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Georgia O’Keeffe On Her Mind: An Interview with Liza Campbell

Novelist Liza Campbell grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, about forty miles from Santa Fe, where her debut novel and first published work of fiction, The Dissemblers, is set. Campbell studied English at Wellesley College and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco. After that, she moved to Boulder to work for VeloPress “and to pursue my dreams of being a hardcore endurance athlete,” she says. “Thank goodness I’ve grown out of that stage,” she adds. Campbell left Boulder to live in Bozeman for a couple of years, and then returned to Colorado to attend nursing school. The Dissemblers (The Permanent Press, 199 pages, $28) is an elegantly crafted, introspective novel that tells the story of a young painter named Ivy Wilkes who moves to Santa Fe to work at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. O’Keeffe is Ivy’s artistic idol, and Ivy becomes frustrated that her own paintings can’t compare to O’Keeffe’s. When a friend suggests she try copying O’Keeffe’s work for profit, Ivy puts aside her moral qualms and plunges into the world of art forgery. Liza Campbell will discuss The Dissembers at the Boulder Book Store on Wednesday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m. (I should note that we share the same publisher—The Permanent Press will publish my novel, The Ringer, in March.)

New West: Growing up in New Mexico, were you aware of Georgia O’Keeffe’s art since you were a kid? Are you as big an admirer of O’Keeffe as Ivy is?

Liza Campbell: I was only loosely aware of O’Keeffe’s work. Primarily, I had seen her famous paintings of skulls with flowers, which are not my favorite. I didn’t really become familiar with her work until after I started writing the book, but the more I learned about her the more I admired her. So I would say yes, now I am as big of an O’Keeffe admirer as Ivy is, but that came through writing the book.

NW: Of the many places you’ve lived, why did you decide to set your first novel in New Mexico?

LC: Writing a book set in New Mexico was partially a way to express my own love for the state, and partially a way to prudently follow the advice to write what you know. I lived in New Mexico until I was seventeen, and honestly I’ve been homesick ever since I left. I started writing about New Mexico in an autobiography class I was taking for school, and realized that it was very inspiring place for me.

NW: How did the idea for the plot of The Dissemblers first occur to you?

LC: I was at an art museum with my parents, and was quite taken with a Van Gogh painting. I stood admiring the painting for some time, and then realized that in addition to feeling moved by the beauty of the painting, I felt a little jealous of the painter. I was envious of Van Gogh because I could never make a painting that beautiful! (Ridiculous, I know.) That was when the character of Ivy began to take shape for me. She loves O’Keeffe’s work, but is not satisfied by just looking at the paintings; she wants the painting to be her own. The plot grew naturally out of Ivy’s personality (and flaws).

NW: What was your process of writing this book? How long did it take? Had you written other novels before this one was published? Do you also write short stories?

LC: From beginning to end, the novel took about three and a half years to write. I didn’t write it chronologically; rather, I knew the basic outline of the novel and would write whatever scene of the book I felt particularly excited about at the time. Then at the end, I cobbled them all together and smoothed out the transitions as much as possible. Incidentally, I would not recommend this approach to writing a book, and will probably not write that way again! This was my first novel. I’ve never seriously written short stories, and actually find short stories much more intimidating as an art form than novels.

NW: I enjoyed the observation, “In old group photos, you could pick Georgia out right away, not as a beauty, but as a self-sufficient presence.” Do you think Ivy is a self-sufficient presence as the book opens, or does she still have a way to go to achieve that?

LC: Thank you! At the beginning of the book, Ivy has a long way to go in order to achieve self-sufficiency. Although she is very independent, even somewhat of a loner, she is very affected by other peoples’ opinions. At the opening of the book, her ideas of success and achievement are largely defined by the approval of others; over the arc of the story, I think that begins to change a little.

NW: It doesn’t seem like Ivy is motivated by money when she decides to make the fake O’Keeffes. She seems to want to use it as a test of her artistic abilities. Also, she gives up on her own ability to create an original painting. O’Keeffe had not done any of her best work by the time she was Ivy’s age—why do you think Ivy ignores Georgia O’Keeffe’s example and gives up on herself at this young age?

LC: When Ivy begins her work in forgery, she doesn’t yet know the toll that it will take on her own original work. She even thinks it might be a way to find inspiration. By the time she realizes that she has lost her own voice, she is thoroughly entangled in the forgery mess. But you’re right that Ivy does exhibit a certain impatience at the beginning of the book. She doesn’t want to wait through years of hard work and insignificance to make her mark on the art world. Part of her growth is in realizing – even embracing – that the process of art is more important than the product or the recognition.

NW: One of the themes of The Dissemblers is selfishness versus selflessness. Ivy considers herself too selfish to grow up, really, to have kids or do anything other than look out for herself. By contrast, she reflects on O’Keeffe, “Georgia’s later works are all unsigned, unclaimed flowers and landscapes. As if she didn’t crave ownership, but was only reporting what she saw. As if a signature were selfish.” Were you conscious of this theme as you wrote the novel?

LC: That’s an interesting question! I was loosely aware that most of my characters were fundamentally selfish people, but I didn’t intentionally make that a theme. I do think that it is one of the eternal questions about art, though – is all art intrinsically selfish? Does art play a role in the greater good of society, or does it just promote the satisfaction of the artist? I go back and forth on that question.

NW: You wrote The Dissemblers in first-person from Ivy’s perspective, interspersed with some third-person sections describing episodes from the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. Most of these sections focus on O’Keeffe as a young woman. Why did you decide to portray her as a young woman, when she hadn’t yet done her best-known work?

LC: Because Ivy is just starting out as an artist, I wanted to focus on O’Keeffe’s experiences when she was just starting out. I suspect there is a difference between being an unknown artist and being a celebrated artist. When nobody knows your work, nobody except you really cares whether or not you paint. The motivation to paint seems more pure, or at least more personal, when the artist is doing it for herself.

NW: Many of Ivy’s thoughts seem applicable to writing as well as painting. For example, you write, “When you stop painting, the hardest thing in the world is to start again. This is why painters become compulsive about their routine. Missing one day may not paralyze you, but if you miss a week you are terrified that you will never paint again.” Do you think this is true of writing, too?

LC: Yes, absolutely. I’ve spent many a day worrying that I will never be able to write again!

NW: Do you paint, and if not, did you research the sections about painting?

LC: I am a tragically bad artist. I did take one drawing class in school, but for this book I spent a lot of time talking to painters and asking them silly questions.

NW: Did you do any other research for this novel? Did you spend a lot of time at the O’Keeffe museum? That’s one of my favorite museums in the world—and I think my favorite thing in there is the display of her used paints, brushes, and charcoals that are how she left them. What is your favorite part of the O’Keeffe museum?

LC: I read letters and journal entries by O’Keeffe (which were infinitely more useful than any critical analysis of her work). And yes, I did make several trips to the very wonderful O’Keeffe museum. Besides the art (my favorite paintings are from her Pelvis series) my favorite thing about the museum is the architecture. I love how enormously tall the doors are – it is like going into a church. There is also something home-like about the layout of the museum. I wish I could live there!

NW: I always think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life as having the most positive possible trajectory for an artist. Instead of burning out young, she grew stronger as an artist and kept doing important work in her old age. You are off to a young start, for a writer, publishing your first novel at age 29 (right?). Do you derive any lessons from O’Keeffe’s life on how to carry on making art throughout your life?

LC: Hmm, the book officially came out two weeks after my thirtieth birthday…am I still young? One thing that was inspiring to me in my research about O’Keeffe was to learn that in addition to her success she had very hard times, and times when she was frustrated and uninspired. Yet she always stayed true to her vision, and was at times uncompromising in following the path she saw for herself. So yes, I hope to work through disappointment and frustration with as much grace as O’Keeffe did, and I hope to have the same confidence in my own vision.

NW: What was the path to publication for The Dissemblers?

LC: It was fairly typical. When I finished the book, I sent it to one billion agents, and got one billion rejections. Finally, I found a wonderful agent who wanted to work with me, and she sent it to one billion publishers and received one billion rejections, until I was fortunate enough to be matched up with the Permanent Press. Publishing requires a lot of persistence and a fair amount of luck.

NW: What is your day job, and how do you balance it with writing?

LC: I am currently in nursing school, so one day I will be both a nurse and a writer. I find that time constraints actually make me more productive, and “real world” experiences provide a lot of inspiration to write. I tend to only write productively for one to two hours per day, so there is plenty of time left over for me to work a day job!

NW: What are you working on next?

LC: This is my favorite topic, so I’ll try to restrain myself…I’m working on a novel about a girl who grows up in the circus and her relationship with her father, who grew up in Hungary when it was under Soviet control and left during the 1956 revolution. It is told from both of their perspectives, and has been a joy (and very frustrating) to research and write. Needless to say, I am very excited about my next project!

Liza Campbell will discuss The Dissembers at the Boulder Book Store on Wednesday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m.

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