Welcome Barbara Linn Probst
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:
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.