I haven’t met Barbara in person, but we are both members of the #2020Debuts (books to be published in 2020) and I thought it would be fun to get to know her, and her new book, QUEEN OF THE OWLS, better.

BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic painter Georgia O’Keeffe.


QUEEN OF THE OWLS has been selected as one of the 20 most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother and will be the May 2020 selection for the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 800 book clubs across the U.S. Her second novel, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, will be published in April 2021.

BC: Tell us about Queen of the Owls.

BLP: Queen of the Owls is the story of a woman’s quest to claim her neglected sensuality and find her true self hidden behind the roles of wife, mother, sister, and colleague.


Elizabeth, the story’s protagonist, has always defined herself by her intellect. She’s chosen the safe, responsible path, avoiding the sensuality she believed was beyond her reach. During the story, she comes to know and embrace a fuller self, body and beauty as well as brain. There’s a price to pay, but Elizabeth knows she can’t go back.


Queen of the Owls is a story of transformation—timeless, yet diving deep into contemporary issues of privacy, consent, feminism, and the power of social media to upend our lives.

BC: Tell us about the role of Georgia O’Keeffe in the book. Why O’Keeffe?


BLP: The idea of framing the story around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe really just “appeared” to me. I’ve always loved her paintings; they called to me in a way that felt very connected to the question of what it means to be a woman. And in researching the book, I learned so much more about her life and work—which, in turn, enhanced the story in ways I hadn’t anticipated.


O’Keeffe has been a figure of endless fascination for over a century, not only for her artistic genius but also because of how she lived. She was the quintessential feminist who rejected the feminists’ attempts to turn her into their matriarch, the severe desert recluse who created some of the most sensuous art of all time.


Although the story is framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe, O’Keeffe isn’t a character in the book—yet she’s present as Elizabeth’s inspiration, the person whose blend of austerity and voluptuousness Elizabeth longs to emulate. In seeking to understand O’Keeffe, Elizabeth comes to understand herself.


Art worked well as a vehicle for Queen of the Owls because the story is about Elizabeth’s yearning to be truly seen. And through being seen, to be known.


BC: The title is fascinating. How did you come up with it?


BLP: Titles can be the hardest part of a book, can’t they? I agonized and agonized over mine. There were actually three prior titles, but none of them felt right.

I already had the motif of Elizabeth being owl to her sister’s fox—a brain, cut off from her own body and her own sensuality. But the leap to Queen of the Owls came from an unexpected source. In a previous career, I’d been (among other things) a researcher studying people’s experience living with mental illness. I suddenly remembered a woman I’d spoken with, who had a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. She’d told me that she wasn’t like the other birds, she was an owl, and happy to be one; in fact, she thought of herself as the “queen of the owls.” And there it was—my title!

BC: Tell us about your research for this book.

BLP: I did a lot of research to learn about O’Keeffe—reading widely, talking to experts, studying her paintings, visiting the places where she lived and worked. I spent time at the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center in Santa Fe and traveled to see several special exhibits of O’Keeffe’s work that were held—by a lucky coincidence—during the months I was working on the book.


One of the extraordinary coincidences—it felt almost mystical—was when I discovered that O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings, a focus of the book, were going to be on exhibit together for the first time in eighty years at a venue only thirty minutes from where I lived. It felt like a sign that this was a book I was meant to write.


I even traveled to Hawaii. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I had to experience the place for myself. I was struck by the particular quality of the tropical heat and how different it must have felt to O’Keeffe, who was accustomed to the dryness and sharpness of the southwest. There was no way I could have understood that without being there in person. You could say that, like Elizabeth, I sought my own “embodied knowledge” to complement what I learned from articles and books.


So it wasn’t a matter of research first, writing second. They happened recursively, each informing the other.


BC: How many drafts did you write?

BLP: A difficult question to answer! The shape of the story was there from the start, although I did make a major alteration in Elizabeth’s relationship with both her husband and her sister. In both cases, I realized that I needed to humanize them as characters, make them people we could relate to and care about, not just foils to push the plot along. On the other hand, I’m such a perfectionist! I tweaked and refined and polished the manuscript countless times, including 24 pages of post-ARC edits. The designer probably wanted to throttle me!

BC: Which came first, the characters or the plot?

BLP: What came “first” for me was an idea. I was pondering the issue of sexual coercion, a topic high in the public consciousness, and it struck me that sexual coercion can take a lot of forms, depending on context. I thought of academia, where I’d spent many years, and a what if began to form in my brain. What if someone in power at a university suggested to an eager graduate student that the way to distinguish herself was by doing something—posing nude—something she would never have done if it hadn’t been couched in pseudo-academic language? And what if that “something” was the perfect trigger for her own secret yearning?

That dovetailed perfectly with a discarded motif in an earlier attempt at a novel. I realized that I had to shift this theme to a younger protagonist, rather than to the adult daughter of my prior protagonist—and then I was off and running! So you could say that plot and character were intertwined right from the beginning.

BC: What has influenced you the most as a writer?

BLP: So many influences—mentors, experiences, my training as a therapist (which means, an observer of people)! So I’ll name just one here.

It’s three lines by the poet Mary Oliver, which she calls Instructions on Living a Life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it

BC: Oh, I love that! If you could tell your younger self anything about writing, what would it be?

BLP: The way I take your question is: what have I learned, through and about writing?

Here are a few principles I’ve come to understand.

· Love your characters, every single one of them. Find the part of each character that is worthy of love and respect.

· Relax. Listen. Let the story find you. Don’t worry about all those rules and grids and arcs and plot points.

· Every word has to earn its place on the page.

· If you have a story to tell, tell it—with your whole mind and heart and courage. Some people will love it and some will hate it and some will be indifferent. It’s always been like that and always will be.

· Keep your eyes on your own paper. Comparing yourself to other writers (better, worse) only breeds unhappiness and distracts you from the work you’re meant to do.


BC: So true! Now, just tell us a little about you, Barbara Linn Probst. Where was your favorite place to live?

BLP: I’ve lived in a cabin in the California redwoods, a converted jailhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village, and a dozen other oddball places! Each has brought different experiences, so I guess my “favorite” is wherever I am in the present moment!


Thank you so much, Barbara! It's been a pleasure.

Want to learn even more about Barbara? Check out the following links.


Website: https://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Queen-Owls-Barbara-Linn-Probst/dp/1631528904

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50177114-queen-of-the-owls

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011410511548

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/barbara_linn_probst/

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I first met Alison about four years ago at a writers retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sponsored by the Women's Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). Alison had the biggest smile. Always. And enthusiasm for learning all there was to know about writing a book.


Alison’s debut novel, You and Me and Us, will be released by William Morrow on April 7th. The writing is beautiful; the story is heartbreaking, and do not even think about reading this book without a box of tissues close by.


Following are a few questions I posed to Alison so that we could all get to know her better. Look at that smile!


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up; I

just didn’t imagine it was something that could actually happen! When I went to college, I started as an English major but switched to Advertising when I realized that was a career where I could use my creative writing skills and have a salary! Turns out, I loved advertising, too!


Which authors do you most admire?

There are so many writers I admire! A few of my favorites are Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, Camille Pagán, Marisa de los Santos, Katherine Center, and Taylor Jenkins Reid.


What’s your favorite book?

Oh, that’s a tough question! I don’t know if I can pick just one favorite. If I had to pick one, it would probably be Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah. It’s so good. And it’s a book my grandma gave to me because she loved it and thought I would too. She was right!


What is the first book that made you cry?

I was a weird kid—I loved things that made me cry. And honestly, I still do! I remember I loved a series of really sad books by Lurlene McDaniel. One title that I remember, and think I still have somewhere was called Too Young to Die. I just loved that book!


What is one of the most surprising things you’ve learned about the publishing industry?

It seems like I learn something new every step of the way. I think what surprised me the most was just how long it all took! I finished writing my debut novel, You and Me and Us back in 2016. I got the book deal in 2018, and it will finally be published in 2020. Four years from start to the shelves—I had no idea!


What does your family think of your writing?

My family has always been so supportive of my writing. They have been my biggest fans and supporters since day one. And they’re really good sports when pieces of our lives end up in my writing!


You are very involved with social media and writers groups. Tell us something about the online group you created, ‘Every Damn Day Writers’?

Being a part of the writing community is my favorite thing about being a writer. I may have over-committed when it comes to the Facebook groups, but Every Damn Day Writers is one of my favorites! It started as a group of members from WFWA (Women’s Fiction Writers Association) who were all participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a program that challenges people around the world to write 50,000 words in the month of November.

We started a Facebook group for support during that month, checking in every day on our progress or lack thereof! When the month ended, we didn’t want to stop, so we formed a small private group. That group is still going strong, but we decided to make a public version for women writers so more people could experience the support and accountability. It’s grown to over 300 women writers!


And how about the 2020Debuts that you chair? Why is it important for a debut author to join such a group?

I’ve been fortunate to have a group of writers who were at the same stage of the journey I was every step of the way. When I was querying, I was in a querying support group. When I was on submission, I started a submission support group. And when I got my book deal, I was told about the Debut Groups that have been passed down from year to year. Since I had such a long lead time before publication, I joined the 2019 group to learn the ropes before starting our 2020 one. Writing is such a personal and sometimes stressful process that it really helps to have the support of people who are going through the same thing!


Your debut will be published April 7th. I love the title YOU and ME and US. How did you come up with this story?

Thank you! While You and Me and Us is my debut novel, it’s not the first book I wrote! There was another book that came before it that also featured my main characters, Tommy and Alexis. At the end of that book, I knew a secret that Alexis didn’t even know–she was pregnant. That’s what sparked the idea for You and Me and Us!

I thought it would be interesting to show Alexis with a teenage daughter, the same age she been during flashback scenes in the first book. But other than that, I didn’t know what it would be about. When I had the idea that Tommy would be sick, the story pretty much unfolded before me.


Why is this story important to you?

I have so much love for this story and these characters. I’ve been writing about Tommy and Alexis for more than twenty years. They’re like real people to me. And I can’t wait for readers to get to know them.


Are any of your characters based on you or someone you know?

None of my characters are exact replicas of people in my life, but there are definitely pieces of myself, my family, and my friends in the story. I tell people that I am not Alexis, but if they don’t like her, they probably won’t like me, either!


How long did it take you to write You and Me and Us?

I finished writing the first draft of You and Me and Us in two months—which was a miracle since it took me 15 years to finish writing my first book. I credit that speed to NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. I’m deadline-driven and competitive, so I thrived on the challenge and the competition. And once I got in the habit of writing every day, I couldn’t stop!


Do you have any writing quirks? Do you have to write in the same room or at the same time of day?

I’m sure I have a lot of writing quirks! I used to be precious about where and when I wrote, but I no longer have that luxury. I do my best writing at coffee shops—I’m a regular at a few different Starbucks. The balance of noise there just works for me—if it’s too loud, I can’t concentrate, but if it’s too quiet, I look for distractions.

When I’m writing at home or at work, I have a playlist that I listen to. I only listen to it when I’m writing, and it has to play in order. If it’s in shuffle mode, it throws me off. What can I say, I’m a creature of habit!


How will you celebrate on your publication day?

My publication day plans have changed quite a bit thanks to this global pandemic. Originally, I was going to get my hair done and have lunch with my mom and other family members who were coming to town. And I was going to throw a big bash at Volumes BookCafe, one of my favorite local bookstores in Chicago. I was going to be in conversation with a novelist friend of mine, Erin Bartels, and we were going to have cake and champagne! That party will hopefully happen someday soon, but in the meantime, I’m planning a pretty awesome online launch party!


And lastly, Miss Molly always wants to know: Dog or cat? And if you don’t have a pet, which would you choose if you could?

I don’t have any pets (or plants!) but if I did, I would choose a cat.


Hmm…Maybe I won’t tell Miss Molly you prefer cats.

Thank you Alison for sharing your lovely smile with us today!


Follow Alison on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/alisonhammer

Follow Alison on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/ThisHammer/

Follow Alison on Goodreads at: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18840675.Alison_Hammer

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The path to publication starts with an idea, then words on the page, then more words on the page. Then deleting most of those words. And then adding more words. You get the idea: the path to publication involves a lot of words.


Once you are looking at nearly 300 pages of words, you beg your previously corralled critique partners to read your words. Then you listen (or not) to what they suggest. You make corrections/additions/deletions (or not) and hustle your nearly perfect manuscript (you think) to your previously obtained beta readers. Beta readers are generally friends/acquaintances/perfect strangers who love to read. You ask/beg them to read your nearly perfect manuscript. At some point they tell you they love it/hate it or are completely ambivalent about it.


Next, you write the most compelling query letter/synopsis and hook yourself an agent/publisher. And you think: my work is done here.


And then you take a nice long rest. What you should do while you wait and wait (and maybe wait some more for the next steps in your path to publication) is write your next manuscript. Also, you should be making a name for yourself in social media—in a good way, mind you. People are more likely to buy your book if they’ve heard of you and like you.


At some point you will be assigned a content editor. Other than your acquisitions editor (who liked what she saw when she accepted your manuscript), your critique partners/beta readers/friends/family/complete strangers that you wrangled in off the street, your content editor is the first official person to read your words. Listen closely to what she has to say. She might tell you that your manuscript is beautiful and there is not one damn thing she can do to improve your words. Trust me. This never happens.


What really happens is this: your content editor emails you two documents. One is your beautiful manuscript, now decorated with

comments/suggestions/changes/deletions/requests for entirely new chapters—look at it as a puzzle that she has torn apart and you must now put back together. The second is a document – anywhere between six and maybe thirty-four pages (give or take a page or two) where your editor introduces herself and tells you how thrilled she is to be working with you. Sure, she is probably required to say this, but it is still nice to hear.


Within this document you will discover your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses. Generally speaking you will have more weaknesses than strengths. Sometimes more than you might have imagined.


Next, your editor will detail crucial areas that need improvement – most likely there will be many. She might even create a shorthand code of recurring issues, so she doesn’t have to type the same words over and over – and over – again. You will refer to these codes frequently. Soon, you will have them memorized.


Next, she will explain to you the storytelling elements of your manuscript.

Which, of course, you already know since you wrote the manuscript, but it is a beautiful experience when someone else details the plot and rising action and crisis and resolution—and provides recommendations for each element. You really wish she had been available during the original writing process – if she had, she would have been your developmental editor rather than your content editor.


Along with the storytelling elements, your content editor will detail your main characters. Now, these are your people. You created them, but suddenly you must look at them in an entirely new light. This can be scary. Sometimes you have a main character who needs a blood transfusion (she needs to grow). Sometimes you have a main character who really isn’t a main character at all, and you must wipe her out of your manuscript. It’s true. And, most probably, necessary. Just do it.


Right about now might be a good time to mention that one of the most important elements in an author/editor relationship is trust and respect. You both need to trust and respect each other to publish the very best book. Look at it this way: most likely your content editor has edited more manuscripts than you’ve written. Also, she has the benefit of objectivity, while you might still be patting yourself on the back for having written a story with a beginning, middle and end.


After your editor details the setting, subplots, genre and pacing, theme, voice and ending, she details, chapter by chapter, what works and what doesn’t. And then she does a beautiful thing: she provides suggestions. Again, why wasn’t she around from the very beginning?


If you’re very, very lucky, this is what it’s like to work with a content editor.

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