Other authors aren’t your competitors; they’re your community. Join online writer’s groups, share ideas, and applaud other people’s triumphs. If you have one of your own to share, be direct instead of “humble bragging” — but don’t only talk about yourself.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Linn Probst, author of QUEEN OF THE OWLS, a novel framed around the art and life of iconic artist Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS will launch on April 7, 2020 but has already garnered stellar advance praise, along with coveted spots as one of Working Mother’s most anticipated books of 2020 and the May 2020 pick for a network of nearly 800 book clubs across the U.S. Barbara’s shift to fiction follows a fascinating career as an educator, therapist, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids whose differences get mistaken for “disorders.” Author of the groundbreaking book for parents WHEN THE LABELS DON’T FIT, Barbara also blogs for two of the top award-winning sites for writers and — in her “spare time — is a serious amateur pianist.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
What’s so meaningful to me about becoming a novelist — after an eclectic career that’s spanned everything from advocacy to academia — is that it represents a return to my very first career aspiration when I was seven years old (well, not counting wanting to be a ballerina or a cowgirl). I wrote my first “book” when I was seven, and it’s taken me till now to come full circle …
Not that I ever stopped writing. I’d written a book for parents, a textbook, and more scholarly papers than I care to remember. But I had to understand life better before I could write good fiction. To be candid, I think it was a profound transformation following my divorce that opened me and allowed me to understand human emotions in a deeper way. I wanted — and was ready — to write from the heart as well as the mind.
Can you describe an important experience that happened to you in the course of writing QUEEN OF THE OWLS?
Without giving away too much about the story: one of the plot points centers around the protagonist’s decision to replicate the nude photographs that Alfred Stieglitz took of Georgia O’Keeffe. Elizabeth, the protagonist, is a graduate student, a bookworm, and definitely not someone who would be comfortable posing naked. I needed to be able to write those scenes in a visceral and authentic way. But how — without doing what Elizabeth (or Georgia) did?
While I didn’t actually pose nude (sorry), I did experience a surrender to the camera that was new for me, and from there I was able to “enlarge the experience,” put myself in Elizabeth’s place, and write the scenes the story required. Here’s how it happened.
I’ve never liked having my picture taken, but while I was writing QUEEN OF THE OWLS I was developing a new website and needed a better headshot, so I spent an afternoon with a professional photographer. During the first part of the shoot, I knew I was holding back, trying to control what he saw. Then something changed and I let go, let myself be revealed — fully clothed, of course, yet the emotional core was the same.
Can you share a surprising experience that took place as you were writing the book?
The incident that stands out for me was almost magical …
IN QUEEN OF THE OWLS, Elizabeth, the protagonist, is studying Georgia O’Keeffe’s little-known Hawaii paintings. The paintings were intriguing to me, an odd hiccup in the career of an artist better-known for her arid deserts and oversized flowers. I began by doing a Google search, and to my amazement I learned that O’Keeffe’s Hawaii work was going to be exhibited, as a whole, for the first time in eighty years. Not only that, but the exhibit was taking place the following month at the New York Botanical Garden, thirty minutes from where I live!
Then, the very next day, an email popped into my inbox about a writers conference in — you guessed it, Hawaii. A long way to travel, at no small expense, but it seemed like a sign so I decided to think about it. I headed to the train station, where I had to catch a train into Manhattan. I always sit in the front car, but that day something drew me to the second car. I got in and started down the aisle. Then the same strange feeling drew me to a particular seat. I sat down. For no special reason, I reached beneath the seat. There was a cap on the floor, left by someone. On the front of the cap was a single word, in red script. One guess.
So yes, I went to the conference. And wrote the book.
You just never know.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share something you learned to help other aspiring writers?
I’d queried an earlier book, before QUEEN OF THE OWLS, and consider it a bullet dodged that it never found representation! It was so clearly not ready, but I didn’t know that at the time and the rejection hurt.
When I wrote QUEEN OF THE OWLS, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put myself through that again. It was painfully reminiscent of my experience, years earlier, with infertility. I remembered the surges of hope, followed by the crushing disappointment, the sense of powerlessness, failure, inadequacy.
In fact, my journey to parenthood had a happy ending. Not a “miraculous exception,” a pregnancy after I’d abandoned hope, but a choice to take a different route. I am a mother by adoption of two children. The keywords are “I am a mother.” The route to motherhood proved to be far less important than the experience of being a parent, although it took me a while to understand that. First, I had to let go of the image in Picasso’s famous painting Maternity (1909). That was how I saw myself or wanted to. Only then could I open to another path, leading to the same goal.
It was like that with “birthing” a book, but this time I was a quicker student. When I learned about She Writes Press, with its invitation to reject helplessness and “green light” oneself, I knew right away that this was the path for me. This time around — and with a much better book — I didn’t even bother pitching to agents. I went straight to She Writes, and it’s been a perfect fit.
I would urge aspiring authors to explore all paths to publication. One of them might suit your temperament, goals, and lifestyle more than you expected. It’s about the fit, not the preconception — and the book you hold in your hands, once it’s launched.
What was your biggest inspiration while writing your book?
The obvious answer is, of course, Georgia O’Keeffe. I didn’t know a great deal about O’Keeffe when I began writing QUEEN OF THE OWLS, but several of her paintings had had a profound impact on me, so it’s probably fair to say that something was simmering below the surface
I set out to learn more. I read everything I could find, talked to experts, traveled to the places where O’Keeffe lived and worked. And the more I learned about O’Keeffe’s life and art, the more captivated I became. She seemed to embody an essential contradiction — the voluptuous nude in Stieglitz’s photos and, equally, the icon of a fierce and austere independence. Her interpreters seemed to want her to be one or the other, yet I began to feel that these two aspects, together, constituted an extraordinary wholeness. I knew this was something I needed to write about. Not a book “about” Georgia O’Keeffe, but the story of a woman who yearns for what O’Keeffe seems to represent.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
One of the projects I’m most excited about is a collaboration with Cary Broussard, founder of “From Cinderella to CEO” and a pioneer in promoting women’s leadership. Cary and I have developed a new kind of book club for and about women, with the aim of using novels about “women who want to do and be more” as a way to facilitate discussion and build community.
QUEEN OF THE OWLS is the perfect vehicle to launch this project because it’s a triple hitter: the story of a woman who claims her whole self, framed around an iconic American woman (Georgia O’Keeffe) who dared to do what no woman had ever done, and published by the kick-ass, female-owned-and-run She Writes Press. With Cary’s incredible network, the project — launching later in the Spring 2020 — is sure to be a winner.
Is there a “trending issue” that your book addresses? Why did you decide to write about that issue?
QUEEN OF THE OWLS deals with a number of issues that are high on the public consciousness. The meaning of “consent,” expectations of privacy in the digital age, the dichotomization of women into bodies and brains, the search for self at a time when notions of the “feminine” and the “female” are in flux — timely and evocative topics.
As for why I chose to write about these issues — it would be disingenuous to claim that it was simply because of their moral and political importance. While these issues are deeply compelling, they’re also deeply personal. Like Elizabeth, I was always pegged as a “brain,” and it’s taken me a long time to integrate the “owl” and the “fox” within myself.
The therapist in me wants to help others heal, as I have. The writer in me believes that stories are a powerful way to do that.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Elizabeth’s journey is toward wholeness, the integration of body and mind. As the story indicates, the path to wholeness lies in embracing the parts of ourselves that we’ve neglected, abandoned, or denied — seeing ourselves and letting ourselves be seen.
I hope readers will feel: “Yes, I can do this too. I can be the whole self I’ve always longed to be.”
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
(1)Be curious. Walk through the world with open eyes and an open heart. Every person and every experience has something new to teach you. It’s more interesting to be curious than to be right.
(2) Listen to people who have experience writing, publishing, and reading. Give everyone a fair hearing, and then listen to your own instinct — with one caveat. If you’re having a huge reaction to something an experienced mentor has pointed out, it’s probably because she’s right!
(3) Always be generous. Other authors aren’t your competitors; they’re your community. Join online writer’s groups, share ideas, and applaud other people’s triumphs. If you have one of your own to share, be direct instead of “humble bragging” — but don’t only talk about yourself.
(4) Read, read, read! Study great books to see how the authors did it. I mean, really study. Circle paragraphs, mark up the pages, be a student. And then read other books for the pure pleasure they bring.
(5) Study something else, besides writing, that opens up another side of yourself. Music, painting, ikebana, Indian cooking, whatever fascinates you. Nourish your creativity in ways that don’t rely on words. For me, this is the piano.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? Can you share a story to illustrate that?
I try to stay open to the unexpected. Inspiration and opportunity are everywhere, if you pay attention. Just about every good thing that’s come my way has come at a moment or from a source I never anticipated. At the same time, I don’t sit around waiting for fortune to find me. I try to be fearless — to reach out, ask, offer — without letting the fear of what “they” might think stand in my way.
The corollary is to be equally open to walking away. I’d invested a lot of time and emotion in an earlier novel, and I could hardly bear to admit that it was never going to work. When I let it go, I made space for QUEEN OF THE OWLS to appear.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
My dream is for QUEEN OF THE OWLS to earn a place in the chain of books about women seeking to claim their fullest selves, starting with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in 1899. Sue Miller’s The Good Mother (2002) and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2007) are other contemporary examples.
There are so many writers who inspire me! Kate Quinn, Jenna Blum, Gail Godwin, Amy Tan, Julia Glass, Beth Gutcheon, and many more — women who raise what’s known as “women’s fiction” to a whole other level.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I dream of starting a movement that would provide free food and medical care to every child in America — no red tape, paperwork, or questions asked.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
BarbaraLinnProbst on Facebook and barbara_linn_probst on Instagram
Thank you for all of these great insights!