Exclusive Interview: “Three Muses” Author Martha Anne Toll
While abuse can take many forms, one commonality is that it can help if you share your feelings with someone who has suffered similarly. It’s what draws together the two participants of Martha Anne Toll’s dark fantasy romance novel Three Muses (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Toll discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, as well as why you shouldn’t let the genres listed limit your expectations of this story.
Photo Credit: Lila Rachel Becker
To start, what is Three Muses about, and when and where does it take place?
Three Muses is a love story between a Holocaust victim who survives by singing for the concentration camp Kommandant who murdered his family, and a ballerina who is enmeshed in an emotionally abusive and codependent romantic relationship with her choreographer. Much of the action takes place in America and Paris in 1963, with other parts to the novel set in the 1940s and 1950s. The novel ends in 1973.
Where did you get the idea for the plot of Three Muses? What inspired it?
The three muses that frame the plot are Song, Discipline, and Memory. They were part of the Greek mythological tradition from the region of Boetia. When I discovered these three mythological creatures, they struck a literal chord — they seemed to be exactly the trio I needed to frame my novel. John is loosely associated with Song, and Katya is loosely associated with Discipline. Memory is the most powerful of the three, and has a deep impact on these characters as well as on all of us.
Is there a reason you had John / Janko being a Holocaust survivor, and one who was forced to sing for Nazis in a concentration camp, as opposed to someone abused in a different context? Like, say, forced to get beer for their abusive father?
I have to say, I never considered that. I had the concept of John / Janko early on, and early on I knew that he had to sing to survive. Singing and music are what saved John’s life, but they also connote the murder of his family. I was particularly interested in pairing John with a ballerina, who cannot work without music. So, when John falls in love with her, he is face to face with his own trauma.
In a similar vein, is there a reason why Katya / Katherine is a ballerina in an abusive relationship with her choreographer as opposed to something else, like an actor in an abusive relationship with their agent, or something not artistic, like an athlete in an abusive relationship with her coach, or even just someone in an abusive relationship with someone they don’t work with so intimately?
I wrote from a place where I knew something about the subject. Ballet was very familiar to me, whereas I know almost nothing about acting, and sadly, I am totally ignorant about professional sports.
Also, is referring to them as John / Janko and Katya / Katherine in this interview correct?
I love that you refer to both of their names. Janko was the name in the old country. When he comes to America, he chooses to be called John because he is convinced that that’s what every American is named. Katya is born Katherine Sillman and renamed Katya Symanova by her choreographer, who wants to bring the aura of a Russian ballerina to her. Depending on where we are in their personal story, I use only one name for each of them; Janko and Katherine when they are young and John and Katya when they are adults.
Three Muses sounds like a dark romance, but with some fantasy flavoring. Is that how you’d describe it?
Specific genres have a tendency to limit readership and oftentimes, a book fits into multiple categories. I never considered that my book could be a dark romance, but I love that idea. Some people consider Three Muses to be historical fiction, because it is set in very specific time period and a few historical characters are mentioned (like Jackie Kennedy). On the other hand, the story is entirely fictional, which is not always true for historical fiction. Perhaps that grab-bag category “fiction” might be the best description.
Three Muses is your first novel, but you’ve written a number of short stories. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Three Muses but not on anything else you’ve written?
I have tried to absorb the lessons and the understated writing styles of many survivors who wrote about the Holocaust, so I would certainly mention them. I am going to miss many writers here, but here are a few: Arnošt Lustig, André Schwarz-Bart, and Primo Levi. I was also bowled over by Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation, which is not a Holocaust novel per se, but is a brilliant depiction of the madness of the time period and of the camps, specifically.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Three Muses was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
No. I rarely see movies or TV and am not into games. (I wonder what that makes me.)
Someone who doesn’t need a PlayStation 5? … Anyway, along with writing fiction, you also review books and interview authors for NPR Books. Do you think either reviewing books or talking to writers about them may have influenced how you wrote Three Muses?
I love book reviewing because it widens my world. I have also learned a lot from interviewing authors. The individual stories about how writers come to complete books are fascinating. I’ve learned that we all approach our work in different ways and from different perspectives. I would say that the most influential writing for me is well-crafted, finely honed writing, whether I’ve reviewed the book or it was written 300 years ago.
This might be a dumb question to ask, given that you said you don’t watch a lot of movies, but Hollywood loves romantic movies, especially if they have a little magic. Do you think Three Muses could work as a movie?
Three Muses is quite cinematic, and I would be thrilled if it were made into a movie. If you know anyone in Hollywood, please let me know.
So if someone wanted to make a Three Muses movie, who would you want them to cast as John/ Janko and Katya / Katherine, and why them?
I wonder about [The Time Traveler’s Wife‘s] Theo James for John, and for Katya, I’d love to have Isabella Boylston, who dances for the American Ballet Theater.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Three Muses?
I hope your readers will pick up a copy of Three Muses and share it with friends and family. I’d be delighted to zoom into book groups if folks are interested.
Finally, if someone enjoys Three Muses, what dark and slightly fantastic romantic novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
That’s a tough one. I’ll recommend British writer Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water, which sets a gorgeously rendered romance against the disturbing backdrop of police brutality in London. For straight up fantasy that incorporates Russian and Yiddish folktales, Americana, a wandering house filled with ghosts and other magic, Genna Rose Nethercott’s Thistlefoot, is terrific. It just came out.