Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Q&A with Martha Anne Toll


Photo by Lila Rachel Becker



Martha Anne Toll is the author of the new novel Three Muses. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and The Millions. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: You note that the book's inspiration came from learning about a tradition from the Greek island of Boeotia involving the muses of Song, Discipline, and Memory. How did that research lead you to write this novel?


A: These three muses resonated with me. Although the more familiar nine Greek muses represent a fuller spectrum of the arts—history, drama, tragedy, comedy, poetry, instrumental music, astronomy, and more—the pared down three felt truer to me.


Having trained as a classical musician (viola), the idea that Song held such a special place was incredibly meaningful. I had a music history professor in college who asserted that song and dance were the earliest art forms, and that likely song came first, because dance needs song.


As I thought about that assertion, Song began to feel like both ancestor and stand-in for all the arts. With John as my protagonist, I was excited by the full implications of associating him with Song.


I am fascinated by Discipline in all its aspects. I subscribe to the old adage: 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration. Talent alone is nothing without hard work. Discipline supports any endeavor and is a necessity for proficiency in the arts. And yet. What about creativity? Spontaneity? Innovation? Fantasy? Daydreaming? Discipline alone does not cut it!

The concept of preparation for prayer is also included in this Muse of Discipline. I love that spiritual component. It feels different and equally important to an understanding of Discipline. I kept these ideas in mind when writing Katya, and they deepened as I began to know her better.

Finally, Memory is something we all share, a vital component in our lives. Our childhood burns bright as we get older. Memories run from joy to trauma. As we lose loved ones, Memory becomes a pillar of grief. Memory is how we connect to our ancestors, and in Judaism, to our ancient traditions and beliefs.


Even before I had a fully developed concept of plot, I knew that how John and Katya grappled with troubling memories would be germane to their characters.


Q: Can you say more about how you created your characters John and Katya?


A: From very early on, I had an idea for these two characters—a ballet dancer wedded to her art, and a Holocaust survivor who had lost his entire family, came to the United States, and became a psychiatrist, in part, to heal himself.


I don’t write sequentially, so over the years, I wrote different parts of their lives out of order. Much of their backstory ended up on the cutting room floor. Some of their external circumstances changed over time, but not the basics of their personalities.


Q: The writer Paul Harding said of the book, “A meditation on history, music, the catastrophic inheritances of the Holocaust, and the so common, painful hiddenness of hope itself, Three Muses captivates the reader from the first page to the last.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was gobsmacked and honored! I fell in love with Paul Harding’s Tinkers long before it won the Pulitzer Prize. I was incredibly moved that he had “gotten” my book at such a deep level. I can’t think of anything more wonderful for a writer than to be understood.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: As I mentioned, I tend not to write in sequence; it is my way of avoiding writer’s block. If I am stuck in a manuscript, I try to move to another part that feels more approachable. As a result, much of my work starts from the middle and grows out.


I did not know the ending until late in the process. It took me nine-ish years to write this novel, and it went through many iterations. At one point John was married with children when he met Katya, but his children started to take over the novel. Early on, Katya was a retired dancer and a mother, but over time I realized that that was not, in fact,  at all who she was, so that too changed.


That family configuration—either the marriage or the children—could not work for the core of the story, so they ended up on the cutting room floor.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am close to finishing a first draft of a surreal novel. I am having a lot of fun with it—but also, it’s hard! In addition, I continue with my ongoing book reviewing and author interviewing work, which I love. Reading is germane to who I am. I also have a small consulting business in social justice to continue what has been a key part of my career.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I can’t help adding that my debut novel is coming out a month before my 65th birthday. I hope that other writers will take heart from that. For me, it’s been a long journey to publishing, and I’m grateful and thrilled. Thank you so much for this opportunity to chat with you!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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