“A sensitive, astute exploration of artistic passion, family, and perseverance.” — Kirkus
“Beautifully told … the story of tragedy and triumph, of the push and pull of family, of the responsibility we feel to ourselves and those we love.” — Loretta Nyhan, author of The Other Family
I so enjoyed the characters and the pace of The Sound Between Notes (She Writes Press) by Barbara Linn Probst; it was an easy-to-read page-turner for me, with a wonderful story that delves into a woman’s search for her identity and a longing for connection.
Susannah gave up her promising career in music in order to raise her son, James. The choice for her was all or nothing in those younger years; as an adoptee, she questioned why she was given away, haunted by rejection, and vowed to ensure her son felt her love with no distraction. Then an exceptional opportunity to play piano in front of a special audience arises, a desire she harbored from before she became a mom. But her husband, Aaron, is not as supportive as Susannah would have hoped. Struggling to discover who she is without her music, and haunted by the past, Susannah’s identity comes into question when she gets a scary medical diagnosis based on her genetics, and the urgency to discover who she really is reaches its peak.
Adoption, tracing roots and meeting blood relatives, along with complex family relationships, the joy of music and a frightening medical diagnosis is a compelling combination! Probst knows how to make the reader feel the wide range of emotions her characters experience, from fear to elation and everything in between.
Q&A WITH BARBARA LINN PROBST
Q: Susannah has set her music career aside to create a home and raise her son, yet she longs to perform. How did you get in the head of a pianist, and what role does music play in your life?
A: I’m what’s known as a “serious amateur” pianist — “serious” because I study with a teacher and “amateur” because I do it for no other reason than love (amour) of the piano, having returned to it 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. In the early drafts, Susannah was much too brittle and angry, and the story just wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I got deeper into my own connection with music that I understood what was wrong with the way I’d depicted her: no one can be bitter and play the piano the way I wanted her to play! That was a huge breakthrough and turning point in my writing journey.
I’ve now played nearly all the pieces mentioned in the book, so I wrote about them from experience — with the exception of the Schubert sonata that frames the story and is, mostly, beyond my ability. However, I set myself the goal of learning the second movement before the publication date, and I’m happy to say that I’ve achieved it!
Q: When did you first learn of Dupuytren’s Contracture? Do you think Aaron would have wanted to discuss the disease and go over options in a more open and complete way had the diagnosis been his?
A: For the plot, I needed a disease that would threaten Susannah’s playing and also link her, through genetics, to her birth family. So I did what we do, and googled “hereditary disease affecting the fingers.” To my astonishment, I found the perfect ailment.
To the second question: That’s a really interesting idea — and one that never occurred to me! I do think, because Dupuytren’s isn’t life-threatening, that it wouldn’t have been as dire for a non-musician like Aaron. Like others for whom perfect control of their fingers isn’t crucial, he probably would have waited to see if it worsened to the point where standard treatment would be indicated. That’s what most people do since the disease is fairly common.
Q: Identity is an overriding theme in your novel with Susannah seeking her roots. What influenced your decision to write about adoption?
A: I am a mother by adoption — twice, in fact — so it’s something I know a fair amount about. I got to know my daughter’s birth family and to share much of her struggles over the years.
Q: Do you think Susannah’s longing for connection (to her birth mother, her husband, her son, her dad, her mentor) stems from being adopted, or is that part of human nature?
A: I do think the longing for connection and for belonging is an essential part of human nature. Think of the popularity of resources like Ancestry.com and 23-and-me! They’re just the latest version of a yearning for roots that’s always been part of human culture — the way we have family traditions, special dishes, naming rituals, and so on.
And yes, it’s more complicated for those who were adopted, because they belong to two separate lineages — nature and nurture, adding different components of one’s identity. In The Sound Between the Notes, for example, Susannah understands that she got her musical talent from her birth mother but her drive and determination from her adoptive mother. She’s lucky because the two lineages support one another, but it isn’t always that way. There can be a lifelong inner and outer conflict.
Q: Choosing between career and family is a familiar decision for many women. How would you like readers to walk away feeling about this?
A: I feel that we need to respect whatever decision a woman makes because no one can know all the elements that go into someone’s choice — finances, support systems, special needs of the child, timing, and so on. In Susannah’s case, she kept her career “small” while her son was growing up, limiting herself to local venues. We don’t know if she would have tried to re-enter the professional arena just yet (or at all) if the unexpected opportunity hadn’t presented itself.
Q: Is Susannah better off knowing about her birth family, her diagnosis, where her husband goes when he stays out at night? Do you think we should always pursue the truth or is it okay to let questions go unanswered?
A: Such a profound question, and one that each person has to grapple with for herself. People make different choices — at different times, about different things, and for different reasons. With adoption, for example, some people want to search for their birth families and some don’t. My own feeling is that, if you start a search or open a door, you have to be ready for whatever you may find. What’s the hardest is when you have an expectation — even if you don’t admit it to yourself — and what you find turns out to be very, very different.
Q: Your first novel, Queen of the Owls, was released in April of 2020 during the pandemic; The Sound Between Notes is available now, just one year later. What have you learned about releasing a book in this strange environment that will help you this second time around and is there a silver lining?
A: I do count myself as part of a unique cohort of authors who launched their debut novels just when we all went into quarantine. We had to pivot, let go, be flexible — great gifts, really, because so little in life works out the way we plan! That attitude helped me a lot last year and is continuing to help me now. I try all kinds of things (to support my book’s release) and accept if they don’t work out, all while remaining ready to respond quickly if a new opportunity presents itself.
The other “silver lining,” for authors like me, has been the incredible generosity of online reader groups and venues that now host virtual book events — something they rarely did, if at all, pre-COVID. That’s allowed me to reach people I never would have been able to reach if I’d relied on in-person events! People in other parts of the country, people who can’t go to a live event because they lack childcare or transportation, or because the timing is wrong. Many of these virtual events are available for viewing later, so that’s another bonus that widens the circle of inclusion.
Q: The Sound Between the Notes could be categorized as medical fiction and dual-timeline fiction. How long did it take you to write it, and did you write the chapters in order?
A: Unlike Queen of the Owls, which was “there” in its essence from the very beginning, The Sound Between the Notes went through a number of huge transformations over the course of several years until it became what it needed to be. In fact, I set it aside to write Queen of the Owls, and then returned to it when I had the “musical breakthrough” I referred to earlier. You could say that I wasn’t ready to write the story until then.
In terms of the structure, the very first version of the book had three alternating timelines: one for Susannah’s teenage years (which included other plot elements that I ended up deleting); one for her early adult years, trying to succeed as a musician in New York and traveling to Texas to find her birth family; and a third for her mature adulthood as she grappled with the concert and the disease. However, it was too confusing and fragmented, and I eventually saw that the front story had to be the main one, with the back story taking a secondary role. That made the book so much stronger!