Category Archives: john kennedy toole biography

Paperback Release, Talks and the BBC

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Some new developments in the past few weeks:

The paperback for Butterfly in the Typewriter will be released at the end of March with a new cover as pictured above. Look closely–JKT’s face is made of typewriter letters.  Pretty cool, I think.  With the release of the paperback this means your last chance to pick up a hardcover edition draws near.

On March 11 at 11 a.m. EST (16:00 GMT) the BBC Radio 4 will air the show “Curse of the Dunces.”  I participated in this production. It will be of particular interest to those of you who are intrigued by the attempts to adapt Confederacy into a film.

I have two more talks scheduled. At the end of March I will be at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA. Our panel will be at the University of Virginia Bookstore. The last time I was there I was buying books for my last graduate seminar, so it will be quite meaningful to return to sign my own book.

I will also be speaking at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Maryland on May 18. More details to follow.

Other dates can be seen here.

Lastly, I am happy to announce Butterfly has been nominated for the Library of Virginia 2013 Literary Award. Finalists will be announced this summer.

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The Book Is Here!

ImageI had been working on a variety of possible postings for this week–and then the UPS man knocked on my door.  He delivered the book–hardcover, refined, official–I love it!

It really is a fine book, especially from a design perspective.  From the font choices to the photo insert, it is well thought-out and crafted with care. And I can’t take much of the credit for that–praises go to the designers.

So after years of work, years of beating the drum for Toole’s story, I think everything that needs to said right now is this:  I am content, humbled and honored sitting outside on a spring-like day with this book in my hand, flipping through the pages.   

Ken: I hope you approve.

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The Myth of Toole: A Consolation of Embellishment

This week I did an interview with Dan Kaufman for his show Myoclonic Jerk. I admit, before the interview I had to look up the definition of myoclonic jerk, which is a physical condition and not indicative of Dan’s personality in any way.  Dan was considerate, thoughtful and well-prepared. It was a fun interview.  And his shows remind me of This American Life.

 However, I hadn’t realized until we were well into the interview that it was the first time since I had finished the book that I was discussing the Toole myth at length. The myth in question goes like this: After he poured his soul into his great novel, Toole was consumed with despair over his countless rejections and committed suicide.  All seemed lost, but his sweet dedicated mother, emerging from her grief, picked up her son’s cross.  She suffered the trials and tribulations of shortsighted New York editors, but eventually achieved his dream of publication and recognition in winning the Pulitzer.  The writer is vindicated, redeemed and immortalized.  

“Why do you think this version of his story intrigues people so much?” Dan asked. The answer to this question became apparent to me when I was reading reviews of the early 1980s for Confederacy.  Critics, having very little information about Toole at the time, tried to offer a description of his life. Readers wanted to know, after all.  But in doing so a rather self-serving narrative took root, one that Thelma Toole trumpeted. Unsurprisingly, the story of Toole’s triumph gained particular resonance with aspiring writers and artists who regularly suffer the pangs of rejection. A story of one who was consumed by rejection, but ultimately prevailed, offers hope. It also justifies suspicion of the gatekeepers that sift through submissions and dish out those heartless denials.

Sure, Toole suffered a tragic end, but he only went to one editor and Gottlieb did not singlehandedly destroy him. In fact, there is no indication his novel was actually rejected in his lifetime.  And while his mother diligently pursued publication after his death, she was not a “sweet old lady” wanting nothing more than recognition for her son. The details of his descent towards suicide are far more complicated than the Gottlieb letters (although they are insightful) and Thelma Toole was far more complicated than the archetype of a selfless mother. Of course, I explore these intricacies in depth in Butterfly in the Typewriter

My particular problem with the Toole myth is that it oversimplifies Toole and his mother. It ignores his father, such a quiet man who easily faded into the background.  And it overlooks the factor of mental illness, which Toole clearly grappled with at the end.  However the great story of vindication might serve us, I’m sorry, his suicide was not a romantic gesture in a tale of vindication, nor was it a pointed message to the gatekeepers of book publishing in the high rises of midtown Manhattan.

I did not intend to deprive artists of a consoling story when they detect the dunces acting in confederacy against them. I’ve had my fair share of rejection and we all need stories of hope. In fact, that’s exactly what myths do–they help explain the unexplainable, especially in situations where we feel utterly helpless. But it doesn’t make them true.

Until the interview with Dan I had never considered the fans of Toole that might be dismayed by my debunking the mythical aspects of the narrative. But to those who might feel that way, I say take heart.  I set out to present Toole in all the rich complexity that I came to understand him. And for me this had great value, because I came to know him as more than an author, more than a suicide, more than a sacrifice to literature and more than a humorist.  I came to know him as a person—someone who deserved a better end and a rich legacy. It took the exercise of writing the book to discern this portrait. But this was my ultimate goal: offering readers a sense of the real John Kennedy Toole. 

My thanks to Dan for giving me the chance to reflect on this issue.  Once his show is released I will post a link to it here.

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Mardi Gras Traditions, Beads and Bare Breasts Optional

This Tuesday is Mardi Gras and New Orleans is in full swing. It’s a time for revelry and abandonment, but for many New Orleanians it is also a time for family. I know that strikes outsiders as odd–since images of Girls Gone Wild gloss the American imagination of Mardi Gras. But there are wonderful traditions in New Orleans during the Carnival season that are based on the importance of community, not coed debauchery. In fact, when I think of Mardi Gras, I think of king cake parties, neighborhood parades and of course the stunning Mardi Gras Indians who dance and sing in tribute to their community’s survival.

And there is a less official tradition held by many fans of Toole all over the world. Over the course of writing Butterfly in the Typewriter, I have spoken to numerous people (so many I have lost count in fact) that read Confederacy as an annual tradition during the Carnival season. What a perfect time to revisit a parade of New Orleans characters in a most hilarious novel.

While I often visit New Orleans, at this point in my life I would much rather read Confederacy than join the masses descending on the Crescent City for Mardi Gras. If I lived in the city I might feel differently. But in the spriti of Mardi Gras I do keep a tradition of making a king cake. The process has become my yearly ritual: the sweet cinnamon dough is rolled out, braided, and formed into a circle. Then after it’s baked frosting is poured over the cake and vibrant colored sugar is sprinkled on top–green, gold and purple. It is outrageously decadent. Such a rich treat is meant to be shared, in that way celebrating the connectedness of various communities, much like the cake: woven and round.

Alas, I can’t send you a slice of my king cake—but I will share with you my favorite recipe, the one I always use, by Chef John Folse. No beads or bare breasts necessary.

And if you don’t have a Mardi Gras party to go to this year, the cake is just as delicious when enjoyed with a cup of chicory coffee while following Toole’s wild krewe on parade in A Confederacy of Dunces.

Chef John Folse’s King Cake can be found here: http://www.jfolse.com/recipes/desserts/cakes12.htm.  If you have a Mardi Gras tradition share it below.

Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!–Let the Good Times Roll!

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An Endless Parade of Poorly Trained Acrobats

Photo credit: Flickr user Steve Voght

With the election year gaining steam I am noticing an increasing use of the popular phrase “confederacy of dunces.” In titling his book Toole was inspired by this Jonathan Swift quote:

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

From Republicans to Democrats, from Supreme Court justices to pundits sitting around tables exchanging platitudes–people love to wittily place the label “a confederacy of dunces” on groups they deem ridiculous. “What confederacy of dunces upholds that corporations are people?” they say. Or–“Spend more money when we already have record high deficits!—what confederacy of dunces came up with that idea?”  So on and so on. 

Toole would love to know that the title of his book has been adopted into our vernacular–Swift too, I suspect. But there is often an aspect of this phrase that people overlook when using it.   A Confederacy of Dunces is not about dunces and geniuses. In fact a genius never really appears in the novel. While Ignatius believes he is a genius surrounded by dunces, we know he is as ridiculous as every other character, if not more so.

I know, I know…some who are familiar with Toole’s life will say—Don’t you get it? Toole was the genius and those dunces in New York City that rejected his novel were in confederacy against him!  Well that part of the story is fraught with errors that I address in Butterfly, but most importantly one must remember Toole did not focus on his own sense of dejection as he wrote the novel.  In fact he was absolutely convinced a New York house would publish his book.  And when Robert Gottlieb first wrote him praising it, he certainly didn’t imagine it would all end the way it did. Perhaps his title was eerily prophetic for what ultimately happened, but he did not intend it to be that way.

Besides, Toole’s satire is far more complex and far more profound than a way of saying the rare genius suffers conspiring idiots. In fact, Toole’s novel operates on the principle that despite all the divisions we make out of society, rich or poor, black or white, genius or dunce, we are all deeply interconnected. While we may differentiate ourselves in a variety of ways, convinced in the stability of our convictions, eventually the delusions of these divisions will succumb to the inescapable tethers that bind us together. No matter how far we push away from each other, inevitably the strings contract and fling us back onto each other.  Politicians point their fingers at their opponents and one race points fingers at the stereotypes of another race, but eventually they will all collide in absurd ways.  Its awkward, and tragic, and funny all at once.

That’s not to say Toole was making a political statement or suggesting a pathway to overcome differences and achieve a more harmonious society. We will always try to separate, divide, distinguish and then at a tipping point tumble back together like an endless parade of poorly trained acrobats.  

And for Toole the true genius is not the one that identifies the confederacies of dunces around him, but rather the person that claims neither genius nor dunce, and laughs at it all as he tumbles about in the absurd parade.

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Is this Toole’s Last Letter to the World?

During my last trip to the Toole Papers at Tulane I had an experience that literally sent chills down my spine.  I spent an hour examining the very rough manuscript of one of Toole’s short stories titled “Disillusionment.”  The structure of the piece is disorienting.  But the title alone demanded my attention. 

In the story, there appears to be two main characters, a middle-aged woman and a young man named Samuel.  Both are outcasts. And the first scene that Samuel appears in the story takes place in the year 1937—the year of Toole’s birth.

To my surprise, submersed in this very rough draft I found one of the most wonderful descriptions of New Orleans Toole ever wrote—far more complex and rich than his descriptions of the city in A Confederacy of Dunces.  And as the story carried on, I noticed clues pointing to something ominous in the design.  Once Samuel found a place of refuge, a second floor apartment in the middle-aged woman’s house in the French Quarter, he ascended the stairwell, entered the room and slit his wrists. What’s even more arresting is how Toole characterizes the suicide as eerily beautiful, a moment of freedom and reconnection with someone to whom Samuel feels he belongs. 

I could hardly contain myself as I read these passages in the Special Collections reading room.  “Oh my god” I kept muttering under my breath, surely attracting suspicious glances from other researchers.  The only question I could not answer was the date.  When did he write it?

Months later, and just before I made final edits to Butterfly, I did a last minute interview with an acquaintance of Toole’s. Charlotte Powell, now the owner of Book Rack in Birmingham, Alabama, had Toole as a guest at several of her parties at her apartment in the French Quarter in 1967.  I never mentioned the story “Disillusionment” to her, but she told me of one night at one of her gatherings they received word that a woman had committed suicide down the street by slitting her wrists in a second floor apartment in the Quarter. 

It seems likely “Disillusionment” is Toole’s contemplation about that event.  But of course he changes the victim to a young man, begins it in the year of his birth and ends it with the young man’s suicide.  And all of this seems to have occured mere months before Toole took his own life.

I must admit, in the absence of his suicide note (which his mother destroyed), I often think about “Disillusionment”, as if behind the fiction lies Toole’s last letter to the world.  And to be honest, it does not strike me like a cry for help. It does not strike me as a frantic moment of distress.  All seems to be at peace–at least in the story.

Of course, to read those lovely passages written by Toole and my assessment of them in the context of his life… you will have to read Butterfly in the Typewriter.

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Moving Forward

This week I heard back from my publisher and we are moving forward with the book. Cover design is in the works and some edits will be coming, but it sounds like nothing drastic.

I stopped by Joel Fletcher’s house today to drop off a copy of the manuscript. He had just made some sfoof (a delicious Lebanese cake with semolina, tumeric, pistachios and pinenuts). With a cup of dark Louisiana coffee, it was a perfect treat for a rainy day in Virginia.

I am looking forward to his comments on the manuscript. He has been with me through this whole process. It is hard to believe I have been working on this book for over four years now. And when I started out on this adventure I didn’t expect to meet some of the most wonderful people I have ever known. I suppose in some ways I have Ken to thank for that, but in large part, Joel has been the bridge to many extraordinary people.

Stay tuned. In the next few months all the pieces will start coming together.

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Just in from New Orleans


I have just returned from New Orleans. It was my last research trip before I complete the manuscript and send it off to the publisher. There were many wonderful events that happened this past week.

On Monday I had lunch with the Dominican Sisters that once ran Dominican College (pictured above) where Toole taught the last few years of his life. Thanks to Karen at Loyola for giving me a tour of the old college and for the special access to the cupola–offering a rare view of New Orleans.

I recovered some great material at University of Lousiana at Lafayette and his old high school, dove back into the Toole papers at Tulane one last time and met with one of his previous students.

But the highlight of the trip was meeting the sister of Toole’s best friend. She has so many lovely stories of Toole that speak to his lively personality and his development as a writer. Best of all, we got her to sit for a recorded interview that will be added to the film.

Many thanks to all of the wonderful people in Louisiana that have welcomed me and supported my research. I expect the next time I am down there will be to promote the book after publication

I will begin reading the manuscript through “cover to cover,” as it is intended, by the end of this week.

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