By Martha Anne Toll
People frequently tell me that they want to write a novel, they just don’t know how to start. Unfortunately, I have no advice, only a few thoughts on how I came to write Three Muses, which has found a wonderful home with Regal House Publishing.
An author is the worst person to describe her novel, but this was my 100-word pitch for Three Muses:
John Curtin, né Janko Stein, finds his way in America—damaged and traumatized—having survived a concentration camp singing for his family’s killer. World famous ballerina, Katya Symanova, née Katherine Sillman, fights her way from a lonely home and an abusive and intense creative partnership with her choreographer. Ultimately, she must face the impossible choice between art and love. How John and Katya find one another and unlock their futures forms the heart of this novel, which is framed against the power of three muses: Song, Discipline, and Memory.
I know what year I started writing my novel, and I know some of its sources. Most of its origin story remains shrouded, however.
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In 2010, I was casting around for a frame on which to hang a new story. I stumbled upon a tradition from the Greek island of Boeotia that honored three muses. Song, Discipline, and Memory were said to be the original muses, and, in at least one version, Memory was said to give birth to the nine muses who came down to us through history.
I don’t know ancient Greek, but I was intrigued by the translation of their names: Aoede (song or tune), Melete (discipline and the preparation for prayer), and Mneme (memory). Beyond these translations, I found virtually nothing from the few Greek scholars I consulted, nor from inquiring at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, nor from the internet.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t let go of these three women. What difference did it make that I knew nothing about them? The novelist’s job is to weave fictions.
As I started writing, I came to know my protagonist, John Curtin, who was pulled out of line to sing for the Kommandant at a Nazi concentration camp. Would the Muse of Song abandon John once he reached safety? I began to worry that music would be a lifelong torture for him.
I spent hours at my computer, trying to inhabit the ballet studio with Katya, a woman who lives to dance. Was she working too hard? Too enmeshed with Boris Yanakov, her choreographer?
They haunted me, these characters—John for the agony of his experience and Katya for the consequences of her iron will (Discipline). I watched the Muse of Memory hover over both of them. Memory tends to do that with all of us.
I took in more than a few skeptical comments about the muses. After multiple re-writes, I reached an accommodation with their role in the story. Readers will need to have the final say. It’s up to them to decide what impact the muses have on Katya and John.
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On the other hand, I wonder if my lifelong passion for ballet was the source of my novel. I adored ballet from my earliest memories of it. At age five, I started taking lessons with Miss Corinne, who wore a bright red leotard.
And yet. I’m not sure that memory is accurate. It could have been my two older sisters who took from Miss Corinne. Maybe I came with my mother to pick them up when lessons were over.
I do remember my later enchantment, waiting for class to begin at the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, peering into the window, watching professional dancers rehearse. I would have happily spent all my time in front of that little window. It was an opening to a magical world of hard work and beauty.
Or maybe it was my long years playing viola and studying music. My compulsion to try to get music on the page. My need to explore what became a fraught and painful relationship with my instrument.
Music is backbone to Three Muses—it is the vehicle for Katya to express herself, and for John, the means of survival.
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Alternatively, it’s true that the inspiration for Three Muses was my feverish interest in the Holocaust. The older I get, the closer the Holocaust feels to my birth. I read and read about it. I listen to people’s harrowing family stories.
The Holocaust is more than a living memory, it was part of my upbringing. I come from a generation who knew Holocaust survivors. They were my relatives with German accents, my friends’ parents, my extended family. They were familiar; they visited our high school classrooms. I played music with them; they were my dentist and later my bosses.
Too, they were blanketed in silence. Like so many in her generation, my Nana avoided talking about them; she declined to discuss “that Nazi business.” My parents acted similarly.
My family was assimilated in the same ways that our German relatives were. We were not religious or observant. We were Americans first, just as our relatives were Germans first.
It was the poison of anti-Semitism that separated Jews from their compatriots, that made entire societies collaborate in their roundups and murder. Now we call it “othering,” the toxic process by which a group of people is made so onerous and reviled that they become non-human, opening the way for oppression and mass slaughter.
Never forget, we Jews say, meaning never repeat, no matter which group of people are the objects of derision. Here in the United States, the president and his henchmen have been relentless in their efforts to other. Their practice is not only cruel and vicious; it is also extremely dangerous. America is in peril. We need stories to help awaken us to hatred’s risks.
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In the end, I can’t describe the origins of Three Muses. I only know that we humans are angry and loving; we are selfish and injurious and kind.
How to express the trove of unique stories each of us carries around? We can sing and dance; we can remember out loud. Or we can we suppress our traumas and live in freighted silence, hermits sitting atop memories that are too shattering to voice.
I prefer to break the silence.
Martha Anne Toll is the 2020 recipient of the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. Her novel, Three Muses,is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022. She is a regular contributor to NPR Books and other outlets; and was the founding executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a social justice philanthropy.