By Leslie Lindsay
A powerful take on one woman’s relationship to her body, her art, her creativity…and also her mind, inspired by the life of Georgia O’Keeffe.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITER|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
QUEEN OF THE OWLS has been selected as one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by “Working Mother”
QUEEN OF THE OWLS will also be the May 2020 selection
of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club.
Coming to nearly 800 book clubs across the country!
QUEEN OF THE OWLS (SWP, April 7 2020), by debut author Barbara Linn Probst is told with elegance and precision, and empathy about what it truly means to be seen, as academic Elizabeth Crawford navigates her role as wife, mother, PhD student, and more. Until she met Richard, a professional photographer at her Tai Chi classes, her relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe’s little-known Hawaii paintings were purely academic. As an art historian, she is looking at how O’Keeffe’s work in Hawaii was seen as a ‘transition’ to her other works; she’s comparing and contrasting lush landscapes to that of the desert, to Georgia’s relationship with womanhood, art, and more.
When Richard suggests that for Elizabeth to fully understand O’Keeffe’s purpose and experience she needs to get out of her mind and into O’Keeffe’s skin by reenacting her nude portraits, Elizabeth is reluctant at first–she’s a wife, a mother to young children, and a professor; a role-model. Yet she wonders…maybe this would help her understand Georgia and develop more data for her dissertation.
And yet…she feels betrayed by Richard when the photographs are made public. It’s her in the images, but it’s also his art. Who has the right? QUEEN OF THE OWLS is about privacy, discretion, consent, art, creativity, and woman’s search for self. At times, I empathized with both Elizabeth and Richard, felt strong emotions for the periphery characters (Elizabeth’s husband, children, students, and her sister). Even though there were times when I saw what was coming, QUEEN OF THE OWLS was a compelling eye-opener for me.
— Barbara Claypole White, best-selling author
I especially enjoyed was the art history piece, learning more about Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as some of the artists mentioned within the narrative. In fact, I stopped to look up some lesser-known pieces.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Barbara Linn Probst to the author interview series:
Barbara, welcome! I think we’re often ‘haunted into’ or obsessed about a particular element in our writing, something that propels us. I am guessing for you, it was Georgia O’Keeffe. Can you talk about this particular fascination?
Barbara Linn Probst:
The funny thing is that I didn’t really know very much about Georgia O’Keeffe until I started writing QUEEN OF THE OWLS!
The seed for O’Keeffe’s role in the story actually came from a scene in my first attempt at a novel—a book that will, thank goodness, never see the light of day 🙂 In that early book, the protagonist’s daughter is an art history major studying Georgia O’Keeffe. I made her an O’Keeffe student as a set-up for a scene later in the book when the protagonist, a rather unhappy and repressed woman in her fifties, recalls an experience she had years earlier in front of O’Keeffe’s iconic Black Iris—a memory that launches a major emotional turning point.
I abandoned that book (luckily!) but the image of Black Iris stayed with me. I didn’t see the painting itself until several years later—the actual painting, that is, which isn’t on public view but can be seen through special arrangement with the museum. When I did see the real thing, rather than a page in an art book, it was incredibly powerful, exactly as I’d imagined in my discarded manuscript.
The private viewing of Black Iris came later, in the process of working on QUEEN OF THE OWLS. By then, O’Keeffe had worked her way into my subconscious. The connection, the whole notion of using O’Keeffe’s art and life as a frame for Elizabeth’s story—truly, it found me, rather than me deciding to use it. And the more I learned, the richer the connection became until, of course, I couldn’t imagine the book without it.
As a teenager, we had several of O’Keeffe’s desert paintings hanging in our home. It was the early 1990s and that pastel Aztec aesthetic was very ‘in.’ Can you tell us a little more about Georgia O’Keeffe? Maybe a few facts that didn’t make it into QUEEN OF THE OWLS?
Barbara Linn Probst:
I have to tell you, Leslie, that the more I learned about O’Keeffe, the more fascinated I became! On the one hand, O’Keeffe was extraordinarily complex, full of subtlety. At the same time, there was a directness about her that was almost impersonal. There’s a terrific article in the New Yorker, written by Calvin Tomkins in 1974 after he interviewed O’Keeffe, who was eighty-six at the time. I was struck by O’Keeffe’s remark about the young artists who wanted to meet her and learn from her:
“Go home and work. That’s all I can tell anyone. You can help people that way. I think one of my best times was when nobody was interested in me. That may have come from my not being the favorite child in the family, and not minding that I wasn’t—it left me very free … I could just do what I wanted to do, and I didn’t have to care what people thought. If I’d followed people’s advice it would have been hopeless.”
There’s a kind of self-sufficiency there, an indifference to the opinions of others. But it wasn’t an indifference to their needs. O’Keeffe spent her last years in Abiquiu, a village in New Mexico. What few people know is that she built a school and a gymnasium for the children of Abiquiu and gave money to improve the town water system, but insisted on absolute anonymity. When I visited Abiquiu as part of my research, someone told me that O’Keeffe said she wouldn’t give the money for the school if they put her name on it! So there was also a kindness, an altruism, that you don’t often hear about.
As for the photos that Stieglitz took of her—which, of course, play such a central role in QUEEN OF THE OWLS, there’s an interesting bit in Barbara Buhler’s book. Buhler quotes from a letter O’Keeffe wrote to her good friend Anita Pollitzer: “I felt somehow that the photographs had nothing to do with me personally.”
Her statement implies a sort of Zen-like non-attachment, which fits the independence and strength that’s always associated with O’Keeffe. Yet she was also quite passionate and emotional; in fact, she was so emotionally vulnerable that she had more than one nervous breakdown. And she was hardly “non-attached.” Everything in her house at Abiquiu had to be just so, down to the colors of the linens and plates. The tour guide told me, when I visited, that O’Keeffe wanted only neutral colors around her so they wouldn’t interfere with the colors in her mind. As I said, endlessly fascinating!
This is your debut novel, but you’ve been busy doing so many other things—a teacher, a therapist, a backpacker, a pianist, a researcher, a mom…and though it all, you’ve written. Can you talk about how all of these experiences help you to be the writer you are? How good writing needs to come from a life well-lived?
Barbara Linn Probst:
I can’t imagine writing a book like QUEEN OF THE OWLS without a “life well-lived” to draw upon! It’s not that QUEEN OF THE OWLS is a thinly-disguised autobiography. Instead, as I see it, if you open yourself to life, let yourself sense and feel, and have the kind of mind that can process what the body and emotions have experienced—then you have the raw material from which good fiction can be forged.
Living a wild and complicated life isn’t enough, just by itself, of course. I think of it as a two-step process. First, you take what you’ve experienced and look for its emotional essence, its human core. Then you take that essence and re-embody it in something invented—a character, an event, a fictional world.
I’d say that my own experiences were especially helpful that way. As a therapist and qualitative researcher, I listened to people’s stories and how they made—and re-made— meaning from what they were going through. My research, when I was in academia, focused on listening to people talk about how they coped with mental and emotional distress. I also ran groups for parents with challenging children under the title “This isn’t the child I dreamed of raising.” Again, listening to the story, and helping people find a new story—which is what I think fiction can do as well, by helping us see the world and ourselves in new ways.
I truly think that everything I’ve done—whether it was swimming in the Black Sea at midnight or helping my kids build a snow fort—has contributed to my growth as a writer. Most of all, I think you have to be fascinated by what makes people tick, including yourself!
Since we’re on the craft of writing, can you share a bit about your journey to publication? How did QUEEN OF THE OWLS stretch you as a writer? What did you struggle with and what do you think you did well? What advice might you give others? And also—the title! Where did that come from?
Barbara Linn Probst:
Goodness, there are at least six great questions in there!
I’ll start by talking about one of the particular challenges of this book, which is framed around a real person but isn’t about her. That is, Georgia O’Keeffe isn’t a character in QUEEN OF THE OWLS, yet she’s present throughout as Elizabeth’s inspiration, the person whose blend of austerity and voluptuousness Elizabeth longs to emulate. And, of course, in seeking to understand O’Keeffe, Elizabeth comes to understand herself.
There was an enormous range of research that I needed to do for this book. I needed to immerse myself in O’Keeffe’s life and art in order to absorb, understand, and convey what that might have brought Elizabeth. What made this uniquely challenging was that Elizabeth’s interpretation of O’Keeffe had to be shaped by her own emotional needs—subjective rather than purely “factual,” as in a biography—yet I couldn’t say anything inaccurate. This is as O’Keeffe seen through Elizabeth’s particular lens, not O’Keeffe as my former academic self might have described her. Super challenging!
As for your question about giving advice to other writers, I think O’Keeffe put it well: You just have to sit down and figure out what you want to say and how to say it. The templates and grids and outlines can only be useful if you have a story you’re burning to tell. For me, there’s a kind of relaxation that allows the subconscious mind, where the story arises, to connect with the conscious mind, which has the tools to get that story onto the page.
And the title? I tried a whole lot of titles, and sometimes it felt as if landing on the right title was harder than writing the book! When this one came to me, I knew immediately that it was right. It was actually the title of an academic paper I wrote years ago, so I borrowed from myself. Here, though, it has a very different meaning. But rather than defining it, I’d like to let people feel for themselves what it evokes as they read the book.
— Caroline Leavitt, best-selling author
There’s also a bit of sibling rivalry QUEEN OF THE OWLS. Elizabeth and her sister, Andrea have clear childhood ‘roles’ they can’t seem to escape. Elizabeth is the ‘smart one’ and Andrea, the ‘little pixie.’ I know this happens in many families, but it kind of drives me crazy! And yet we grow up this way and get ‘stuck’ in these types of roles (it’s usually different for every family—the sporty one, the musical one, etc.). Can you talk about that, please?
Barbara Linn Probst:
I taught clinical social work for a number of years, and one of the things I got interested in, back then, was the under-studied relationship between siblings. Psychology has given a lot attention to parent-child relationships and the relationships between romantic partners, but not so much to siblings—who are, after all, the people who know us the longest. They’re the only ones who know us from the very beginning to the very end. Yet literature is full of siblings, from the brothers Karamazov to the Bennett sisters and the March sisters, and up through contemporary novels like My Sister’s Keeper or When We Believed in Mermaids. Siblings are a classic way to set up a polarity by having characters who embody two sides of an issue or trait.
What crystallized Andrea’s role in QUEEN OF THE OWLS was one of those unexpected “aha” moments. I like to watch DVDs on the treadmill, preferably a film I’ve seen before so I won’t mind watching it in chunks. I was re-watching A League of Their Own, which is a terrific story about the All-Girls Baseball League that flourished during World War Two. So there I was, running in place, watching the scene where the sisters hug and admit they love each other, when—I want to insert one of those cartoon POW! bubbles right here. I got it. Elizabeth and Andrea had to be more than rivals or cliché opposites. They had to love each other and help each other become whole. I had no idea that was coming during the first draft or two of the book!
So, to answer your question, I think it’s more than simply occupying a certain niche or role in the family. It’s about that mutuality, helping to complete one another. Maybe we don’t always do that in life. Yet literature, at its best, can show us how to be the selves we long to be.
What three things can you not stop talking about? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Barbara Linn Probst:
The things I “can’t stop talking about” go back to my lifelong passions. Before I turned to fiction, I was an advocate for out-of-the-box kids who become, or get called, “difficult kids.” I gave presentations to parent and professional groups, wrote articles, and published a nonfiction book called WHEN THE LABELS DON’T FIT. I’ll always be passionate about what I call the unnecessary pathologizing of quirkiness.
My background as a therapist also makes me endlessly fascinated by what makes people tick. I can analyze human behavior forever!
I can also talk endlessly about social justice and the need for kindness and generosity, which come together at the intersection between social work and spirituality—two enduring parts of my life.
Barbara, this has been a delight. Thank you! Is there anything you’d like to share that I forgot to ask?
Barbara Linn Probst:
I’ll just add a note about why I wrote the book and what I hope it will bring to its readers.
As I think you said at the beginning of our conversation, QUEEN OF THE OWLS is about a woman’s quest to claim her neglected sensuality and find her true self hidden behind the roles of wife, mother, sister, and colleague. I wanted to tell a story that women of all ages and backgrounds could connect with—about the deep yearning we all feel to be our truest selves, to reclaim whatever part of ourselves we’ve neglected or denied along the way. Not at the expense of the roles we fill, but behind them. To find that wholeness that gives meaning to our lives.
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1
For more information, to connect with Barbara Linn Probst, or to purchase a copy of QUEEN OF THE OWLS, please visit:
Fans of Christina Baker Kline’s A PIECE OF THE WORLD will appreciate QUEEN OF THE OWLS, others that may resonate: THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE (Sara Ackerman) for the scenes in Hawaii, as well as ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS (Sara Ackerman), and THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER (Laurel Davis Huber).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, researcher, and clinician living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her novels (Queen of the Owls, April 2020 and The Sound of One Hand, forthcoming in November 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself. Queen of the Owls, Barbara’s debut novel, will be issued by She Writes Press, 2019 Indie Publisher of the Year. Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 selection by the Pulpwood Queens Club, a network of 750 book clubs across the U.S.
Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit, Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. Barbara is also a serious amateur pianist and a trustee of Hampshire Country School.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
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Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, and the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this spring. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of SWP/BookSparks and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1]