Georgia O’Keeffe, amateur detective? In Kathryn Lasky’s Latest Novel, It Works
In “Light on Bone: A Georgia O’Keeffe Mystery”, Kathryn Lasky brings O’Keeffe’s New Mexico to life as the setting for a thriller featuring a strong-willed and fiercely independent O’Keeffe. The artist, as Cambridge-based Lasky portrays her, has keen eyes and a wicked sense of humor.
Critically, the premise doesn’t feel forced. While walking alone in the New Mexico desert at dawn in 1934, O’Keeffe comes across a corpse. He seems to be a brother or a priest. In his car, a gun and condoms. A map marked with the initials “GO” near her home. The artist calls the cops. What happens next involves Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, a budding romance, spies, and a little girl’s weird designs.
“Light on Bone,” released Sept. 6, marks Lasky’s first adult novel in 20 years. Newbery’s many Medal of Honor children’s books include the fantasy series “Guardians of Ga’Hoole», adapted for an animated film film directed by Zack Snyder, now on Hulu.
Lasky, 78, has lived in Cambridge with her husband – former National Geographic photographer and documentary filmmaker Chris Knight – for around 42 years. Before that, the Indiana native lived in East Boston. She recently spoke to The Globe from her summer home in Deer Isle, Maine.
Q. I know you are interested in mysteries and Georgia O’Keeffe – but what gave you the idea to combine them?
A. I thought, “What would an artist bring to a crime scene that a trained detective wouldn’t?” That was it. I decided she could bring light, almost literally. She was buzzing with sensory nerves. I thought that would set her apart from the regular cop: the way she would view a crime scene.
Q. Why O’Keeffe?
A. His character. I would never say Salvador Dali, it wouldn’t be for me. O’Keeffe was very fierce, but in a calm manner. She did not willingly suffer fools. All artists are complicated people, but she was complicated in a way that I could relate to.
After I graduated from the University of Michigan, my mother said to me, “I think we should go to New York to celebrate your graduation. There’s this wonderful Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Met. I said, “I don’t know if I like Georgia O’Keeffe.” My mother said, “I think I should get a discount on your studies. [laughs]
We went there and I fell in love. I felt like I was falling headfirst into the throat of a calla lily. I had this visceral reaction, I was engrossed in the paintings. I later went to New Mexico and fell in love with the scenery.
About 15 years ago I wrote a children’s book [about O’Keeffe] called “Georgia rises.” When [I decided I wanted to write an adult mystery]it came to mind: an amateur sleuth mystery about Georgia O’Keeffe.
I decided to set it around 1933, as it was an emotionally tumultuous time in his life. She was on the verge of fame, but at the same time her husband was having an affair. He had forced Georgia to have an abortion a few years ago, and she was beginning to regret it. She was a mess. She decided to go to New Mexico. It was a wonderful, calming and inspiring time for her. Until of course she stumbles upon a corpse in the desert – which is my fault [laughs].
Q. Did you know how it was going to end? Do you have it all mapped out, or do you write it down and see where it takes you?
A. I still know who did it all along. The trick is not to give it away [without] mislead the reader. I recently read a mystery novel by a British writer and felt like she had tricked me. Because out of the blue, that barely introduced or mentioned character turns out to be the murderer.
I do a million little outlines. I am writing a basic narrative of the book. I have a whole file called “Crime Planning” – which has to do with dates, when the body was discovered, that sort of thing. I’m addicted to outlines. You want people to keep guessing, to be surprised, but not to feel cheated.
I was writing this book during the pandemic, so I couldn’t go to New Mexico, but I’ve been there before. I went to Georgia O’Keeffe Museumhis house in Abiquiú. His house is wonderful. I wanted to come back and throw all my furniture away [laughs].
Q. Do you think you’ll make it a series of artist plots or Georgia O’Keeffe plots?
A. I want. It would be the same artist. I am so attached to her. I thought about it a lot. Because it’s always hard to say goodbye to a book. I could do Monet, but I don’t want to give up on Georgia O’Keeffe. No one else constrains me like she does.
The interview has been edited and condensed. Learn more about kathrynlasky.com.
Lauren Daley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.