Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, researcher, clinician, and “serious amateur” pianist living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Q: In a sentence or two, what’s Queen of the Owls about?
A: 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. Framed around the life and art of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, it dares to ask a question every woman can relate to: what would you risk to be truly seen and known?
Q: Why Georgia O’Keeffe?
A: Truthfully, the notion of framing the story around Georgia O’Keeffe—her little-known Hawaii painting, and the photos taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz—simply “came to me.”
I’ve always loved O’Keeffe’s paintings. They called to me, especially at a particular time in my life, in a way that felt very connected to the question of what it means to be a woman, so there was that seed. And then, in starting to do some preliminary research, I learned so much about O’Keeffe that ended up enhancing the story in ways I couldn’t possibly have anticipated. After a while, it became clear that there was no other way to tell this story!
O’Keeffe herself isn’t a character in the book, as she might be if this were historical fiction. 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.
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 austere desert recluse who created some of the most sensuous art of all time. A pioneer, full of contradictions. No wonder she fascinates Elizabeth!
Q: You mentioned research. Did you have to do any particular research for this book?
A: Did I ever! Not only did I read everything I could dig out of the archives at the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center in Santa Fe, but I went to view her paintings for myself, visited the places where she lived and worked, talked to experts and people who knew her.
And I got really, really lucky because there was a special exhibit of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings—which is a central focus of the book—brought together for the first time in eighty years, and on view only thirty minutes from where I live! It was such a wild coincidence. Then again, so many things like that happened that I could only conclude that this was a book I had to write.
Q: What was it about this particular story that drew you?
A: Ah, time for a bit of self-disclosure! Queen of the Owls is a work of fiction, but the story is close to my heart. I know what it’s like to be seen as a “brain” instead of a whole woman and to find my way to healing and wholeness. Maybe it sounds corny, but I wanted to help others to do that too. Not by preaching at them, but by “incarnating” an inner quest within a darned good story.
I also wanted to address some important issues facing women nowadays— privacy, consent, feminism, , the power of social media to upend our lives—in a story that would resonate with women regardless of age, region, background.
Q: What are the most challenging and most rewarding parts of writing for you?
One of the challenges of writing is my own perfectionism! I labor and labor over the rhythm, the phrase, the precise word or image. Then, at some point, you just have to let go and trust that you’ve done good work. That can be really hard, because there’s always the sense that you could do more, polish it even further.
What’s most rewarding for me is the sense of being a kind of midwife to a story that I truly believe will speak to readers and perhaps help them to see and experience something new.
I love the total immersion that happens when you’re deeply connected to the story and characters. It’s a special state when your subconscious mind and your conscious mind (the part that can give form to what the subconscious understands) are perfectly connected. When I’m in that zone, it feels like the story is coming through me, rather than me inventing it.
Q: When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
A: I’m what they call a “serious amateur” pianist—which totally love because it engages a completely different part of me that has nothing to do with words! I also love to cook, hike, and travel. I’ve spent extended time in Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Scotland, Iceland, Italy—well, you name it! I think it’s really important to get out of your comfort zone and see life in different ways.
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From the publisher, She Writes Press
A chance meeting with a charismatic photographer will forever change Elizabeth’s life.
Until she met Richard, Elizabeth’s relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe and her little-known Hawaii paintings was purely academic. Now it’s personal. Richard tells Elizabeth that the only way she can truly understand O’Keeffe isn’t with her mind—it’s by getting into O’Keeffe’s skin and reenacting her famous nude photos.
In the intimacy of Richard’s studio, Elizabeth experiences a new, intoxicating abandon and fullness. It never occurs to her that the photographs might be made public, especially without her consent. Desperate to avoid exposure—she’s a rising star in the academic world and the mother of young children—Elizabeth demands that Richard dismantle the exhibit. But he refuses. The pictures are his art. His property, not hers.
As word of the photos spreads, Elizabeth unwittingly becomes a feminist heroine to her students, who misunderstand her motives in posing. To the university, however, her actions are a public scandal. To her husband, they’re a public humiliation. Yet Richard has reawakened an awareness that’s haunted Elizabeth since she was a child—the truth that cerebral knowledge will never be enough.
Now she must face the question: How much is she willing to risk to be truly seen and known?