Martha Anne Toll: On the Power of Memory

Author Martha Anne Toll discusses the mythology that inspired her debut novel, Three Muses.

Martha Anne Toll is a passionate advocate for racial and social justice. She recently completed 26 years as the founding Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund. Martha’s debut novel, Three Muses, is the 2020 winner of Regal House Publishing’s Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction.

Martha regularly publishes book reviews and essays on NPR Books and The Millions, as well as in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, Music & Literature, Bloom, Scoundrel Time, After the Art, and others. Martha also served as nominator and critic for NPR’s 2017, 2018, and 2019 book concierges. Martha is a three-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and was awarded a 2019 residency at Monson Arts and at Dairy Hollow for 2020.

Martha graduated from Yale College and received a law degree from the Boston University. School of Law. She lives with her husband, a climate activist, and their espresso machine just outside of Washington, DC. They are the lucky parents of two daughters. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Martha Anne Toll

Photo by Lila Rachel Becker

In this post, Martha discusses the mythology that inspired her debut novel, Three Muses, what surprised her in the process, and more!

Name: Martha Anne Toll
Book title: Three Muses
Publisher: Regal House Publishing
Release date: September 20, 2022
Genre/category: Historical Fiction, Holocaust Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: Winner of the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction, Three Muses follows John Curtin—damaged and traumatized—having survived a concentration camp during WWII. He falls in love with prima ballerina Katya Symanova who is fighting her own demons. John and Katya find one another and unlock their futures forming the heart of this novel, which is framed against the power of three muses: Song, Discipline, and Memory.

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What prompted you to write this book?

Like many novels, Three Muses has multiple origin stories.

I was transfixed to discover three muses who were part of the mythology on the Greek island of Boeotia: Song, Discipline, and Memory. In that tradition, Song and Discipline took precedence over all others except Memory. This hierarchy resonated with me, as memory is critical to me as a writer and as a Jew.

History takes on more meaning when we can think about stories at the individual level. Three Muses follows the story of one boy, Janko, who grew into John Curtin; how he lived through a concentration camp during the Holocaust and saved himself by singing, and how it affected him for the rest of his life.

My lifelong passion for ballet was also a source of inspiration for Three Muses. I have adored ballet from my earliest memories of it, when, at age five, I started taking lessons. I tried to inhabit the ballet studio with my female protagonist, Katya Symanova, overseen by the Muse of Discipline. Katya lives to dance, but is enmeshed in a co-dependent relationship with her choreographer.

Finally, I trained as a professional musician on the viola, an instrument which is demanding for its cumbersome size and indispensable role as the inside/alto voice.

It has been my lifelong dream to get music and dance on the page. Three Muses begins that journey for me, and I hope that readers will come along with me.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

12 years (2010-2022)!

The basic idea was always there—three muses who frame a story about two individuals—a Holocaust survivor and a ballerina—with difficult pasts, who find each other and fall in love.

Beyond that concept, however, things were in flux for many years. I changed the order of the telling, added and subtracted characters, provided backstory and took it out, and changed the ending several times.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I like to say it’s all a journey. Yes! It has been a learning experience from the get-go. I have been trying to publish a novel since 2006, when I obtained my first literary agent for a novel (not this one). I kept writing novels and getting literary agents, but like so many writers, publication eluded me for a long time.

Along the way, while working full time in social justice, I developed a career as a book reviewer, which widened my reading life and helped me to learn how other authors wrote. I began to understand from observation and experience what a truly steep climb it is to write, and then publish, a novel. I also learned from all kinds of readers along the way. Writing is an acquired skill, and I am grateful to have those years to hone my skills.

And now, I am tickled and thrilled to have my debut a month before my 65th birthday!

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

There were several surprises. Probably the biggest surprise was the length of time it took to get from concept to publication. Now that I know more, I would be less surprised by that.

I don’t want to say I am surprised, because I am surrounded by loving friends and family, but I am incredibly grateful for the generosity that legions of people have given me along the way. They cheered me on, read drafts, offered advice, tried to open doors, and taught me so much.

Finally, I am delighted and surprised to discover just how many balletomanes there are out there. I had no idea!

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

My greatest wish is to engage readers on the gut level, to give them a deeply emotional and meaningful experience. Beyond that, I hope to open the curtain on ballet and expose the beauty and rigors of that discipline, and to continue what countless writers have done before me, tell the story of the terrible consequences of devaluing and “othering” human beings—the Holocaust.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Read everything you can get your hands on, self-edit ruthlessly, and persist! (I think that might be three pieces of advice!)

Join Donna Russo Morin to learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them. And uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism.

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