Debut Authors / Fiction / Interviews

Tell It Forward: Q & A with Martha Anne Toll

by Alice Stephens

Martha Anne Toll is an important part of my writing community and I had the pleasure to be a first reader for her debut novel, Three Muses, and follow the book on its journey to publication. Three Muses is a poignant love story, though perhaps not in the traditional sense, because instead of a love story between people (which it is, as well), it depicts how people come to love themselves despite trauma. The story follows Janko, a concentration camp survivor who becomes John Curtin upon his emigration to America, and Katherine, an aspiring ballerina who becomes Katya Symanova at the behest of the manipulative choreographer of her prestigious ballet company. Toll makes the world of dance and music come alive with a story that is intricate, lush, and compelling. Three Muses was the well-deserved recipient of Regal House Publishing’s 2022 Petrichor Prize.

Alice Stephens: Congratulations on the publication of your gorgeous, moving debut novel, Martha! In a poignant essay, you wrote about how you were raised by Francophile parents, deracinated from your Jewish background. Were you inspired to write Three Muses in some part to reclaim your heritage?

Martha Anne Toll: Thank you so much! I have been trying to understand my Jewish heritage for most of my life. Certainly, by my teens, I was on a trajectory of asking older relatives for their stories, reading as much as I could, and learning from friends about their Jewish practices. I have never been religious, but I am extremely interested in our history as a people and the meaning of our culture, to the extent that it is ascertainable. The more I read and talked to people, the closer the Holocaust seemed to my life. The magnitude of the atrocity increases the more you learn about it. So, I am not sure if “reclaim” is the right word, as much as my need to try to tell it forward. Unfortunately, it seems that every generation needs to relearn the lessons about the horrific dangers of prejudice and bigotry.

AS: You write about ballet and music so vividly. Please tell us about your background in both.

MAT: I studied ballet as a young girl and fell in love with it. My body was totally unsuited, so the school made it clear by the time I was 12 or 13 that it was time to go. Those early years of training instilled a love of that full-body workout and the interplay between music and dance. I also had the amazing experience of watching dancers rehearse, which left an indelible mark. I got very serious about viola around age 14 (I had been taking lessons since I was eight or nine) and studied intensively to become a professional viola player through college, before I decided on a different career. I have played and/or performed large portions of the orchestral and chamber music literature. When I began writing in earnest, my primary goal was to get music on the page. I’m still trying!

AS: Those dances that you so expressively describe—such as Seasonal Colors, Charged Particles, Veiled Road, and of course, Three Muses—are those yours?

MAT: Yep, those are all mine. I realized that I would have more literary freedom if I wrote my own, so that’s what I did!

AS: After immigrating to America, John becomes a psychiatrist, and we see him make his painful way through his medical residency. What kind of research did you do for that, as well as for his experience living in a concentration camp, singing for his survival?

MAT: I have been doing research on the Holocaust my whole life. I was heavily influenced by the writing of Aharon Appelfeld, Viktor Frankl, Primo Levi, Arnošt Lustig, André Schwarz-Bart, and others, each of whom was able to convey the raw brutality and mental dysregulation that comes from surviving the experience. And yet. Love is a through line in all of their writing. The idea of that love overwhelms me and is something I will ponder forever. I spent some time on the website of the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, and read a lot of memoirs by survivors. I did not do too much research on psychiatry, but a dear friend who is a psychoanalyst read the manuscript twice to check my accuracy. Any errors are mine, of course.

AS: I had the privilege of being an early reader of Three Muses and, in our correspondence on the manuscript, you revealed that John was your favorite character in the book. Why?

MAT: I am not sure that I would still stay that! But I think I most relate to John. I have always felt a mystical empathy with his suffering and losses and his travails at navigating the world. For me, he epitomizes much of the Jewish experience.

AS: You have long been involved in social justice work. How has that work informed your fiction writing?

MAT: I am still trying to figure out how to answer that question. I used to conceive of a bright line between the two, but how can that be, when the same person is doing both? I now think that my attraction to social justice has everything to do with my attraction to literature. I feel like each of us is put on this earth to do our tiny bit to heal the world—the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. It’s hard to articulate why you love something or someone, but my interest in fiction has to do with the way it gets to the emotional truths of our lives by uncovering the weaknesses and problems in all of us. More and more I am interested in fiction’s exploration of the ambiguities within which we humans live. Love is the most important thing, and the best social justice work derives from love in all its complexities.   

AS: Please tell us about the road to publication for this book.

MAT: Long! It took about five years from the time I started sending Three Muses out until it sold. At a very early stage, I had an agent who worked with it but could not figure out how to represent it. She was gracious, however, and encouraged me to look elsewhere. I was able to get a second agent who greatly improved the book over two years during which I wrote major revisions. I am incredibly grateful to her. However, she seemed to lose interest after she could not sell the book in New York, so I asked if I could reclaim control of the manuscript. By that time, Three Muses was starting to become a “runner-up” in a number of literary contests. I submitted it to Regal House Publishing (at your suggestion, I think!) in the spring of 2020 and was over the moon when it won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. The prize came with publication, a dream come true.

AS: I have been watching the way you are developing your online presence to market this novel. You’re even on TikTok! Could you share with us your PR tips?

MAT: My most important tip is to be a good literary citizen. To me that means sharing books that you love in any way that you can. Give shout outs to authors, especially the newbies! I try to do as much of that on social media and in my reviewing as I can. Other than that, I feel like a PR novice. Over the past year or so, I have tried to use my social media platforms a little more strategically, to engage more with readers and writers, and to share what I can of Three Muses, and what it means to me.

AS: You are a prolific book reviewer for venues like NPR and The Washington Post. How has book reviewing helped you as a writer?

MAT: I am incredibly inspired by good writing. The great privilege of reviewing is that you get to play a role in sharing wonderful books. I have learned so much about the refugee and outsider experience from books I’ve reviewed. I am also intrigued by authors who play with structure, and I hope to incorporate some of those lessons in my next project. I am in awe of many of the writers I have reviewed, including, but certainly not limited to, Sarah M. Broom, Garth Greenwell, Cassandra Lane, Paul Lisicky, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, and Morowa Yejidé.

AS: What’s next for you?

MAT: I am struggling to finish a surreal novel about a girl stuck in a painting. I’ll be excited if and when I can complete a first draft!

Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, was published in 2018 by Unnamed Press. She is also a book reviewer, essayist, editor, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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