the bread march of thousands of women from Paris to Versailles “something that’s held for hundreds of years is blowing apart.” In this slim, virtuosic novel, Davis gives life to a young woman with a bold, prescient imagination that outstrips the forms of her time.
By Marguerite Duras
I turn to Marguerite Duras’s work the way I turn to poetry—when the world feels unhinged, when I need to reconstitute my silence and center in the midst of chaos. The act of reading Duras is an act of conversation, a deepening into my own imaginings, queries, and the themes—explicit and oblique—that drive my work. Like most of Duras’s writing, Emily L. defies classification. Part fiction, part memoir, it has a lean restless power—philosophic and singularly female. The novel plays with how we engage narrative to reinvent, but the subject at the heart of this brief work is the writer herself. Luminous and voyeuristic, Emily L tells the story of an unnamed writer and her lover, in a small port town off the Seine, observing an aging British captain and his wife sitting at the bar. Out of fragments of overheard dialogue and gesture, the French couple begins to create a back story for their British counterparts—a story within a story that grows more complex, transgressive, and intimate, and that gradually exposes the unspoken loss in the French couple’s own shared past. Time becomes layered, associative. A tension develops between diurnal, intellectual time, and the atemporal physicality of memory, love, art. Even after the unnamed narrator acknowledges that the story she has imagined for the captain’s wife, a poet named Emily L, has no real existence, she continues to push into those taut nuances of desire, to reveal how we construct a narrative of the other, out of our own failed dreams and hidden brokenness, our hungers and our fear.4 .
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
By Michael Ondaatje
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is a raw, weirdly incandescent novel-in-verse about the legendary American outlaw a.k.a. William Bonney. Fractured in time, form, and point of view, Ondaatje’s account reads like a scrapbook of hard facts, shards of tall-tale, ripped bits of anecdote from dime-store novels, newspaper clips, and interviews from jail. Woven through this assemblage of historical record are poems, reimagined in Bonney’s voice—sinewy, perceptive, lucent—moments where the violence stills and he notices, for example, “the skin’s floor,” orange peels “bright as hidden coins against the pillow,” or two owls in a “sheer silence…sensing the air and our departure.” There is a fierce simplicity to the novel—by turns brutal and dreamlike. In just 100 pages, the word kill appears 29 times. There are 33 instances of shoot, shooting, shot, and the taste of blood, blood drained, blood caked—as Bonney reminds us, “blood a necklace on me all my life.” Even when he is ambushed and shot in the head, there’s still that kicking bit of poet consciousness: “brain coming out like red grass/this breaking where red things wade.” Billy the Kid is a symbol of that particular breed of vigilante justice that built the American West and still haunts our nation’s streets and psyche, but in Ondaatje’s reinvention, he is also a boy. We can feel the sweat, want, and sorrow of that boy, caught up in the rush of his own myth even as he is making it. We don’t quite empathize, but we grasp how it happens—how violence is tidal, how it spills over and soaks, one man to another, one age into the next.