Author Barbara Linn Probst enjoys an enriching life, digging deep with people and experiencing places, and it shows in her writing. The Color of Ice, her latest novel, takes us to Iceland with Cathryn, a single mom who has put her needs aside to raise her children and keep up with her career. In the incredible setting filled with beauty and awe she meets an interesting man, a glassblower who has some secrets of his own. Her work assignment is to photograph him, and between the powerful landscape and the attraction to his good looks and charm, her set plans to tour the country slowly change. As she starts to open up, take risks and recognize her own value and what she has been missing, we get to observe her transformation, a budding romance, and feel the power of the magical sites in Iceland.
The Color of Ice is a great escape to a far away place with relatable, complex characters striving to be better and live better lives. Inspirational and thought provoking, I highly recommend this and all of Barbara Linn Probst’s books. I had a wonderful conversation with Barbara about her writing, the characters in The Color of Ice, the country of Iceland and the art of glass blowing for Book Nation Book Club. Please enjoy the recording and the written Q & A below!
Book Nation Book Club with Barbara Linn Probst
Q & A with Barbara Linn Probst
Q: How long have you been writing?
A: I think I started writing as soon as I learned to read, because I wrote my first “book” when I was seven years old! It was called At Home With Us—ten short chapters, complete with illustrations. I wish I still had it!
I’ve always written, in one form or another. Over the years, I’ve written stories, poems, a book for parents of quirky kids, academic articles, blogs, a textbook.
Q: You published three books in three years! How do you accomplish this? Is a book a year what we can expect from you?
A: While I did publish three books in a little over three years, I didn’t write them in three years, or even in order. I actually wrote The Sound Between the Notes two years before I even had the idea for Queen of the Owls—wrote, and endlessly re-wrote—but I knew that something wasn’t right, so I set it aside.
In fact, I had to become a better musician, not necessarily a better writer, before I could understand Susannah, the main character, and tell her story the way it needed to be told. That happened while Queen of the Owls was in production, so I was able to revise the book and get it ready for publication while launching Queen of the Owls—a crazy time!
The Color of Ice, in contrast, was a product of the months I spent in quarantine during the pandemic, when my “regular” life was on hold and I could immerse myself in my story world and allow it to take over. It was a unique experience—a time of enchantment—that’s unlikely to recur. My pace is sure to be slower from on!
Q: From music and Georgia O’Keeffe to Iceland and glassblowing, how do you get your story ideas?
A: Each book has its own “origin story”—yet, each time, I’d have to say that the idea found me. If I look back, I can see that each book had its source, its birth, in a (seemingly) random moment when a small memory or impression sparked a feeling of what if … that gripped me and wouldn’t let go.
Q: In The Color of Ice you set the stage in an incredibly beautiful and distinctive environment – Iceland. Can you share how that came to be?
A: I had gone to Iceland a year or two pre-Covid—simply as a tourist, with no plan for using it as the setting for novel. Iceland is a fantastic place to visit, so I had many unforgettable impressions.
What happened, in fact, was that glassblowing led to the connection with Iceland. I treated myself to a glassblowing lesson—something I’d always wanted to try—and was walking through the shop that adjoined the studio when the idea popped into my mind. I asked the instructor: “Could a person make a glass sculpture that captured the color and quality of a blue iceberg?” She replied: “Of course!” And the story was born …
Q: You have written about art in some form in each of your books. Is that a conscious decision?
A: As I mentioned, I wrote The Sound Between the Notes first, although I didn’t publish it first. While the story was always about a pianist, it was also about adoption and family and the search to find where one belongs. The focus on “life as seen through a musical perspective” came to me a bit later. In a similar way, the idea for Queen of the Owls came from a feeling I’d had in front of a particular O’Keeffe painting—that is, from a personal experience—rather than a notion of framing a story around painting or art.
Since I ended up publishing the two books only a year apart, I began to think of them as a set, and realized that they were related. And when I started to play with that idea, musing about other art forms that might suggest a story, the notion of glassblowing popped into my brain—and it was love at first sight!
Q: The idea of second chances and women being recognized and coming into their own is a big part of all your novels. What inspires you to focus on this?
A: It must be something I care deeply about, because it does seem central to my stories! It’s probably because my own life has been a series of “re-created selves.” So the idea of transformation, of reviving an abandoned dream and beginning anew, is very close to my heart.
It’s not necessarily about emerging from a life of repression in order to “come into one’s own,” however. I think it’s more about reclaiming a part of oneself that was lost or abandoned as a result of a choice one made. In each of my novels, there was a moment in the protagonist’s past when she made a choice or took a path that defined her—to be a mother instead of a performer, or a cool and controlled multi-tasker instead of a risk-taker. Each choice means that something else was not chosen, so that’s the journey of my protagonists—to reclaim, heal, and integrate whatever aspect of herself that was set aside.
In Cathryn’s case, renouncing her artistic nature was also a kind of penance. So, for her, reclaiming her art also represents self-forgiveness.
Q: Can you talk a bit about a romance novel vs. a literary romance and tell us how The Color of Ice is categorized?
A: The Color of Ice is very much a love story, but it’s definitely not a romance, since the ending is more complex than the simple “happily ever after” that’s characteristic of romance novels.
And yes, I did discover that there’s a not-so-well-known genre called a “literary romance” that fits The Color of Ice perfectly! According to an article in the New York Times, a literary romance is a story about a couple who are “dynamically matched, with discord or conflict that leads to suffering and often to tragedy, including death or sacrifice, in a story of passion with a plot twist that we never saw coming.”
When I learned about the concept of a “literary romance,” long after I’d finished The Color of Ice, I thought: “Whoa! I ticked every single box without even knowing!”
Q: Cathryn is having a re-awakening when she meets Mack in Iceland, recognizing her need for passion, vulnerability and risk. Do you think the surroundings have an impact on her?
A: Absolutely! The story couldn’t have happened anywhere but in Iceland. The boiling, hissing mud pots of Hverir … the blue iceberg lagoon … Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods … the mysterious, unpredictable glory of the Northern Lights … Each aspect of the Icelandic landscape has a crucial role in the story. Together, they take Cathryn far outside her comfort zone, where it’s clear, even to her, that she’s not in control.
Q: Mack uses heat and air to shape the glass into something beautiful. Was the act of glass blowing meant to be a parallel to Mack’s effect on Cathryn?
A: There are a number of elements threaded into the story. Air, certainly—the power of breath, in glassblowing; being able to breathe; even the name of the cottage (Hrífandi, which means “breathtaking”). Water, from the thermal lake to the little pool at the botanic garden to the mighty waterfall, where Cathryn has such powerful experiences.
Beauty is another element. We know that Cathryn is beautiful, but her beauty hasn’t brought her happiness. Like Hallgerður in the Icelandic tale she recounts to Mack, or the beautiful “Snow Queen” that her daughter accuses her of being, in the bitter statement: “I’m going to end up like my mother if I keep this up, oh-so-beautiful and all alone.”
One of the ways that Cathryn is transformed is through her relationship to beauty—when she sees the beauty that’s everywhere. One of my favorite passages is when she looks at a chunk of black lava and realizes: “She could love it, find the beauty that was already there, waiting to be loved. It was easy to be entranced by the jewels of Diamond Beach, but an artist could love anything, by really seeing it.” And then, finally, when she feels: “For the first time, she felt inside her beauty, as if it had a meaning.”
So, yes. By opening to Mack, Cathryn connects with her own inner beauty.
Q: We don’t really know what is below the surface with Mack. He holds himself back and we eventually learn more, but the powerful journey is Cathryn’s. Mack facilitates Cathryn’s personal growth, but in the end she completes herself through her own choices and acts. How do you decide on the inner journeys of your female characters, and where they will lead?
A: I start with the essential thing the character yearns for—which is, of course, the thing she lacks. It might be a feeling of wholeness, or a sense of belonging, or the capacity for warmth and compassion. That inner quest shapes her outer journey.
I’m glad you’ve pointed out that Mack is the not the “cause” of Cathryn’s transformation, by the way. He does awaken a yearning in her—not intentionally—but it is Cathryn herself, through her response, her actions, who creates her own arc of change. That’s why it was important to begin the story with a decision that she makes—seemingly, on impulse—to pay her own way to Iceland. Right from the start, she chooses, even if she doesn’t know why.
Q: Cathryn finds part of herself that she has hidden away as she opens up and becomes more vulnerable and takes more risks. It seems as if her physical journey in Iceland mirrors her inner journey. Is that intentional?
A: Completely intentional! I knew that the story had to begin as she landed in Iceland, and that she would have a well-planned itinerary, which would be “in character” for her. And then, once I had her make that first small deviation from her route—when she takes a small side-trip to visit Mack’s studio—the whole parallel of outer and inner journey seemed so clear and natural! It began to show me what the next step in the plot needed to be—reversing her route, prolonging her stay, and so on.
Q: Do you think Cathryn’s relationships with her kids, Judah and Rachel, improve as she finds herself traveling in Iceland and while with Mack?
A: Very much. One of the hallmarks (to me) of a well-crafted story is that the protagonist’s journey and eventual transformation lead to change in those close to her. In Cathryn’s case, there were deeply-entrenched issues with each of her young-adult children. As she opens and changes, her relationships with them change—and they grow as individuals, too.
Q: Cathryn has guilt when it comes to the death of her husband, Brian. Why did you add in that element to her backstory?
A: Without giving away the plot, I’ll simply say that it’s meant to foreshadow or echo an element in Mack’s backstory—and that the transformation of her own guilt allows her to help him.
Q: I loved all the discussion about the properties of glass and how you can look at it and see through it. Can you remind us of the words you used to describe glass? What brought you to those ideas?
A: I love it too—the fact that glass is the only material we can look at and through. As Mack says on page 36: “Glass is alive. And like everything that’s alive, it’s full of contradictions. Fragile and strong. Liquid and solid. Present and not-present.” Like people, no?
This view of the nature of glass was expressed by several of the glass artists I got to know, and I’m immensely grateful to them for sharing it with me.
Q: Do you know the ending to your stories from the get go?
A: Something similar took place for me, with each of my novels. I always knew (in general) where the story was headed, yet in each case an extra “something” appeared to me as I neared the end—something I hadn’t anticipated, yet knew immediately was “just right” and brough another dimension and depth to the ending. I think the full ending has to wait until I get to know the characters better. This was especially true with The Color of Ice.
Q: It seems like the obstacles you have given your characters are within themselves and there are never any villains in your books. Are these conscious choices you make for your writing?
A: Yes, that’s intentional. I think it comes from my background as a therapist and clinical social worker, which makes me interested in people’s internal struggles—the contradictory parts of ourselves, the fears and desires, joys and sorrows—and to view the external forces as representative of the internal ones.
Q: I loved all of your books and I think others will as well – can you give us your elevator pitch for your previous two novels?
A: Queen of the Owls is the story of a woman’s quest to claim her neglected sensuality and find her true self hidden behind the roles of wife, mother, sister, and colleague. Framed by the life and art of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, it’s the story of a woman who dares to ask herself: what would I risk to be truly seen and known?
My second novel, The Sound Between the Notes, is also about a woman who risks what she treasures most when she’s offered an unexpected second chance at the musical career she set aside to raise her child. The protagonist is an adoptee, so the story is also about what it means to be a mother, a daughter—about identity and belonging,—told through the unique perspective of a musician.
Q: How can people keep up with you and all you do?
Barbara’s award winning novels…
About the Author:
I’ve embraced many sides of life. I’ve been a teacher, therapist, qualitative researcher, educational advocate, “serious amateur” pianist, and full-time mom. I’ve run a not-for-profit organization, mentored PhD students, counseled families, done webinars and radio interviews on how to nurture out-of-the-box children, and much more!
I’ve had many homes. I’ve lived in a cabin in the California redwoods, a firehouse, a converted sauna in the heart of Greenwich Village—and lots of places in-between. I now live on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley.
I’ve looked and listened. I’ve traveled from Iceland to Israel, Scotland to Spain. I’ve spent time in Italy, Egypt, Alaska, Costa Rica, Turkey, France, and along the backpacking trails of the U.S. and Canada.
I’ve spoken up. I’ve given talks to dozens of parent groups, professional organizations, and academic conferences all over the country.
Through all of it, I’ve never stopped writing.
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 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 was released in October 2022.