At 97, Author Tolles Has Even More Tales to Tell

Author Martha Tolles
Photo by Zane Hill / OUTLOOK
Author Martha Tolles talks with Tina Kleindorfer after signing a copy of Tolles’ newest book, “Love and Sabotage.” Tolles, a San Marino resident, has mostly written children’s books throughout her career and more recently dived into the world of adult fiction.

With eight children’s novels and three other serialized stories published and sales of more than 2 million copies, Martha Tolles finally decided she was grown up enough for a foray into adult fiction.
During a recent interview, Tolles, 97, who has admitted to planning her 95th birthday two years in advance and to currently planning her 100th, said she’d already started to consider the follow-up to last year’s “Love and Sabotage.” That tale chronicles a World War II-era reporter, Marty, determined to investigate a shipyard fire while repelling her too-friendly editor and longing for the return of her fiancé, a deployed Marine pilot named Eddy.
“I didn’t mean to start thinking, but I started thinking,” Tolles said. “’What’ll it be like when Eddy returns home? Will he be injured?’”
Tolles was recently featured as the guest interview at the home of local resident Julie Lin, who once a month invites authors for interviews before a small audience to unearth inspiring stories. Lin was previously the morning anchor for an Oregon news station and now produces interviews through online channels.
Herself a San Marino resident, Tolles is known as a children’s author, beginning with her 1965 title “Katie and Those Boys,” kicking off a full Katie series and leading into the Darci series. She also had three serialized stories published in the Los Angeles Times’ former kids page that were put into book form and a litany of other short stories and essays published in magazines and other outlets.
It wasn’t the first time she’d written. An Oklahoma City native, Tolles said she moved to Day, New York, where an aunt who worked as a reporter in New York City seems to have inspired her. Tolles gave reporting a try, eventually becoming the managing editor of a publication.
When she married husband Leroy — yes, a Marine aviator — and he returned from his deployment, they relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, so he could attend Harvard Law School. After that, they moved to Los Angeles, having lived in California during Leroy’s enlistment and fallen in love with the state. Leroy would go on to co-found the influential law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.
Their family grew to include six children, five boys and a girl, making Tolles a stay-at-home mom. An eventual back surgery resulted in her having to abstain from housework for long periods of time. The extra time to think, plus a routine of reading books to her children, sparked something.
“Later on,” she explained, “when I had back problems and I discovered fiction, life changed.
“I just was so bored,” Tolles added. “I had done journalism when I was young, but I had never really written fiction. Part of finding the time [to write fiction] is thinking. You really need to think things out first, and it’s easy to do that when you’re doing routine work. That’s what was good about being a mother.”
Tolles said she enrolled in a night class at Pasadena City College that taught fiction writing, an experience that proved to be formative for the aspiring author.
“The teacher was particularly skilled in making us feel like it was important to do these things,” she said. “It was a very inspiring class.”
Tolles’ works of fiction, like so many others, draw in part from reality. Her first novel was originally titled “Too Many Boys,” a clear parallel to her experience as the mother of five sons. Her latest mimics her own life, as a female reporter in a man’s world with a pilot husband off at war.
“I start off with reality and then make it up from there,” she explained. “I just found that it was so much fun to make it up.
“I always wanted to write about the experience of being a reporter,” Tolles added. “It was a very new thing at the time, a woman being a reporter.”
Although being a mom allowed Tolles the time to conceive story ideas, putting them in writing was another matter. She said she often was forced to write while accompanying her children to doctor’s appointments or surfing lessons.
“It was really very difficult to get time,” she said. “My goal was to get that first hour of the day, after they were fed anyway. People got curious. They’d mostly think I was a teacher. They’d wonder, ‘What was that woman doing?’
“I do remember a day that I skipped a Little League game and stayed in the library to write a book,” Tolles admitted. “I didn’t do that very often.”
Inspiration from her own mother pushed Tolles to continue her career. Her mother, formerly a teacher, formed a reading clinic in their community “before there were reading clinics,” Tolles said.
“Part of my motivation, you might say, in doing all of this was to inspire children to read,” she said. “I know how important that was because my mother had been a reading teacher. I tried to write the kind of thing that would make a child want to read it. I loved to feel like I was helping with that. That was part of the thrill of having big sales.”
Tolles offered a lot of credit to her husband for his support throughout their marriage and her writing career.
“If he would have said something like, ‘You have a lot on your plate already,’ I’m afraid I would have just said, ‘OK,’” she admitted. “He was very supportive. When he could, he would go with me to my writing class. He’d sit in the back of the classroom and read the newspaper. When I started to sell, he was just proud of me. He’d say, ‘Just call me Mr. Martha Tolles.’”

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