Winner of 2021 SCN’s Sarton Contemporary Fiction Award
Author Barbara Linn Probst sees her Sarton Award-winning book, The Sound Between the Notes, as encouragement for readers to embrace everything they are and everything that made them who they are.
“It’s about integrating all the influences we’ve received, all the experiences, and all the parts of ourselves—nature and nurture, self and others, individual identity, and a sense of family and connection,” says Barbara, whose own life is filled with much to integrate. “I’ve lived quite an eclectic life, with many different careers. I’ve been a therapist, researcher, college professor, advocate for quirky kids, director of an urban nonprofit, elementary school teacher, and fulltime mom. I’ve lived in a former jail cell, a former sauna, a former firehouse, and a cabin in the redwoods without heat. I’ve been inside a glacier, a lava tube, a monastery, and a mosque. I’ve seen the Whirling Dervishes, the Mona Lisa, a rainforest, the Northern Lights, the Venetian canals, and the Egyptian Sphinx.”
While Barbara also earned a doctorate in clinical social work, she has always considered herself a writer. “I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was seven years old—ten chapters, complete with illustrations, really. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing.”
The multi-faceted author is also what she calls a “serious amateur” pianist, which means that she studies the piano for the love of it, not for professional reasons. In fact, it was a specific moment in her life, when she had gone back to studying piano after abandoning it for over twenty years, that gave her the idea for The Sound Between the Notes.
“I had just switched to a more rigorous teacher, and a whole new level of playing, a whole new possibility, was opening up for me. And there I was, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, reaching into the cabinet, when I felt a strange stiffness in my left hand. I thought, No! Not now, of all times. That was the moment when the story idea took hold. A new possibility and a new threat.”
Barbara says two things were challenging for her in writing the book. “One was the task of navigating the book’s dual timelines, because each transition to the past had to be natural and necessary. . . . I tried different things, and eventually settled on Then and Now.” The other challenge, she says, was letting go of her original image of Susannah, the book’s protagonist. “I’d gotten stuck on the idea that she was angry at both sets of parents, biological and adoptive, and I must admit that she was pretty brittle in the early versions of the book. It took me a long time to understand her in a deeper, more nuanced way. You could say that I needed to find the love and kindness in her.”
The first versions of Susannah, Barbara says, had to do with her own journey as a pianist. “I had to understand, through music, that there was no way a person who loved the piano could be as bitter and angry and self-absorbed as I’d made her. In other words, I had to be a better pianist, not a better writer, though I had no idea of that when I set out to write the book.”
For Barbara, writing a book begins with a core idea that provides the energy for the work. “Then what seems to work best for me is a kind of zigzag between something analytical and something intuitive and subconscious … I do have a working overview right from the start, although it might change and always expands, especially in the middle. I stop at various points to think it through in a very systematic way. For example, I map out the emerging story in terms of major events, minor events that lead to each peak, and minor events that occur as a consequence. … My best insights always come on their own when I least expect it. It’s that feeling of wow and of course. I think of it as the two parts of my brain connecting. To put it another way: I accompany the story, guiding it into existence with the analytical part of my mind while also listening for where it needs to go. I have a rough outline, as I said, but I stay open to being surprised, to encountering and allowing the unforeseen.” Barbar also notes that her best writing ideas occur to her in the shower.
The author says she knew something was amiss in the early drafts of her book, but that it wasn’t until she was taking part in Pianophoria, an intensive summer music camp, that she understood what it was. “It was one of those things that seems so obvious, once you see it. The pianists who taught Pianophoria were unbelievably generous, joyous, and kind. Watching them, I understood: If you really love music, it’s impossible to be as bitter as I’d made Susannah; you wouldn’t be able to play. Once I understood that and let a deeper unselfish love for the music open inside me, too, I was able to see who Susannah needed to be.”
The Sound Between the Notes is Barbara’s second published novel. Her first is The Queen of the Owls. Both books share a theme about art, whether it’s painting, photography, or music. Per Barbara, both also pose timeless and universal questions: Who am I? Where do I belong in this world? In Queen of the Owls, the vehicle for the protagonist’s fulfillment is art, and the metaphor is seeing and being seen. In The Sound Between the Notes, the vehicle for the protagonist’s fulfillment is music, and the metaphor is hearing and being heard. Barbara’s third book, The Color of Ice, is expected to be out in October. Set in Iceland, its protagonist is a glassblowing artist.
Barbara says receiving the Sarton Award (“Well, after the initial Wow! Really! and OMG!”) has given her the sense of achieving something important and meaningful. “I can relax and let go of worrying about external validation. It’s freed me, given me permission to trust my voice and my art in a deeper way.”
Barbara Linn Probst is an award-winning author of contemporary women’s fiction living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her acclaimed novels QUEEN OF THE OWLS (2020) and THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (2021) were Gold and Silver medalists for prestigious national awards, and THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES was selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021. Barbara has also published over fifty essays on the craft of writing for sites such as Jane Friedman and Writer Unboxed, along with two nonfiction books. Her third novel THE COLOR OF ICE will be released in October 2022. Learn more on www.BarbaraLinnProbst.com