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?
“A nuanced, insightful, culturally relevant investigation of one woman’s personal and artistic awakening, Queen of the Owls limns the distance between artist and muse, creator and critic, concealment and exposure.”
―Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times best-selling author of A Piece of the World and Orphan Train
“This is a stunner about the true cost of creativity, and about what it means to be really seen. Gorgeously written and so, so smart (and how can you resist any novel that has Georgia O’Keeffe in it?), Probst’s novel is a work of art in itself.”
―Caroline Leavitt, best-selling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow and Cruel Beautiful World
“Readers will root for Elizabeth―and wince in amusement at her pratfalls―as she strikes out in improbable new directions … An entertaining, psychologically rich story of a sometimes giddy, sometimes painful awakening.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Probst plumbs the depths of Elizabeth’s desperation with a delicacy that underlines the brutal truths her protagonist must face . . . A thought-provoking, introspective examination of self and sexuality.”
“Queen of the Owls is a powerful novel about a woman’s relation to her body, diving into contemporary controversies about privacy and consent. A ‘must-read’ for fans of Georgia O’Keeffe and any woman who struggles to find her true self hidden under the roles of sister, mother, wife, and colleague.”
―Barbara Claypole White, best-selling author of The Perfect Son and The Promise Between Us
“Probst’s well-written and engaging debut asks a question every woman can relate to: what would you risk to be truly seen and understood? The lush descriptions of O'Keeffe's work and life enhance the story, and help frame the enduring feminist issues at its center.”
―Sonja Yoerg, best-selling author of True Places
“A gifted storyteller, Barbara Linn Probst writes with precision, empathy, intelligence, and a deep understanding of the psychology of a woman’s search for self.”
―Sandra Scofield, National Book Award finalist and author of The Last Draft
“Barbara Linn Probst captures the art of being a woman beautifully. Queen of the Owls is a powerful and liberating novel of self-discovery using Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, art, and relationships as a guide.”
―Ann Garvin, best-selling author of I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around
Some Q & A with Barbara ~
What’s Queen of the Owls about?
Queen of the Owls is a contemporary novel about a woman’s quest to claim her neglected sensuality and find her true self hidden behind the roles of wife, mother, sister, and colleague. It’s a story of awakening and transformation, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe.
While the book’s overarching theme is the yearning for wholeness—which you can only find by embracing the parts of yourself you’ve denied—it also explores contemporary issues of privacy, consent, feminism, and the power of social media to upend our lives.
Tell us about the role of Georgia O’Keeffe in the story. Why O’Keeffe?
The idea of framing the story around Georgia O’Keeffe really just “appeared” to me! I’ve always loved her paintings; they called to me in a way that felt very connected to the question of what it means to be a woman, so they were in the back of my mind as the story idea began to germinate. And then, as I began my research, I learned so much more about her life and work—which, in turn, enhanced the story in ways I hadn’t anticipated. After a while, it became clear that there was no other way to tell the story!
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 severe desert recluse who created some of the most sensuous art of all time.
O’Keeffe isn’t a character in the book, as she might be if this were a historical novel—yet she’s present as protagonist Elizabeth’s inspiration, the person whose blend of austerity and voluptuousness Elizabeth longs to emulate. In seeking to understand O’Keeffe, Elizabeth comes to understand herself.
As it happened, art worked well as a vehicle for Queen of the Owls because the story is about Elizabeth’s yearning to be truly seen. And through being seen, to be known.
You mentioned “research.” What kind of research did you have to do?
So much, and so varied! I read everything about O’Keeffe I could get my hands on, of course, including archival material at the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I also went to view her paintings at several special exhibits, 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—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 really did feel like a sign that this was a book I was meant to write.
At one point, I even travelled to Hawaii. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I had to experience the place for myself. You could say that, like Elizabeth, I was seeking my own “embodied knowledge.”
Was there anything of your own life in the book?
Definitely! One of the reasons 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.
I think all good fiction is like that, actually—not a thinly-disguised memoir, but a process of digging deeply into the emotional truths you’ve learned through your own experience and then “translating” or re-embodying those emotional truths in a fictional world.
Can you give us insight into your writing process?
I’d say that it’s somewhere between mapping out the story I want to tell and leaving space for improvisation. I do need to have an overall vision before I start, and I spend a lot time thinking, analyzing, and writing out what I’d call the “bones” of the story. But then, during the actual writing, those bones become very porous and flexible. Something entirely new will inevitably present itself, once I’m immersed in the story—in fact, that’s how the best elements appear! They can’t be known until I’ve begun to live and breathe along with the characters. And then if feels as if I’m serving the story, rather than “making” it.
What do you love most about writing?
I love all of it, even the struggles, but the best part for me is the total immersion that happens when I’m deeply, deeply connected to the story and characters. It’s a special state when my subconscious mind (where the human truths reside) and my conscious mind (the part that can bring those truths to the surface and give them form) are totally in sync.
The other part I love is hearing from readers who’ve been touched by what I’ve written. It’s so amazing to get an email from someone who tells me, “I felt as if Queen of the Owls was written about me, and for me.”
What’s the most challenging part of the process for you?
For me, it’s not the writing itself but the endless need for promotion! I enjoy the events tremendously—the virtual interviews and Zoom book clubs—but the need to keep self-promoting on social media is very uncomfortable for me.
What are some things you enjoy when you’re not writing?
I’m what they call a “serious amateur” pianist—something I 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.
Can you tell us something people may not know about you?
People who know me as a novelist might not know that I wrote a nonfiction book for parents of quirky, out-of-the-box kids called When the Labels Don’t Fit. Before I turned to fiction, I worked with parents and families, gave dozens of presentations all over the country, and was a passionate advocate for strength-based ways to understand and help kids who didn’t fit in.
I have a PhD in clinical social work, spent a number of years in academia, wrote a textbook, ran a non-profit, and worked as a therapist. I’ve also been a full-time mom! If you’re wondering which career was my “favorite,” the answer is that I’ve loved them all, at different times and in different ways!
Another thing most people don’t know is that I’ve lived in a lot of truly wacky places—from a cabin without electricity in the California redwoods to a converted jail cell in Greenwich Village and a former Firehouse in the Hudson Valley.
What’s next for you?
My second novel, The Sound Between the Notes, will be released in April 2021. This time, the story is framed around music—influenced, of course, by my own study of the piano. You could say that the protagonist in Queen of the Owls yearns to be seen, while the protagonist in The Sound Between the Notes yearns to be heard. The story is also about adoption and the search for where one belongs.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The two things I’d like to say are actually complements, addressing the passion and the rigor, both of which are essential for good writing. The “passion” part is to stay true to the story, no matter what—to listen to the characters and forget all the formulas, grids, templates, and rules. The “rigor” is to surround yourself with really smart people whose judgment you trust and who can deliver a big wallop of tough love when you need it.
Is there anything special you’d like to say to your readers and fans, now that you’ve had such a successful launch?
Publishing during a pandemic has been a strange experience, to say the least. But I’ve come to believe that stories have always been a source of healing, renewal, and growth. We need them now, more than ever, and I’m so grateful that I’ve had one to offer that has resonated with so many people and received such a warm welcome into the world.
To connect with Barbara ~
BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel, QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Endorsed by best-selling authors such as Christina Baker Kline and Caroline Leavitt, QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the 20 most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother, one of the best Spring fiction books by Parade Magazine, and a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle. It was also featured in lists compiled by Pop Sugar and Entertainment Weekly, among others. It won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for both the First Horizon and the $2500 Grand Prize.