Books and Writing / Worth Reading

Author Interview with Barbara Linn Probst

"The Sound between the Notes"This week’s featured book worth reading is The Sound Between the Notes by Barbara Linn Probst  

When you write a book, you not only want people to read it, but to understand it—to “get” what you’re trying to offer.  It’s the same feeling you have when someone loves you for who you really are. So it’s been enormously gratifying to read the early reviews and see that readers are doing just that. Kirkus, the premier reviewer, has this to say about The Sound Between the Notes: “The characters are well drawn and the tight plot is just one agonizing twist after another … The climax, on the night of her performance, is a tour de force steeped in suspense … A sensitive, astute exploration of artistic passion, family, and perseverance.” Readers Favorite echoes the same praise, calling The Sound Between the Notes “a great story that had me turning the pages nonstop, a tale of passion, identity, and art … A compelling protagonist on a breathtaking emotional journey as she wades through past memories while pursuing a path that redefines her.” 

What is your book about?

The Sound Between the Notes is a story, told through the unique perspective of a musician, about what happens when a woman is given an unexpected chance to restore the self she thought she had lost. 

Susannah, the  protagonist, is a pianist. Her career has been on hold for 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 second chance. 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

But the obstacles mount. 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, she’s 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. 

What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

The first word that comes into my mind is possibility—the possibility for the healing, connection, and sense of belonging that are so essential to the human experience.

The Sound Between the Notes is really about embracing everything we are, and everything that’s made us who we are. So the other message it offers is about integrating all the influences we’ve received—from heredity, upbringing, experience. 

Susannah’s story speaks to questions we all face: Who am I? Where do I belong in this world? What does it mean to fulfill my own passion while caring for those I love? No simple answers, but I hope people will take away a feeling about the universality of these questions. 

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 musical career she never thought would still be possible, and a 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.  

More deeply, Susannah 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, for example, has to grapple with his need to be the one who knows what to do and fixes every problem, and his feeling of being brushed aside in Susannah’s quest for a kind of fulfillment that he can’t provide.  As a couple, they’re struggling to change and go beyond the roles that have defined them.

What was the biggest challenge for you, personally, in writing the book?

Every book has its challenges, but there were two elements that were especially challenging for me in writing The Sound Between the Notes.  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, and eventually settled on Then and Now.

The other challenge was letting go of whatever was fueling my original image of Susannah. I’d gotten stuck on the idea that she was angry at both sets of parents, biological and adoptive—in fact, early drafts included scenes that showed that anger pretty explicitly. It’s no small task to see one’s protagonist in a completely different way, but that was what I needed to do! Not only in her attitude toward music, but in her overall attitude. Determined, yes, but also softer and more compassionate. When I was able to let Susannah relax and open, the story came to life.

You’re not a professional musician, so how did you get in the head of a pianist and write with such feeling—and precision—about the piano?

I’m what’s known as a “serious amateur” pianist, having returned to studying after a long absence. The secret to The Sound Between the Notes is that I had to become a better musician before I could make the book what it needed to be.  

As I mentioned, there was something wrong or missing in the early drafts. The adoption aspect was strong from the beginning, as were Susannah’s relationships with the people in her family, but Susannah herself was too angry and bitter, so the story as a whole didn’t work. In fact, I finally set it aside and wrote Queen of the Owls.  

Meanwhile, during that year, something was starting to deepen and open in my own piano study. But it wasn’t until my second summer at an intensive piano program for adults that I suddenly understood what was wrong.  It was one of those things that seems so obvious, once you see it!  The three pianists who led the program were so unbelievably generous and joyous—and I got it. 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 that love for the music open itself inside me, too—I was able to see who Susannah needed to be.

What have you learned about writing, and about yourself as a writer, over the course of your two novels?

For sure, there are lots of things I’ve learned about the craft of writing. To say something once instead of twice, to spend less time in my character’s head, to look for ways to relate the opening and closing of a scene, and so on. But the most important thing I’ve learned 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, based on what you’ve learned?

There’s so much advice out there, maybe too much, but I think there are three essential principles that span genre and temperament:

First, have a really good story that you’re burning to tell. Let the story lead. Listen to the characters, rather than worrying about how to please agents, publishers, or all those writing gurus. 

Second (the essential complement to the first principle), find a couple of really smart people whom you trust, and listen carefully 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. Don’t imitate, but strive to learn and improve.

 

What do you do when you are not writing?

I love studying the piano, which of course plays such a vital role in The Sound Between the Notes. Playing the piano requires a focused attention of mind, body, and heart—the whole of oneself, fully present. No matter how tired I think I am, music restores me. 

I do think a shift into another activity that’s not based on words really helps to replenish our creative capacity as writers—whether it’s cooking, walking, gardening, painting, or even cleaning, which can be very calming and satisfying. I take a long walk nearly every day, which helps both body and soul. Pre-pandemic, I loved to travel and hope I’ll be able to do that again before too long. I’ve been everywhere from Iceland to Egypt, from Venice to Costa Rica!

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

Here are a few:

  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 non-profit 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. 

 

How can our readers get a copy of your book?

They can find it on Amazon, Bookshop, or on a host of other sites that are linked right on the first page of my website.

What is the best way for our readers to connect with you?

I’m on Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads—and am always updating my website with information about events!   

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