The novelist talks family strife, Russia, and the influence of Brahms’ Second Symphony.
Barbara Quick and I met because we share a publisher, Regal House Publishing. I was so excited to read her What Disappears because it includes both Jewish themes and ballet, which I am also concerned with in my debut novel, Three Muses.
What Disappears is Quick’s third novel, following Northern Edge and Vivaldi’s Virgins. It is a beautifully written, multi-generational tale that begins in Tsarist Russia and ends in Paris at the start of World War I. Jeannette Dupres, born to a poor Jewish family, is spirited from an orphanage as an infant by a French couple. Her identical twin, Sonya Luria, raised to believe her sister died at birth, has her life upended by the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev. How the sisters are reunited, and their connection to ballet and each other, makes for a gripping read.
Tell us about how you came to writing.
It sounds crazy, but I first came to see myself as a writer — specifically, a poet — at age 9. I can remember a couple of lines from a poem I wrote then: “Far into the night, I see myself./I am alone.”
I grew up in Los Angeles, in a family whose profound dysfunctionality was something I couldn’t fully understand from the vantage point of childhood. There was only one way for me to survive, short of running away from home (which I tried once, with my baby sister in tow). I found a magical doorway through reading, theater arts, and, eventually — much later, after I’d given up on acting as a career — writing fiction. I participated in summer youth theater, singing, dancing, acting, and reading and memorizing parts from lots of plays. It was all great training, as it turned out, for a career in which being able to get up in front of an audience — or in front of a camera — without much stage-fright has proved a blessing. It also trained my ear for dialogue.
I left home for college and never moved back or felt like a full-fledged member of my family again. I knew from the moment I left college that I wanted to be “on the other side of the typewriter.” (That dates me, doesn’t it?) I had wonderful professors and had the best training for a writer, reading great literature in English and French; learning about history through the lens of literature and art; interacting with brilliant people who did so much to expand my ability to see with knowledge and insight.
How did you come up with the idea of the two sisters in What Disappears?
My sister was a very young child when I left for college. I’d loved her devotedly since the day she was brought back from the hospital. We were very close, and I was very dutiful — and it must have been horribly confusing and distressing to her when I suddenly was so far away, making decisions that could only seem unfathomable.
The theme of the lost sister — the separated twins — didn’t take shape until my sister made her decision to shut me out of her life. I was far away and really had no idea what was going on in her daily life as a latchkey kid. And, as people do, I was looking out for myself. It was a process that took many years of obtuseness on my part — a rejection that didn’t seem possible until, suddenly, it was a hard-and-cold fact. My pain fueled my character Sonya’s search for her long-lost twin in What Disappears.
How did you learn about ballet?
I love the physicality of dance, and the relief it gives me from living inside my head.
I still take dance classes with a wonderful group of Afro-Brazilian dancers in Sonoma County. Dancing is part of my wellbeing. To do my research, I learned about ballet from the inside out by reading dancers’ memoirs and watching and listening to ballet documentaries and interviews. I went onto Russian sites and found amazing archival footage. Through the generosity of a professional acquaintance, I got access to beautiful first-edition art books depicting the dancers, costumes, and sets of the Ballets Russes.
For all my research, I study history and also rely on contemporaneous first-person accounts. I got some great details about St. Petersburg in 1902 thanks to a travel memoir written by John Muir, of all people! I try to remain curious and permeable — to let facts sink in so they become part of my imagination. Then I construct a timeline superimposed on the historical timeline.
Tell us about your connection with Russia.
Three of my grandparents were born in Russia, in the Pale of Settlement, the region in Russia where Jews were allowed to live during the reign of the tsars (with periodic, regime-sponsored terrorist attacks on Jews and their businesses, such as the horrific pogrom of 1903 depicted in my novel). I heard [my] Nana speaking Russian to elderly friends and relatives — and I picked up a few phrases, enough so that the language possesses a kind of familiarity for me, even though I can’t read Cyrillic and can’t speak Russian at all. I’d like to learn it someday!
How does Judaism figure into your writing process?
I can’t say that it does, at least not in any way I recognize. I wasn’t raised in an observant household and don’t practice the religion in any way, shape, or form. But Jewish culture and lore are woven into the fabric of who I am. The neighborhood in L.A. where I grew up, Crestwood Hills, seemed to be mostly populated by secular Jewish, left-leaning families like mine. My own Jewish family history figures largely in What Disappears. I had to do research to familiarize myself with traditional Jewish practices — as well as the history of the Jews in Russia and France — to create authentic descriptions of my Jewish characters’ lives. It was similar to the process I went through in creating the Catholic setting for Vivaldi’s Virgins.
What writers have influenced your work?
Books that have withstood the test of time have exerted the greatest influence on me: I have an abiding love and admiration for the classics. There are also contemporary and recently departed writers whose work I admire. Rose Tremain, as well as Shirley Hazzard, and, when it comes to historical fiction, Hilary Mantel. I especially loved My Brilliant Friend, in Elena Ferrante’s trilogy. I was charmed by Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and adored Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.
Music is [also] a hugely important part of my life. Brahms’ Second Symphony informed What Disappears more than the work of any writer. I wanted this novel to work on the reader’s emotions in the way a great piece of music can.
Martha Anne Toll won the 2020 Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction, and her novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming from Regal House Press (fall 2022). She is a frequent contributor to NPR Books, the Millions, the Washington Post, and other outlets. For her fiction and nonfiction, please visit her website, and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.