by Matha Anne Toll
(Regal House Publishing, 20 September 2022)
Martha Anne Toll is a novelist, essayist, and social justice advocate. Her debut novel,
THREE MUSES won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and will be out
September 20, 2022. It has also received a starred review from Kirkus, the highest rating
Kirkus awards, and has been selected for The Millions’ most anticipated second half of
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, becomes 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
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.
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Toll, thank you for joining us at Authorlink today! It was a pleasure
reading THREE MUSES.
It 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.
According to Pausanias, in the late 2nd century AD, there were three original Muses:
Aoidē (‘song’ or ‘voice’), Meletē (‘practice’ or ‘occasion’), and Mnēmē (‘memory’) before
the Nine Olympian Muses were founded in Greek mythology. Together, these three form
the complete picture of the preconditions of poetic art in cult practice. In Delphi, three
Muses were worshipped as well, but with other names: Nētē, Mesē, and Hypatē, which
are the names of the three chords of the ancient musical instrument, the lyre.
How did these muses intertwine and inspire you to formulate your story?
TOLL: I was excited for these three muses—the Muses of Song, Discipline, and
Memory—to frame my book. John Curtin survives a concentration camp by singing for
the kommandant who killed his family, and Katya Symanova is a ballerina whose
discipline resembles religious fervor. These two protagonists loosely reflect the Muses
of Song and Discipline. Muse of Memory is the most powerful of the muses, suggesting
that both John and Katya have lived through trauma, which deeply informs their lives.
The muses represent ideas that are braided through my book, although the muses
themselves stay in the background for the most part.
AUTHORLINK: Such a moving overlay of these beautiful themes. THREE MUSES is
sublimely written. Every sentence is a joy to read. Even though your prose is tight and
disciplined, it’s also elegant and flowy, just like ballet.
How many times did you review and edit your manuscript before you gave it to your
first reader to check? Who is your first reader?
“I started writing THREE MUSES in 2010 and it wasn’t really finished until 2018-2019.”
TOLL: Thank you so much! I started writing THREE MUSES in 2010 and it wasn’t really
finished until 2018-2019. I had readers along the way who helped crystallize my ideas
and give the book direction. My first reader is usually my husband. Ironically, he doesn’t
read fiction, so his comments are usually aimed at clarity and whether the prose is
understandable. I rely on several other early readers as well. One is a professional
violinist with whom I played chamber and orchestra music in college. She not only has a
magnificent musical ear, but also a beautiful ear for language. Another is a former
colleague who is also a writer, who is extremely detailed and forthright which is
necessary when you’re getting feedback.
AUTHORLINK: They sound like amazing friends! How wonderful. In the early days of
writing THREE MUSES, you had a conceptualized ballerina Katya Symanova. However,
you struggled to have her perform in ballets that had already been created. To free up
the fiction, you realized you needed to choreograph your own ballets. (International
Swans, 12.5.22). That must have been incredibly challenging, but we imagine, wholly
Can you explain how you did this? Did you enlist the help of dancers or choreographers?
Your writing is so graphical, and as a person who also does ballet, I could almost see the
ballerina pirouette and lift off the page.
“I tried to offer just enough information so that the reader could fill in the rest with her imagination.”
TOLL: What a lovely comment. I didn’t ask for help from dancers or choreographers,
because I was so imprinted with watching them rehearse when I was a child, from
studying ballet, and from reading and going to performances. Since ballet is a visual,
ephemeral three-dimensional art form, capturing it on the page was challenging. I
decided to make up my own ballets so that I could ensure that they buttressed the plot. I
chose the musical pieces and described the lighting, sets, costumes, and even the names
of the ballets to support the action. I tried to offer just enough information so that the
reader could fill in the rest with her imagination.
AUTHORLINK: Amazing. Imagine if a choreographer creates your ballets one day
inspired by the creative vision from your writing. How cool would that be!
You have been working on the book since 2010. What happened in between the times
you were not working on the book?
How many drafts did you have before you settled on the final story? Is it very different
from its original form?
“I’ve lost track of the number of drafts, but I would say it was at least ten.”
TOLL: I’ve lost track of the number of drafts, but I would say it was at least ten. I had a
clear sense of both John and Katya early on, but they went through different adult lives
during the process. For example, I experimented with giving them each children at
different times, but I found the children taking over the book, which wasn’t what I had intended! I also struggled with how to tell the story and in what order. Should I tell it
straight up chronological? How much backstory and flashback? The sequence changed
quite a bit between drafts.
During this time, I was working full-time running a social justice organization, so I did
not have a lot of time to fret over changes to the manuscript, although of course, I did! I
kept trying different formulations until I got where I needed to go.
AUTHORLINK: Admirable effort. I don’t think many people realize what hard work
awaits to write a good book, let alone a fantastic book!
You started in law. When did you realize you wanted to devote your time to writing?
TOLL: I practiced law inside and outside of government for about eight years before I
finally decided that law is not usually the best way to solve problems. I looked for more
meaningful work and was extremely lucky to land a job as the executive director of a
family philanthropy that was just starting up. I helped launch and build the organization,
which focused on preventing and ending homelessness, ending the American death
penalty, and on criminal justice reform. We were a bit of a tugboat on the national
scene—participating in a lot of national campaigns and movement building and leading
where we could, with an important emphasis on racial justice. I really loved that job and
stayed for 26 years.
“…what really kicked me into gear writing fiction was the sudden death of my mother…”
This job was very writing intensive, as were my previous jobs, but what really kicked me
into gear writing fiction was the sudden death of my mother in 1999. The words started
gushing out with her passing, and I began shaping them into longer fiction. Much of my
fiction deals with absent mothers. I started building my book reviewing career about ten
years later. Toward the end of the 2010’s, I began to feel like I was on course for a train
wreck—I felt like I was working full time and writing full time, and so I made the
difficult decision to leave my job. I thought I owed it to myself to go all in on writing. I
left in 2020, coincident with the start of the pandemic, though not intentionally!
AUTHORLINK: What a trajectory. Thank you for sharing that with us. We’re sorry about
Did you have any challenges in launching your debut novel? If so, what were they, and
how did you overcome them?
“…I came to learn that rejections are the norm in creative writing.”
TOLL: Great question. I might rephrase it—was anything not challenging?! I have been
writing novels for a long time. I had written several unpublished “debut” novels before I
wrote THREE MUSES. I like to think of all my earlier writing as an apprenticeship period,
the required 10,000 hours to try to learn a craft. Like most writers, I was demoralized by
the number of rejections I received, but I came to learn that rejections are the norm in
creative writing. Now I try to see them as part of the learning and growing process.
I deeply appreciate the support I’ve gotten from all kinds of folks, and from bookstores
and other venues. It’s exciting!
AUTHORLINK: It IS exciting! How and when did you start writing reviews, essays and
interviewing authors for NPR, the Washington Post and many others?
TOLL: I began regularly writing reviews in 2011, shortly after the launch of the
Washington Independent Review of Books. I went to the organizing meeting for the
WIRoB and was inspired by its mission. I have been writing off and on for them ever since. From that platform, I was able to pitch to other publications, like The Millions, NPR, the Washington Post, Bloom Magazine, Words Without Borders, and Pointe Magazine. I have always been a voracious reader, so I love sharing what I’m reading with others.
AUTHORLINK: What cause first inspired you to become a social justice advocate? Tell
us some more about the programs you hold close to your heart.
TOLL: I talked a bit about this above, but to be more specific—our work supported
advocacy and policy change. I am very proud of my early work that resulted in raising the
federal budget by hundreds of millions of dollars to support homeless programs. We
were also very early on in the field of philanthropy to highlight the connections between
racial injustice and our terribly flawed criminal justice system. Some of this came from
years of intensive work opposing the American death penalty, which is medieval in its
unfairness and brutality, and completely out of line with other “advanced” countries.
The American public better understands the links between our racist history and our
inequitable justice system now, but when we started there were just a handful of us in a
room talking to each other. It has been encouraging to see the leadership in this field
emerge, especially among formerly incarcerated people, dynamic young people of color,
and amazing Black women and other women of color doing pathbreaking work in the
south and across the country.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds so satisfying! Describe your writing day. Do you have a set
routine or rituals?
How many hours or words do you like to accomplish every day? How much do you
spend on research?
“I try to write every day, but I do not set a goal for hours or words.”
TOLL: I try to write every day, but I do not set a goal for hours or words. Fortunately, my
writing life is varied, and I am usually on deadline for something, often a book review. I
feel it’s as important to keep my writing chops in shape by using them regularly, kind of
the way I view exercise. Writing is writing, whether it is in essay form or fiction. I also
believe writing begets writing; words on a page tend to spur other words on a page!
In some ways, I spent my whole life doing research for THREE MUSES. As I was drafting
the novel, I don’t recall setting aside particular research times, but I read what I could
when I had questions about specific issues. I have spent a lifetime paying close attention
to ballet, and also to educate myself about the Holocaust, so it is hard for me to
attribute exact timing for those parts of my education.
AUTHORLINK: It sounds like a wholly organic experience. I can relate! If you could
invite anyone for dinner, living or dead, who would it be?
TOLL: I think it would be the person or persons who wrote Genesis. I’ve heard there
were actually three writers for Genesis. It would be cool to ask them what they were
aiming for, and why our biblical heroes are so incredibly flawed (we know they reflect
AUTHORLINK: Great answer! What was your most cherished book, and why?
TOLL: This is a hard question because there are too many to name! I’ll cite Shirley
Hazzard’s THE GREAT FIRE which bowled me over with its gorgeous language, as
compressed as good poetry and as powerful as the most emotional of novels.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely. Yes romance (if we’re lucky to have it) is the magic in our
lives. What are you working on now? Can you tell us a bit about it?
TOLL: I am wrestling with the first draft of a surreal novel, which still has a long way to
AUTHORLINK: That sounds brilliant. Ms. Toll, thank you for your time today. It was
great chatting with you about THREE MUSES and your writing process. We wish you the
best for your excellent book and future endeavors!
TOLL: I can’t thank you enough.
About the Author:
Martha Anne Toll writes fiction, essays, and book reviews, and
reads anything that’s not nailed down. Her debut novel, THREE MUSES won the
Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House
Publishing on September 20, 2022.
Toll brings a long career in social justice to her work covering BIPOC and women
writers. She is a book reviewer 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 has recently joined the Board of Directors
of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
You can find out more about Martha at https://www.marthaannetoll.com/,
https://www.facebook.com/martha.toll and https://twitter.com/marthaannetoll