A Life of Books: Martha Anne Toll, author of Three Muses

Martha Anne Toll is the author of Three Muses, which won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. She is also a book reviewer and author interviewer at NPR Books, the Washington Post, Pointe Magazine, andThe Millions. Recently, she joined the Board of Directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

Debutiful asked her to answer our recurring A Life of Books questionnaire so readers can get to know her better.

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Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

There are too many to name, but I’ll list a few: the C.S. Lewis Narnia books, P.J. Travers Mary Poppins Books, Edward Eager books, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. Almost all of these are fantastical on some level. I was a kid who lived a lot in her head, and I spent a considerable time imagining going on these kind of adventures. I also remember the specific friend (thanks Julie! still swapping book recommendations with you), who turned me onto most of those books, and owned the complete Narnia series. What a treasure trove.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

Yes! But unsurprisingly, my two adult children discovered lots of new books on their own. They are in the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials generation (ok, I got hooked on those books too), and also plowed their way through a lot of YA books, a category that did not exist when I was growing up. A particular favorite of my younger daughter is Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. (I love that book too!) I do not believe in censorship of any kind at any age. Children should read whatever they want. I refused to join the mother-daughter book groups that were popular when my kids were growing up, because I was afraid that making reading a requirement—with Mom no less—would stultify their passion for books. My kids fortunately had a much more diverse set of choices than I had, at least in elementary school. By middle and certainly high school I was on my own hunt for nonwhite and non-American authors. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I admit—sheepishly—that that would be books by Jane Austen. Now, my morale suffers terribly if I don’t read Pride and Prejudice at least once a year, and Jane (fortunately, we’ve moved to a first name basis) is in my pantheon of heroes. I was slow to warm to Charles Dickens (was bored by Great Expectations in high school), but I was saved by reading Charles Dickens during my first year of law school and particularly fell in love with David Copperfield

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

I think I read Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage three or four times by the time I was twenty-three and have not returned to it since. I wonder whether it would still hold up. I was also transfixed by Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, which I am confident would hold up, but I haven’t tried.

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

Good writing is always inspiring. I didn’t tend to read “on topic” specifically, for fear of interfering with the part of my mental real estate that was novel-focused. On the other hand, it took ten years to write THREE MUSES, and myriad books helped my journey. I discovered Arnoŝt Lustig, Gayl Jones, Nate Mackey, Christopher Wiman, Erwin Mortier, Albert Memmi, Sulaiman Addonia, Aharon Appelfeld, and more than I can recount here. I am forever in search of writing that is both well-crafted and moves me.

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

There are two books I wish I had written: Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music and Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire.

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I have been catching up on a lot of ballet books, which I was reluctant to read while I was writing THREE MUSES for fear of being influenced. I have finally read Choura, Alexandra Danilova’s iconic memoir, and some terrific recent ballet novels—Meg Howrey’s They’re Going to Love You (I’m reviewing that one) and Megan Abbott’s The Turnout. I’m absolutely bowled over by Jennifer Homans’ forthcoming book on Balanchine—Mr. B—which I am also reviewing. Other than that, I usually have three or four books going at a time, and they tend to be a combination of new fiction by nonwhite and white authors, old novels by nonwhite and white authors, a wide variety of nonfiction, and any number of memoirs—recent and not so recent. Recent author crushes include Caleb Azumah Nelson, Deborah Levy, Andrea Lee, Roxane Dunbar Ortiz, Xochitl Gonzalez, Toni Bentley, and Kathryn Schulz.

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

New surreal novel.

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