Tuesday, April 6, 2021

THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, by author BARBARA LINN PROBST

What if you had a second chance at the very thing you thought you’d renounced forever? How steep a price would you be willing to pay?

Susannah’s career as a pianist has been on hold for nearly sixteen years, ever since her son was born. An adoptee who’s never forgiven her birth mother for not putting her first, Susannah vowed to put her own child first, no matter what. And she did.

But now, suddenly, she has a chance to vault into that elite tier of “chosen” musicians. There’s just one problem: somewhere along the way, she lost the power and the magic that used to be hers at the keyboard. She needs to get them back. Now.

Her quest—what her husband calls her obsession—turns out to have a cost Susannah couldn’t have anticipated. Even her hand betrays her, as Susannah learns that she has a progressive hereditary disease that’s making her fingers cramp and curl—a curse waiting in her genes, legacy of a birth family that gave her little else. As her now-or-never concert draws near, Susannah is catapulted back to memories she’s never been able to purge—and forward, to choices she never thought she would have to make.

Told through the unique perspective of a musician, The Sound Between the Notes draws the reader deeper and deeper into the question Susannah can no longer silence: Who am I, and where do I belong?

Praise for The Sound Between the Notes:

“The climax, on the night of her performance, is a tour de force steeped in suspense, and Susannah’s subsequent revelations are satisfying and authentic. A sensitive, astute exploration of artistic passion, family, and perseverance.”
Kirkus Reviews

The Sound Between the Notes is so beautiful, so lyrical, so musical that it was hard to put down. . . . This is a wonderful story from a skillful writer, one that appeals strongly to the heart. It features awesome characters, a twisty plot, and gorgeous writing.”
Readers’ Favorite 5-star review

“In her second novel, Barbara Linn Probst delivers yet another powerful story, balancing lyrical language with a skillfully paced plot to build a sensory-rich world that will delight those who loved Queen of the Owlsand win countless new readers. Offering a deep exploration of the search for identity and connection, The Sound Between Notes reminds us to embrace everything we are—and everything that’s made us who we are.”
—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY best-selling author of Perennials

“Beautifully told, The Sound Between the Notes, is the story of tragedy and triumph, of the push and pull of family, of the responsibility we feel to ourselves and those we love. Once I started the book, I couldn't put it down until I reached the last, gorgeously written note.”
—Loretta Nyhan, author of The Other Family and Amazon best-seller Digging In

Q & A with Barbara ~

We loved hearing about Queen of the Owls last year, and congratulations on all the awards it won!  In a nutshell, what’s your new book about?

Thank you!  The two books share the theme of a woman’s search for self, framed around art. In Queen of the Owls, painting and photography framed the story. In The Sound Between the Notes, it’s music—the piano.

The Sound Between the Notes is about what happens when a woman who’s always struggled with identity is given an unexpected chance to restore the self she thought she’d lost.

Susannah, the book’s protagonist, is a pianist. Her career has been on hold for sixteen years, ever since her son was born. But now, suddenly, she has a second chance. There’s just one problem: somewhere along the way, she lost the power and the magic. She needs to get them back. Now.

As her now-or-never concert draws near, Susannah is catapulted back to memories she’s never been able to purge—and forward, to choices she never thought she’d have to make as she struggles to do right by those she loves and to fulfill, through music, her deep longing for identity and a place in the world.

How did you get the idea for the book?

I can actually remember the specific moment that the idea took hold!  I had gone back to studying piano a few years earlier, after abandoning my studies for over twenty years when my own son was born.  I’m nowhere near the level of Susannah, of course—I’m what’s called a “serious amateur, which means that I study for the love of it, not professionally.  

I had just switched to a much 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 an odd stiffness in my left hand. And 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.

What do your characters have to overcome? What challenge do you set before them?

Susannah is struggling with so many things! At the most obvious level, it’s time itself—the looming concert date that will make-or-break the career she never thought would still be possible, and the disease that proceeds in stages whose pace can’t be predicted. She’s also struggling with her need to balance doing right by those she cares about—husband, father, son—and doing right by herself. 

Susannah also has to overcome her doubt and misbelief that she’s not good enough to be “chosen.” It’s a common theme for adoptees, all the more so because of her adoptive mother’s insistence on a “chosen baby” story that always felt, to Susannah, as if it sanitized her struggle and swept it under the rug.

The other characters have struggles, too.  Her husband Aaron has to grapple with his need to be the one who knows what to do and fixes problems, and his feeling of being brushed aside in Susannah’s quest for a kind of fulfillment that he can’t provide.

The challenge that threads through the journeys of many of the characters in The Sound Between the Notes —Susannah’s birth mother, her adoptive mother, her grandmother—is the quest to understand what it means to be a mother and a daughter.

It sounds as if the story has two intertwined themes. One is Susannah’s quest to restore her “lost magic” at the piano, and the other is her quest for her birth family, her roots.  You’ve mentioned that you play the piano. What is your own relationship to adoption? 

I’m a mother by adoption—twice—and have been able to be an intimate participant in my daughter’s complicated journey to understand where her birth family fits into her life. Through that journey, I’ve been able to understand that adoption is complex, profound, and different for different people.

My own training as a clinical social worker also helped me to understand the perspective of each person in what’s known as the adoption triangle, including members of the birth mother’s family. For example, when I wrote the character of Beryl, the birth grandmother in The Sound Between the Notes, and had her express dismay that Corinne was “giving away my first grandbaby,” I drew directly on my own experience.  

However, the story itself is entirely fictitious. The characters “came to me” easily, but none of them are real people.

Did the book pose any special challenges for you?

Every book has its challenges, but The Sound Between the Notes posed two, in particular.  One was the task of navigating dual timelines, because each transition to the past—the supporting timeline—had to be natural and necessary, with something in the front story to serve as a portal. I tried to structure it in different ways, in my early drafts—for example, labeling each chapter by place or date or a tag like “sixteen years earlier.” Eventually, I settled on Then and Now.

Another challenge was the protagonist’s character and motivation.  In early drafts of the book, Susannah was much too angry. 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—and that really had to do with my own journey as a pianist. I had to understand music more deeply before I could depict Susannah as she needed to be depicted. I had to see, through music, that there was no way that a person who loved the piano could be as bitter and self-absorbed as I’d written her! You could say that I had to be a better pianist before I could be a better writer—though I had no idea of that when I started out.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

The Sound Between the Notes is about embracing everything we are—and everything that’s made us who we are. The message it offers is 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.

Was there something you deleted from the book?

In an earlier draft, the book had two extra scenes at the end—one from the point of view of Dana, Susannah’s adoptive mother, and one from the point of view of Corinne, her biological one.  Ultimately, I decided to delete them and let Susannah have the ending to herself.

Was there a special piece of research you had to do for the book?

I actually got to talk with Misha Dichter, the world-famous pianist mentioned several times in the book, who had the same hand ailment that threatens Susannah’s playing. I wrote to his agent, explained my request, and was stunned when my phone rang and it was Dichter himself calling me!  He couldn’t have been kinder.

What inspired you to become a writer?

I actually wrote my first “book” when I was seven years old, ten chapters, complete with illustrations!  Seriously, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing, although I did other kinds of writing for many years before returning to fiction. The first novel I wrote as an adult—which, fortunately, will never be seen by anyone but me—was my way to work through certain events in my own life.  I think it’s that way for a lot of novelists. You have to get that out of your system before you can create a truly fictional world.

Can you tell us a few surprising things about yourself that we never would have guessed?

Here are five: 1.    I’ve lived in a former jail cell, a former sauna, a former firehouse, and a cabin in the redwoods without heat. 2.   I’ve been a therapist, researcher, college professor, advocate, director of a nonprofit organization, elementary school teacher, and fulltime mom. 3.     In the course of my travels I’ve been inside a glacier, a lava tube, a monastery, and a mosque. I’ve seen the Whirling Dervishes, the Mona Lisa, the rain forest, the Outer Hebrides, the Venetian canals, and the Egyptian Sphinx. 4.     My eyes change color, depending on my mood. 5.     My best writing ideas come to me in the shower.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned, as a writer?

What I’ve learned, over the course of two books, is that I need to love my characters much more generously than I thought. I need to listen to them, feel their humanity, and find the thing in each of them that’s worthy of love and respect. And that goes for secondary characters too!

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?

There is so much advice out there, but I think there are three essential principles that span genre, temperament, and the whole notion of “plotter-versus-pantser” (I do both).  Here are my three essential bits of advice:

First, have a really good story that you are burning to tell. Let the story lead. Listen to the characters, rather than worrying about how to please agents and publishers, or conform to any of the writing templates out there.

Second (and this is the essential complement to the first principle), find a couple of really smart people whom you trust, and listen well to what they have to tell you about your work. Be open, not defensive.

Third, read up. Read books that are really well written to see how the authors did it. Write books that you would love to read.

Where can we find you?

Website:         https://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

Facebook:       https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011410511548

Instagram:       https://www.instagram.com/barbara_linn_probst/