Before finding her voice on paper, Martha Anne Toll sought it through movement and music. Now, after having written dozens of fiction pieces, essays, and book reviews, Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, is set for release this September. I caught up with Martha to discuss how she masterfully puts her own experiences with music and movement into words.
Note that this interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
RR: How did your journey into writing, particularly writing about dance, begin?
Martha Anne Toll: Writing was in the water supply at home. My mother was a professional freelance copy writer and editor who worked from home. I grew up knowing what editing was just by looking at the pages spread across our dining room table. My father, a lawyer, was also a very serious writer.
Home was Philadelphia. I started taking dance lessons when I was around 4, and I absolutely fell in love with ballet. My mother then enrolled me in classes at the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet (now called Philadelphia Ballet), and although I lacked the talent to advance, just being able to watch professional dancers rehearse left a huge imprint.
After ballet, I pivoted into learning the viola. I performed as a semi-professional orchestra and chamber music player throughout college and for some time thereafter. But as time passed, I began to realize more and more that words really were, and are, my first love. Although I went to law school and then spent many years in the non-profit world, I have finally moved into writing full time.
RR: Where do you draw inspiration from?
Martha Anne Toll: In addition to my own forays into music and dance, reading is my biggest source of inspiration. I read approximately 2 to 3 books a week—both fiction and non-fiction. I also enjoy memoirs.
I believe that writing begets writing and that the only way to learn and improve as a writer is to write. When I worked at a full-time job, I used to write a lot on the weekends and at night. But now writing is my full-time job and I try to write up to 4-5 hours each day. I am my own worst critic and an insane reviser. I also make an effort to get feedback from other writers and readers to hone my craft.
RR: You have written about classical music, Jewish culture, and social justice. What makes writing about dance so different?
Martha Anne Toll: In the early days of writing Three Muses, I had a concept for the ballerina Katya Symanova. But it took me 4 or 5 revisions to realize that I was struggling with having her perform in ballets that had already been created.
To free up the fiction, I realized I needed to choreograph my own ballets. That was an incredibly challenging process. How does one put music and dance on the page? They’re both ephemeral art forms. At the same time, I enjoyed the challenge of putting them into words.
RR: Three Muses won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and will be published this September by Regal House Publishing. What fueled your idea for this book?
Martha Anne Toll: Three Muses is a love story that explores the emotional power of music and dance, the interplay of time and memory, and what it means to lead a disciplined life.
One day, I randomly stumbled upon the three Greek Boeotian muses of music, discipline and memory. These themes really resonated with me, and are interwoven throughout my novel. Mneme is the muse of memory. Melete is the muse of meditation. Aoede is the muse of song.
Speaking of memory, I believe that every writer writes from their own memory in some way or other. A tale that threads through Three Muses is about surviving the Holocaust which was inspired by two individuals who were very important to me. One was my mother’s cousin, a German refugee who moved to America with her grandmother around 1938. The remaining members of her family were unable to make it out and were murdered in Auschwitz. And the other was a beloved mentor and friend who shared his harrowing experience escaping from a Nazi internment camp in France when he was 12 years old. Both of their stories left an indelible impression. I thought a lot about them when I was writing this book.
RR: What do you hope readers take away from engaging with your work?
Martha Anne Toll: As a writer and reader myself, I care about deep emotional engagement. In fact, I value that much more than plot. My biggest dream is to move the reader emotionally. I hope to create an immersive experience for anyone looking to think and experience their feelings more deeply.
RR: You’ve reviewed dozens of books by BIPOC and women writers. What have you learned from this experience?
Martha Anne Toll: This literature is just so rich, and, not surprisingly, extremely varied. Working on these reviews has been a huge opportunity not only to learn about other cultures but also much more about my own backyard.
I have also been thinking and reading a lot about immigrants and refugees, given my own family’s history of immigration, as well as the protagonist in my book, and above all, the roadblocks that Americans have erected to keep out immigrants. In my view, this xenophobia is a national tragedy. Every immigrant has a unique experience of living in this country. The more we understand, the more we will understand each other.
RR: What are some of the challenges you think writers, especially women writers face?
Martha Anne Toll: There are so many women writers who have been working so hard for so long and are still underrecognized. For instance, Deesha Philyaw’s Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which happens to be one of my favorite books from 2020, was turned down by over 40 publishers, but became a huge hit soon as it came out.
I think a major obstacle that women writers face is the profound economic challenges that come with trying to make a living as a full-time writer. This, combined with many women’s choice of motherhood, can make for a very tough combination.
RR: What advice do you have for aspiring women writers?
Martha Anne Toll: Firstly, call yourself a writer and insist on making the time to write. Second, keep writing no matter what. You will get rejected 99.99% of the time, and while that’s extremely hard and painful, that’s the norm. There is nothing like having a career that gives you such tremendous meaning and purpose. It’s a feeling that is sure to offset the disappointments from rejections you’ll experience.
© Reanne Rodrigues (5/12/22) Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
“Ballet is an art form that is passed from teacher to student, in ways that have not changed much in hundreds of years.”
Read Martha’s FF2 review of Gavin Larsen’s memoir Being a Ballerina: The Power and Protection of a Dancing Life.
Visit Martha’s website to peruse her enormous list of interviews and reviews.
Click here to pre-order your copy of Three Muses through Regal House Publishing.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: “Photo of woman wearing ballet shoes – Credit to https://homegets.com/” by homegets.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
En pointe is a French expression used in ballet to mean “dancers moving gracefully on the tips of their toes.”
Bottom Photo: Author Martha Anne Toll. Photo by Lila Rachel Becker. Courtesy of Martha Anne Toll. All Rights Reserved.