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Barbara Linn Probst

This week on “Women Write,” my interview series with writers of women’s fiction, I am delighted to welcome Barbara Linn Probst.

Barbara, I am thrilled to introduce you to my readers. Thanks so much for being here!

Tell us about your books.

I’ve published two novels, with a third coming in Fall 2022. My debut, Queen of the Owls, launched in April 2020 and has already won or is currently a finalist for six major awards—and counting—so that’s been amazing! My second novel, The Sound Between the Notes, has just been published and is already the recipient of a very rare starred review from Kirkus, given only to books “of remarkable merit.” Hopefully, some awards lie in its future too :-)

Before I switched to fiction, I wrote a book for parents of quirky kids, as well as an academic compendium for social workers and therapists about how to figure out what’s causing distress or dysfunction. So, you can see that I’ve always been interested in what makes people tick!

Why do you write women’s fiction?

I’ve never considered writing any other kind of fiction! I suppose it’s because it’s what I like to read—and what I know, from my own life, and feel I can write about in an authentic way. I love the challenge of telling a story with universal themes that we can all relate to, but in a fresh and compelling way.

Queen of the Owls is about Georgia 0’Keeffe. What drew you to her as a subject?

Actually, I didn’t know much about O’Keeffe before I began working on the book—yet something did draw me to her. I had seen reproductions of a couple of her paintings, and they affected me quite profoundly. In fact, I wrote a (terrible) scene about a character’s strong response to O’Keeffe’s iconic Black Iris in a (terrible) early manuscript which, thank goodness, will never be seen by anyone but me! Yet something about it stuck with me, in my subconscious.

The amazing ending to this anecdote is that a few years later when I was researching O’Keeffe for Queen of the Owls and set out to see all the paintings (in person) that I could, I was able to arrange a private viewing of this very painting, which is not on public view. Needless to say, it was an extraordinary experience.

Overall, I learned about O’Keeffe during the course of writing the book, and there were many times when something I learned, through my research, ended up influencing the story. It’s important to remember that this isn’t a novelized biography, and O’Keeffe isn’t a “character” who appears on the pages of Queen of the Owls, and moves and talks. She is a kind of symbol or muse for the protagonist, Elizabeth, who wants to understand and be like her.

What was the hardest, most unusual, or interesting part of the story to research?

It was all interesting and nearly all unusual, so I’ll give one example!

Elizabeth, the protagonist of the book, is writing her dissertation on O’Keeffe’s little-known time in Hawaii. Her idea is that O’Keeffe’s trip to Hawaii came at a pivotal moment in her life and gave her what she needed to go on. Elizabeth herself wants to find “her own Hawaii”—which was actually an early title for the book. But what was it, exactly, about Hawaii that touched and transformed O’Keeffe?

By one of those wild coincidences, just as I was starting my research for the book, an email popped into my inbox about a writers’ conference in—you guessed it, Hawaii. Of course, I had to go! (Oh, the things we writers do for our art.) And it was so good that I did, because I experienced the Hawaiian heat and atmosphere and air, through my very skin—and that embodied understanding led me to Elizabeth’s theory about what Hawaii meant to Georgia O’Keeffe. There was no way I could have come to that just by reading books and articles.

You published The Sound Between the Notes so quickly after Queen of the Owls, I am wondering if you had written both books before seeking publication of the first?

That’s a very astute question! In fact, I wrote (and rewrote, and rewrote) The Sound Between the Notes first and was even going to publish it, but my instinct told me that it just wasn’t right. So, I set it aside and wrote Queen of the Owls which, in contrast, emerged easily and organically. Then I went back to The Sound Between the Notes—how that came about is another story, for another time! —and was able to make it what it needed to be.

Is there a common theme in both books?

Absolutely! You could say that both books are about how art, whether it’s music or the visual arts, can help to make us more fully human. Both stories are framed around a woman’s search for wholeness and authenticity: as an overarching metaphor, Queen of the Owls is about being seen, while The Sound Between the Notes is about being heard.

Elizabeth, in Queen of the Owls, both yearns and fears to be fully revealed, fully seen, yet that’s her journey which she comes to embrace. You could say that the book’s premise is that embracing the parts of yourself that you’ve neglected, feared, or denied is the path to wholeness. Elizabeth, the owlish bookworm, needs to integrate beauty and brains, body and mind.
In The Sound Between the Notes, Susannah’s journey a little different because, in her case, she has to unite nature and nurture—all the influences and people who have helped to make her who she is—and to find a way to care for those she loves while also fulfilling the musical passion that is so much a part of who she is.

Tell us about your writing day.

I don’t have a routine, so there’s no typical “writing day!” It depends a lot on where I am with a project. When I’m in what I call that “zone of enchantment” and totally immersed in an emerging story, I can stay at my desk until very late at night and awake eager to return to my laptop. At other times, when I’m doing the grueling work of editing, I have to alternate short periods of mental concentration with activities where I can get outside and move my body.

What are six words you try to live by?

Risk. Give generously. Let go. Transform.

BarbaraProbst

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bio, social media links, and buy links:
Barbara Linn Probst is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, Queen of the Owls, (April 2020) is the story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Queen of the Owls won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, was short-listed for the First Horizon and the $2500 Grand Prize, and is currently a finalist for the Sarton Award for women’s fiction as well as the Somerset Award for literary and contemporary fiction.

Barbara’s second novel The Sound Between the Notes, recipient of starred Kirkus Review for work “of remarkable merit,” launches in April 2021.

Barbara has a Ph.D. in clinical social work and blogs for several award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, visit barbaralinnprobst.com.

You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.