A conversation with Barbara Linn Probst on the writing of THE COLOR OF ICE

Barbara Linn Probst’s third novel, THE COLOR OF ICE, published on October 18, effectively combines an examination of the creative process, the protagonist’s self-discovery and growth, and an adult love story. I spoke with Barbara about the inspiration for the book and the extensive research that went into it.

Bill: The Color of Ice is your third book. Would you say it’s similar to the first two or something different this time?

Barbara: Actually, it’s both. In one way, The Color of Ice fits right alongside my first two novels, since it’s also framed around an art form—in this case, glassblowing, rather than art or music. At the same time, it’s very different because it’s also a love story. Not a romance, which has very specific criteria, but more like what’s called a “literary romance”—a love story that’s also trying to depict something about the complexity of what it means to be human.

Bill: Your previous novels, Queen of the Owls and The Sound Between the Notes, were about a woman’s yearning and passion in the context of self-discovery and personal liberation. The Color of Ice shares this theme, while also being a love story. Is it primarily about self-discovery or primarily a love story?

Barbara: Again, I’d say that it’s both. And behind both themes, uniting them, I’d say that it’s primarily a story about goodness, the human yearning to be good—told through the vehicle of a woman’s journey from solitude to passion, and from passion to generosity and unconditional love. You could say that the premise of the book is that we’re capable of more goodness than we think.

Bill: That’s an inspirational premise. Can you give us a synopsis?

Barbara: Always a challenge, but here goes … The Color of Ice is the story of a woman who travels to Iceland, “the land of fire and ice,” where she meets a glass artist who awakens a hunger in her for all the things she’s told herself she doesn’t need anymore—passion, vulnerability, risk, and her own art. She finds herself torn between the life she knows and the new world that’s opening for her. And then, when she’s tested in a way she never could have anticipated, she finds an inner strength and capacity for real love that she didn’t think she had.  

Bill: Where did you get the idea of combining Iceland and glassblowing?

Barbara: I’d been to Iceland a few years earlier, as a tourist, with no intention of using it as the setting for a novel. But the place haunted me—its otherworldly beauty, the juxtaposition of volcanoes and glaciers, the stunning blue icebergs of the Jokulsarlon lagoon.

Then, when I had the inspiration to frame a story around glassblowing, I remembered the blue icebergs. I could imagine an artist trying to render them in glass, with their beauty and majesty and luminous presence. Suddenly, it all connected: icebergs and glass, color and light and transparency—a metaphor for the journey from being emotionally “frozen” to thawing, opening, and being able to give.

Bill: Did you add glassblowing to the story—as a metaphor for the character arc you’ve just described—or was glassblowing there from the beginning?

Barbara: For me, a story grows in stages. You have to start somewhere, of course, and for this book, it was glassblowing. Once I had the idea to use glassblowing as a frame, I set out to learn as much as I could. I shadowed glass artists at work, visited museums and galleries, even had a couple of lessons—and became completely enthralled.

Glass is like a Zen teacher, because it embodies and integrates so many contradictions. It’s a substance we can look at and through, neither solid nor liquid, workable only when molten—in transition, continually becoming. When an artist works with glass, he has to keep it in constant movement. And then, when the piece is finished, it’s the only medium that allows the viewer to see everything—inside and outside, front and back—at the same time.

The more I learned about glass, the more it showed me what my story needed to be. For example, during my first lesson, the instructor showed me the punti scar, the mark left when a piece is freed from the punti rod on which it’s been formed. You give the piece a brisk tap, and it breaks free; if you let it cool on the punti, it would shatter. That struck me as a perfect metaphor for the relationship between parent and child, mentor and pupil—or between a character who helps someone find her true self and the one who must let go in order to survive.

In other words, the research and the story development went hand-in-hand. My role was to be open, listen, and try my best to channel or “incarnate” what glassblowing and Iceland were trying to show me.

Bill: Clearly, learning about glassblowing was essential to the evolution of the story. Did you have to do other kinds of research as well?

Barbara: I’d already been to Iceland, as I mentioned, and it was easy to augment what I needed by searching on the internet. So the other important subject I had to learn about was the aurora borealis, the northern lights, since they play an important role in the story. I looked up myths and tales, interviewed a photographer to understand the challenges of filming the aurora—and went in search of them myself.  

Overseas travel wasn’t yet possible, but I was able to go to Fairbanks, Alaska, in late January (yup, when temperatures can reach twenty or thirty below zero). Fairbanks is actually one of the best aurora-viewing spots in the world, and I was indeed able to see the legendary lights. I was very glad, because it had never felt right to write about them, without having actually seen them.

Bill: You’ve mentioned that you wrote the book during the long months of Covid quarantine. Did the pandemic affect the process for you?

Barbara: I think it did, in two ways. First, since I was so isolated, I found myself completely immersed in—you might even say enchanted by—my emerging story-world in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if my “real life” had been more active. That immersion allowed connections to appear in a way that felt almost magical.

And second, because of the terror we were all feeling about the pandemic, which seemed so deadly and uncontrollable, especially during that first year, I found myself drawn to stories about acts of kindness and generosity. They seemed to affirm a goodness and nobility in the human spirit, and I thought: “That’s the only thing worth writing about.” I had the vision of a moment, a gesture, an act of compassion and unconditional love that the giver didn’t think she was capable of. And that became the essence of The Color of Ice, its point of arrival.

Bill: I’d like to talk about your essay The Miracle Question. What did you want from publishing this book? 

Barbara: It’s an interesting question—because we don’t always know what we “want” until we’re deep in the experience, or until it’s over. But I think I can say—after having received many wonderful accolades, awards, and attention for my first two books—that this time I just wanted to do right by the characters and tell their story. I also wanted to have fun—to feel joyous, without worrying so much about sales and reviews. Like Mack, the glass artist in The Color of Ice, I wanted to create my own art.

Bill: Where can readers find out more about The Color of Ice?

Barbara: Amazon is always a great place to read more about a book, but you can also find a lot of fabulous information—masterpieces of glass art, the northern lights, and my research adventures—on my Facebook page. 

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