Category Archives: toole biography

44th anniversay of JKT’s death

JKT's final resting place.  Photo taken 3/26/12. Message left to Toole on the paper had been washed away by the rain.

JKT’s final resting place. Photo taken 3/26/12. Message left to Toole on the paper had been washed away by the rain.

Today is the 44th anniversary of John Kennedy Toole’s death. Every year this day makes me ponder the question of “why” someone so talented, someone with so much promise, would take his own life.

A few months ago The Daily Beast published some new findings I made on his death.  At least for me, this story brings a kind of rationale to his untimely end.  You can read “The Professor and the Doomsday Clock” here.

Rest in Peace, Professor Toole.

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Obama and daughters at my local bookstore

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Yesterday President Obama and his daughters stopped by my local independent bookstore One More Page Books in Arlington, VA. They bought some children’s books and, in doing so, supported a small business that serves as a beacon for readers in the DC metro area to engage with writers and the written word.  They regularly host author talks and themed literary events.  And they are the only store I know where you can pick up your next read, some decadent chocolates and fine wine.   

The folks at One More Page have helped my readers as well. On several occasions over the past year sellers at my talks at book festivals have sold out.  I had no complaints about that, but I did feel bad for the readers unable to get a signed copy of Butterfly in the Typewriter that day. Fortunately, I was able to refer them to One More Page and we got inscribed copies delivered to their homes. On one occasion it was for a former student of John Kennedy Toole.

This is the kind of service that most independent booksellers can offer and why I think it is important to support them.  Like many authors, I am always happy to stop by my bookstore to sign or inscribe some books.  After all, reading is more than consumption of a product.   At its best it creates a connection between reader and author.  The more personal I can make that connection, the better. 

Of course, I am grateful for all the bookstores that have welcomed me this year, from New Orleans to Richmond.  But I am especially happy for One More Page to get this much deserved recognition.

Read about the Obamas’ visit to One More Page here.

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A Biographer’s Highest Critic

ImageWhen I first started doing research for Butterfly, I was fortunate to have met John Geiser, a tall man with thick gray hair and a distinctly Uptown New Orleans accent–a refined southern drawl, with clear pronunciation, as if every word he said was deliberate. John is a walking encyclopedia of New Orleans history. Every neighborhood, every house of note, he could tell you the story behind it. With the politest of smiles, he is quick to correct anyone who confuses Cajun with Creole or mispronounces the name of his beloved city.  It’s not “Nawlins” like a drunk tourist on Bourbon street might say. Every letter should be pronounced, he instructs: New Oorleeans.  

John is also deeply connected to the Toole story.  He was neighbors with the Tooles growing up. He walked with little Kenny on the first day of school in 1942.  And he was there at the end, helping Thelma Toole in the last few years of her life, taking her about town, making photocopies, whatever she needed. After she died, John served as the executor of her estate and was integral in establishing the Toole Papers at Tulane University.  We wouldn’t know half as much about Toole today if it were not for John’s stewardship to his friend’s legacy.  

Needless to say, he was a rich source for me to draw upon.  But because he was so close to the story, and knew Thelma Toole so well, as the release date neared I became nervous about what he would think about my book. I knew he was upset about the first biography and he felt betrayed by those authors he had helped.  I had worked hard to gain his trust.  Still, I worried John might not like some of the things I wrote, particularly about Thelma. 

Perhaps my anxiety over his response created some sort of subconscious avoidance behavior leading up to the release date. While I would normally touch base with John before coming to New Orleans, I failed to contact him to tell him about the readings and the documentary screening.  I sent out a mass email invitation to friends.  But John is a renaissance man who exists without the intrusions of a computer or a television.  And giving him the customary phone call he so deserved just slipped my mind. 

When I arrived at The Garden District Book Shop for my first reading I immediately thought of John. A Confederacy of Dunces was first released at this shop and John was there for that occasion.  His house was a few blocks away.  But it was too late to call now, I resolved.

As the chairs were being set up and wine and crackers set out for guests, I wandered around the store, enjoying the unique treasures of an independent bookshop.  I turned the corner of an aisle, and there I saw John.  He was smiling and holding my book in his hand. I will never forget what he said to me, “Cory, you did it. You got it right. It’s just beautiful.”

“You already read it?” I asked. He told me he walked into the bookstore a few days earlier and saw Butterfly on display, excitedly picked it up, started to read it and walked out without paying. John is known well enough in the neighborhood to get away with that. He returned the next day to pay for the book.

That evening I talked about the life of Toole on the anniversary of his death and saw John smiling with approval. It was a wonderful feeling. And as people asked questions, it felt as if something was being righted in this little corner of the world. We were speaking of Toole, the writer, with the respect and honor he deserves.

After the reading John invited me out to eat, along with two other friends.  We talked more about New Orleans and Thelma and Ken. And after a delicious meal we strolled back to the car, enjoying the views into the regal homes of the Garden District.  We carefully stepped over bricks upturned by the roots of the ancient trees towering above us as the evening wind rustled the leaves. It was a perfect New Orleans night, one that seemed like a dream to me after so many years of researching and writing. 

In the days that followed I heard from more of Toole’s friends. They felt, as John told me, I got it right. 

I have enjoyed reading the official reviews over the past few weeks, but I must admit, praise from people who knew Toole is the highest praise I could receive. Afterall, I had them in mind through the whole process.

When I first started writing the book, long before I had an agent, an editor, or even a title, I wrote down three questions that became my guideposts: 

1. Is this the biography of Toole that I wanted to read but could not find: engaging, honest, balanced, fair and grounded in research?

 2. Will Toole’s friends recognize him in this depiction of his life?

 3. Would Toole recognize himself in this book if he were alive to read it? 

 That third question is nearly impossible to answer of course, but I held it close to me as I wrote.

And on the night Butterfly in the Typewriter was released, I strolled through Toole’s Uptown neighborhood with his old friend.  And for the first time I thought to myself, yes, Ken would approve.

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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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Manucript Submitted

After nearly five years of research and eight months of intense writing, rewriting and editing, I submitted the first draft of Butterfly in the Typewriter to my editor. Now I wait for my editor’s review. This gives me some time to reflect on the book writing process.

When my agent first contacted me I remember restraining some enthusiasm for the project because, as I told him, I did not want him to think I was insanely obsessed with this subject. He calmly replied “Well you have to be obsessed with a subject to write a book about it.” I didn’t realize how true that was at the time. I asked myself frequently why I was doing this– as my wife took on more of the burden at home and I no longer could let myself go in a moment. Even when I ate dinner the book was on my mind. In the last few weeks as my ever-looming deadline neared, food, what I consider one of the great joys in life, became bland.

Of course, I knew why I was writing the book. I felt it needed to be written. I was writing the book that I wanted to read, but couldn’t find, five years ago. This was my guiding principle throughout this endeavor. I continually approached the book as a reader. Of course, other reasons came to light along the way, as I came to know friends and acquaintances of Toole and as I was drawn into the intrigue of the story.

Ever since I started on this project many people have mentioned in passing to me that they too havean idea for a book. And of course I have encouraged them. But before asking about book ideas, my first question would be, why do you think it needs to be written? It seems you need to have a vision of the thing from the beginning…and even then you need to be ready for it to turn out quite different from what you expect.

So several days ago, I hit the “submit” button and sent hundreds of pages of writing and research into digital space. There were no fireworks, no crowds cheering, no lines at my door waiting for my autograph. I didn’t expect that response, nor do I expect it once this book is released. But perhaps I was not ready for that odd empty feeling, having handed off something I have labored over for so long. Toole expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Robert Gottlieb, when he essentially admits his novel has serious problems, but he was terrified that someone would actually point them out to him.

Perhaps unlike Toole, I welcome my editor’s critique. With some distance I am already starting to rethink some sentences. I am getting more sleep. And I am slowly regaining my taste buds. Last night, for the first time in months, my wife and I enjoyed a lovely dinner. In fact…it was the first time I ever ordered a steak at a restaurant. It was delicious!

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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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