A conversation with Barbara Linn Probst about QUEEN OF THE OWLS and the influence of Georgia O’Keeffe


In one sentence, what is your book about?

One sentence? 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.

That’s rich subject matter. Tell me about the protagonist and some of the challenges she faces.

Elizabeth has always defined herself by her intellect. Ever since childhood, Elizabeth’s been the achiever, the “brain,” while her sister was the butterfly, the pixie. She’s chosen the logical, responsible path—avoiding the sensuality that she believed was beyond her reach. During the course of 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, in a word, the story of a woman’s transformation— on one hand it’s timeless, yet it also explores contemporary issues of privacy, consent, feminism, and the power of social media to upend our lives.

You mention privacy, consent, and social media. Those are certainly topics in the news these days I’m thinking of Congresswoman Katie Hill and other women whose lives have been “upended,” to use your word, in this way. What role does that play in the story?

Without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that these issues definitely play a role in the story—with a twist or two, since the characters’ motivations are subtle and complex. You’ll have to read the book to find out more!

Tell me about the role of Georgia O’Keeffe. Why did you choose her work and life to build your novel around?

That’s easy for me to talk about without risking a spoiler alert!

In fact, 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 O’Keeffe’s 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 doing research for the book, I learned so much more about her life and work—which ended up enhancing 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 austere desert recluse who created some of the most sensuous art of all time. She was a pioneer, full of contradictions, who refused to explain herself to anyone.

Think about it: O’Keeffe held her own in a male-dominated profession, defined herself by her work, kept her maiden name in an era when women simply didn’t—yet she refused to be called a “female painter.” There’s a famous story about how she had a request for an interview about women artists, and she said, “A silly topic. Write about women. Or write about artists. I don’t see how they’re connected.”

To be clear: Georgia O’Keeffe isn’t a character in the story. 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.

You’ve chosen to publish through She Writes Press. Is there a connection between that choice and the subject or message of the book?

Absolutely! I’d heard about She Writes and fell in love with their mission. I didn’t even pitch to agents, to be frank, but went straight to Brooke Warner. As I tell people, I see this as a triple-hitter: a book about a female protagonist who wants more, framed around a ground-breaking female artist, and published by a female-run press!

You have working relationships with other programs and organizations that promote women’s achievements. Tell me about some of those collaborations.

Thanks for asking, because this is an important part of what I hope to accomplish. Several of these partnerships are already underway, with others (I hope) yet to come.

To highlight one of these partnerships: I’m excited to be partnering with Pen + Brush, a New York City organization dedicated to promoting gender equity in literature and the arts. Pen + Brush had planned to host a special event, “Presenting She Writes Press,” featuring Queen of the Owls and two other books that will be launching later this spring. We’re postponing that live event until the Fall. In the meantime, however, they offered to do a separate “virtual event” to launch Queen of the Owls. This will, in fact, inaugurate a brand-new aspect of their programming—the creation of a virtual “library” of presentations by women writers and artists. I’m thrilled to help them initiate this new endeavor!

What particular challenges did writing Queen of the Owls pose for you?

Even though I was a researcher in an earlier career, one of the most demanding aspects of writing Queen of the Owls was the range of research I needed to do. I needed to learn far more about Georgia O’Keeffe than would ever find its way into the final book. I read everything I could find, went to see her paintings, talked to experts, visited the places where she lived and worked. I needed to immerse myself in her life and art in order to feel, 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 “factual,” as in a biography—yet I couldn’t say anything inaccurate. If I’d been writing historical fiction, the integration of factual material would have been more direct. But here I was treading a fine line.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written Queen of the Owls?

Time for bit of self-disclosure. One of the reasons that writing Queen of the Owls has been so meaningful to me is because it represents a fictionalized version of my own journey. Like Elizabeth, I grew up labeled a “brain” and had to embark on my own journey to wholeness. (But I never posed nude.)

I think all good fiction is like that—not a thinly-disguised memoir and definitely not catharsis, but a process of digging deeply into the emotional truths you’ve learned through your own experience and then “translating” those emotional truths into a fictional world. If you’re lucky, that fictional world will touch others and have an enduring meaning for them too.

What do you want readers to get from the book?

I’d like readers to take away a feeling of hope and possibility—to see, through Elizabeth’s story, that embracing the parts of yourself you’ve denied can bring a new wholeness.

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, researcher, and clinician living in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her novels tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection.

Probst is the author of a groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Three Rivers Press/Random House). She holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her writing, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

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