Philipstown author turns trips into fiction
Wanderlust has come in handy for novelist Barbara Linn Probst. She has dwelled in, among other places, a cabin in the California redwoods and in a converted sauna in Greenwich Village. Since 2021 Probst’s residence has been on a dirt road in Philipstown.
Each of these domiciles has surfaced in Probst’s stories, with assists from places she has traveled to, such as Egypt, Alaska and Iceland — the latter of which became the setting of her most recent novel, The Color of Ice, in which the protagonist’s “carefully ordered life is upended by a charismatic glass artist.” It shouldn’t be surprising that Probst has taken glass-blowing classes at Hudson Beach Glass in Beacon.
Fortunately, with her wide-ranging professional background — teacher, researcher, therapist — to tap into for plotlines and characters, there’s little likelihood of Probst running out of inspiration.
A writer since childhood, she initially focused as an adult on nonfiction but, “at a certain point, I wanted to return to my early love, which was fiction.” To do so, Probst found she needed “a completely different skill set.” Taking workshops and classes was invigorating, she says. “I had been a college professor, and becoming a learner again was great.”
She remembers her first attempt at a fiction manuscript as “terrible — luckily, no one read it.” She adds: “When you change careers and sort of inevitably write a bad first novel, eventually you embark on a new skill. The characters have to feel real, have to be people the reader cares about. We have to feel a common humanity to connect emotionally. That is the core of good fiction. There’s also an argument for writing once you have lived a bit.”
Each of Probst’s novels is centered around an art form. Her first, Queen of the Owls, took inspiration from Georgia O’Keefe. While Probst traveled to the Southwest to visit places where O’Keefe lived and worked, she became equally interested in the artist’s time in Hawaii. “I would never have understood how different the Hawaii heat is to the New Mexico heat if I hadn’t been there,” she notes. (The novel was a silver-prize winner for fiction in the 2022 Nautilus Book Awards.)
Her second book, The Sound Between the Notes — selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021 and named the best contemporary novel by the Story Circle Network — is centered around music, and piano specifically. While writing it, Probst says she felt something wasn’t right. “It was too busy, too angry,” she recalls. “That summer, I took a music intensive and realized someone couldn’t be bitter and play the way she did. I had to understand the piano better.”
She says that as she has progressed, her writing has become cleaner. “There’s less going on and on about the angst in my character’s head,” she says. “At the start, you’re so anxious to put everything on paper. With confidence, you trust your reader more, and don’t bombard her with how she’s supposed to feel.”
Probst’s writing process depends on where she is in the story. “I love getting in an enchanted place — walking on a dirt road is one,” she says. “When the iron’s hot, I write all day, but I also know when things need to gestate.” During the pandemic shutdown, Probst found herself “sitting on a deck for months — a writer’s retreat of my own.”
She has used the same publisher, She Writes Press, for all her books, which are available at barbaralinnprobst.com. It’s a hybrid publisher — not all manuscripts are accepted, but those that are receive promotional assistance. Probst has also been a guest in many online book clubs. “I love when people ask me things I haven’t thought about, or see things I didn’t know I did,” she says.
Probst is halfway through a draft for her fourth novel. She’s outlining, then filling in the blanks. “I know where I’m headed, but I write in spirals. By the time I come to the end of the first draft, the first few chapters have already changed. I don’t find what I’m on until I’m on it.”