Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, THREE MUSES, published by Regal House Publishing in September 2022, was shortlisted for the Gotham Book Prize and won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. THREE MUSES has received glowing tributes since it came out. Toll writes fiction, essays, and book reviews, and reads anything that’s not nailed down. She brings a long career in social justice to her work covering authors of color and women writers as a critic and author interviewer at NPR Books, the Washington Post, Pointe Magazine, The Millions, and elsewhere. She also publishes short fiction and essays in a wide variety of outlets. Toll is a member of the Board of Directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. Toll’s second novel, DUET FOR ONE, will be out in early 2025.
Regal House describes THREE MUSES as follows:
Three Muses is a love story that enthralls; a tale of Holocaust survival venturing through memory, trauma, and identity, while raising the curtain on the unforgiving discipline of ballet.
In post-WWII New York, John Curtin suffers lasting damage from having been forced to sing for the concentration camp kommandant who murdered his family. John trains to be a psychiatrist, struggling to wrest his life from his terror of music and his past.
Katya Symanova climbs the arduous path to Prima Ballerina of the New York State Ballet, becoming enmeshed in an abusive relationship with her choreographer, who makes Katya a star but controls her life.
When John receives a ticket to attend a ballet featuring Katya Symanova, a spell is cast. As John and Katya follow circuitous paths to one another, fear and promise rise in equal measure.
Three muses—Song, Discipline, and Memory—weave their way through love and loss, heartbreak and triumph to leave readers of this prize-winning debut breathless.
I’m delighted to be interviewing fellow Regal House author Martha Toll, who describes her writing journey.
I had been trying to publish a novel for close to twenty years before Regal House released it and THREE MUSES won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction, which came with an honorarium and publication. During those twenty years, I wrote several (unpublished) novels, and got a lot of feedback.
Part of my writing journey has been learning how to ignore bad editing advice. Early on, there were years when I thought that all feedback was worthwhile. Although much of it was, some of it was beside the point, misguided, and downright terrible.
As noted above, THREE MUSES is framed by three muses, who represent the themes of the novel: Song, Discipline, and Memory. My favorite negative feedback was “to lose the three muses, get rid of them from the book.” By the time that piece of twisted wisdom came my way, I had the strength of my convictions to say “Nope, I don’t think so. Those three muses represent the themes that are the core of my novel.”
WHY DO YOU WRITE?
I can’t answer that, but I have some theories.
Writing was the air I breathed growing up. My mother was a professional copy editor and editor, and my father was in love with words. He was a lawyer who was passionate about writing. Sometimes we had to bring a poem to dinner, other times we learned new vocabulary at the table. The dictionary was always right behind my dad, so that he could look up any word that came up. The encyclopedia was never far away.
Our house was full of books, and as soon as I was old enough, my mother took me to get a library card. I vividly remember being thrilled to have that library card and I’ve been at the library ever since.
With this early immersion in books and words, as I soon as I knew my letters, I was never not writing.
WHO ARE YOUR LITERARY INFLUENCES OR INSPIRATION?
Given the above, my parents were my earliest and biggest influences. I have always been a fanatical reader and am inspired by great writers who focus on craft and language. There’s a long list of those—but here are few—Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Shirley Hazzard, Vikram Seth, Kiese Makeba Laymon, Paul Lisicky, Toni Morrison, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Mann, and on and on.
WHAT GENRES DO YOU WORK IN?
I consider myself primarily a novelist, even though it took a long time to publish my first novel, THREE MUSES. I am hugely excited that my second novel, DUET FOR ONE, is coming out in early 2025. I am also an active book critic, so criticism is one of my genres. I like writing essays as well and publish them regularly.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST WRITE A STORY?
I can’t quite pinpoint that, but know that by age eight at least, I was busy writing stories. I wrote plays for my three sisters to perform. I have a clear memory (and somewhere I have a copy) of my first real short story, taken from a dream, about a tree whose blossoms looked like magenta tissue paper. That must have been around age eleven or so. During the rest of junior high, I continued to write a lot of stories. You can see that the writing bug started early!
WHAT’S THE HARDEST PART ABOUT WRITING OR PUBLISHING?
There’s a lot that’s hard, but I think the hardest is persistence in the face of rejections. Rejections are the norm in writing and publishing. Until I understood that, I was in deep despair. Now I favor the writing advice to aim for one hundred rejections a year. That sounds about right.
HOW DO YOU START A NOVEL?
If I knew the answer to this, I’d be very popular. One thing I do know, however. Try to avoid the beginning or the ending when you’re starting. Beginnings are insanely challenging and tend to hang us up for months and sometimes years at a time. Endings share the same daunting attributes.
I recommend starting in the middle, anywhere, really. Try not to think of the whole, otherwise you may feel too overwhelmed. Write what you can because we’re good at worrying about what we can’t.
My experience is that starting in the middle and working outward presents less self-censorship. You will get to the beginning and ending soon enough. In the meantime, lower your stress level and work on the middle.
WHAT’S THE UNDERLYING MESSAGE OF YOUR WRITING?
I am interested in love—all kinds of love—and death, how we understand and react to death. The themes that I tend to fixate on are memory and time, and how memory affects the present. I am also passionate about music: how to get it on the page and capture the emotions that it engenders. I don’t think of my fiction as carrying a message, yet I hope there is one: We all share a common humanity, and it behooves us to put some love and tolerance and understanding into the world.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THREE MUSES?
Depending on how you count, between eight and ten years.
DO YOU NEGLECT PERSONAL HYGIENE OR HOUSEKEEPING TO WRITE?
I haven’t seen this question before! It’s a great one. I try not to neglect either personal hygiene or exercise when I’m writing. But housekeeping is another story. I go for clean dishes and clean clothes and, unfortunately, not much else, when it comes to housekeeping. My office is in a state of chaos with books and papers everywhere. Every three months or so, I bulldoze the piles, but somehow they reappear within a day or two.
Thanks, Martha, for taking time to join me on my blog!
Visit Martha’s website