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“Would you like to meet Marilyn Monroe?”

 
I am not one to place credence in astrology or planets coming into alignment to explain the extraordinary, but I must admit the milestones in the writing of this book over the last few years merged with the milestones of my personal life in uncanny ways.  And now that the release date is in view, I feel at liberty to talk about them.
 
At first, several literary agencies passed on my idea for the book. I received trite rejections:  “Not for us, sorry.” “We pass…but good luck.” And one of my favorites: “Perhaps you should approach a Southern independent press.”  But on the day my first son was born I got a call from the man I always hoped would become my agent.  As soon as I could I ran to the parking lot of the hospital to return his call and he told me he was interested in taking me on as a client.  Over the next eighteen months our proposal made the rounds and while there was interest,for one reason or another a deal did not come in.
 
And then on the day my wife and I got the wonderful news that we were going to have a second child, I got a call from my agent telling me he had a verbal agreement from a publisher.  There were no details yet, but my book was going to be published!   I was so thrilled that I popped open a bottle of champagne.  I raised a glass to my son-in-the-making and a glass to Toole.  I think I drank the whole bottle that afternoon on the deck.
 
Weeks passed by with no details.  I understood–budgets had to be made, numbers crunched, dates established.  Meanwhile, I plugged along with research and planned a much-needed research trip to New Orleans.  While I had faith the contract would come in, I couldn’t help but feel unnerved as I left behind my pregnant wife and one year old son for a full week to chase down interviews in New Orleans. “What if this thing falls through?” I thought.
 
But two hours after my plane landed in the Crescent City my agent called.  We had the contract and it was official.  The details were in.  And that night I was invited to a party with Joel Fletcher and Joe Sanford at a house on Bourbon Street.  It was surreal to be introduced as the biographer of John Kennedy Toole at a party on Bourbon.   
 
Once I was back home, we had some back and forth about details in the contract, words needed clarification, an added phrase here and there. There was no cause for concern–just a little delay. The holiday season came and went.  And in March–a few days before the birth of our second son–  I signed the book deal and received my first advance.
 
And I couldn’t help but smile when I got news of the official release date: the day before my second son’s first birthday.  
 
All of these milestones repeatedly lining up became rather amusing to my family.  It became a running joke with us.  How many kids must I have if I wanted to make a career out of writing books? And it just made sense that I would dedicate the book to my wife and two sons, since our lives seemed to be in some kind of rhythm with it. 
 
But there are several milestones that I never joked about as I was writing–ones that gave me pause.  John Kennedy Toole was twenty-five when he started writing A Confederacy of Dunces.  He was a young, confident man who had much to say and nothing to lose. I was twenty-five when I started writing his biography.  Toole was thirty-one when he committed suicide, his manuscript for his novel tucked away in a box.  I will be thirty-one when Butterfly in the Typewriter is released.  And it was 1980 when his novel was finally published.  1980 was the year of my birth.  
 
I can’t say that I believe this means something profound –other than it makes me feel connected to this story in a way that surpasses an intellectual intrigue.   Of course, I am not the only one who feels that way.  I have read countless letters from aspiring writers who deemed Toole a kind of patron saint of the dejected author, a martyr who became canonized–and thereby justified.  Still, in my own way, I like to believe my connection with him is special–probably because I have spent so much time contemplating his life.
 
I always felt that I would have enjoyed Toole’s company.  And I consider myself lucky to have spent many years getting to know a man who in the end I really like, but unfortunately never met in this life. 
 
Admittedly, I reserve some hope that we will meet in the next life.  Of course, if that does happen, I will have to look him square in the eye and wait to see what he says about my book. 
 
My highest hope is that he simply offers me his famous half-smile–and then, leaning forward so no one else can hear, he asks grinning, “Hey, you wanna meet Marilyn Monroe?”
 
 
 

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Moving on to Photos

This week my editor gave me an official response to the manuscript, which was better than I ever anticipated. With no major changes requested, we have moved on to securing rights for photos and quotes in the book. With wideranging sources, this is a tedious and time consuming task that is now going full speed.

However, I am finding the whole process of book publication quite fascinating. And while I am growing tired of scanning the 300+ pages of the manuscript to make sure I secure rights for quotes used…I am encouraged by a discussion going on about me writing a second book. Of course, that will have to be material for another blog–or info for my webpage once I get that fired up.

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Film now available

As of today you can view the entire documentary John Kennedy Toole: The Omega Point at the following website:

http://www.jktoole.com/viewthefilm.html

Just follow the directions at the top and voila!

The filmmaker, Joe Sanford, has a longer version in the works and would appreciate any feedback you have to offer.

Of course, I will forward him any comments posted here related to the film. Hope you enjoy!

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How many words?

I emerge from my cave to say….

The finished manuscript is set for nearly 95,000 words. Out of interest I tallied up the words I have so far in the “finished chapters” and I was at 70,000. I can’t say they are all golden words, but it is 70,000 words of edited language that I consider good. I have volumes of discarded language–no reason to count that.

I wish I could say it has been one flash of genius after another. But like most writers in a project of this size I go through moments of great exhiliration, feeling that I am writing something original and worthwhile. At times I feel like I am reading the book that I wanted to read when I was searching for a good biography of Toole four years ago. And then at other times I doubt and question every choice I make. Why did I use that image? Am I going to far in my interpretation? Should I restrain myself or should I give more?

But with over 2/3 of the book more or less ready to be submitted, I at least have some sense that this project is survivable.

Ah–I have breathed the fresh air too long. Back to my cave…

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Reading and Film Screening

I will be reading from the manuscript for Butterfly in the Typewriter and screening the documentary film, John Kennedy Toole: The Omega Point at Germanna Community College–Fredericksburg Area Campus at 7 pm this Thursday evening, February 17th. There will be a question and answer period following the event where I will answer questions on the process of securing a literary agent and getting a book deal. Please come!

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Happy Birthday Ken

Toole was born this day in 1937 in New Orleans. His mother called him her “Beauteous Babe.”

I have spent the day thinking about Toole’s time in New York City. Thanks to my May trip to Columbia and having the opportunity to see the dorm room in which he lived in 1958, I was able to identify some of the old photographs in the Toole Papers at Tulane.

It has been a good day, pondering a time when he had the world in front of him–nothing but opportunity, potential and talent.

Cheers to you Ken!

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Two more chapters down–almost

I am making steady progress. I finished two more chapters this month. I focused on Toole’s days at Tulane and his first year at Columbia. I am quite excited about the Tulane chapter, wherein, I think I have contributed insight into his intellectual foundations as a writer and a satirist.

I am two steps closer to portraying him as the complex individual that he was–as opposed to a caricature of a suicidal artist. Of course, I will need to make some corrections and additions as I have several more intereviews lined up that will probably give me some quality material for those chapters.

Today I begin on the chapter focused on his year in Cajun country. This is when he met his primary inspiration for Ignatius Reilly and two of his truest friends, Patricia Rickels and Joel Fletcher. I need to hammer out two more chapters before the first of the year to say on schedule for my July deadline. So far, with much dedication, all goes well.

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On Writing

Over Thanksgiving, as there was much chatter about the book deal, one of my cousins asked me about the writing process. How do you go about writing a book, he asked. Of course I had to clarify if he meant the whole business part of securing an agent, then a publisher, coming up with a marketing platform and so on, or if he meant the actual writing of the book. He meant the actual writing part.

Indeed, it seems everyone has a great idea for a book, but it’s just that damn writing part that is so difficult to get around. Well, I am in the midst of writing my first book, so I am no expert. But I can say for myself that writing rarely involves some mystical moment where inspiration wells from my inner soul and on to the paper—or in this case the laptop screen.

As far as I can tell, there is no secret to writing. You just have to write, edit and rewrite, over and over again, until you get it the way you want it. Of course, there are those virtuosos that crank out pages of brilliance in minutes, but they are rare. And I assure you, for the most part, the thousands of writers out there right now hacking away at their keyboards are not tapped into some great spirit of composition.

I like the Philip Roth approach. I write and rewrite every day. It is hard. It takes time. But eventually you figure out what you want to say and the perfect way to say it. And for many writers that achievement gives greater satisfaction than publication, as it should.

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We are close

We are getting closer to a deal. Hopefully there will be good news to report soon.

In the meantime I have made contact with many people that graduated with Toole from Columbia in 1959. It is amazing to see how one class of graduates can go in so many different directions. They have helped me construct a picture of Columbia from 1958-1969. As I write this chapter, I am coming to realize the importance of New York in this story.

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Updates

The documentary on Toole has been accepted to the New Orleans Film Festival. Congratulations to Joe Sanford! I will be attending. It will be a chance to hang out with Joe, someone who has become a close friend in this endeavor. Hopefully Joel Fletcher will be joining us as well. He has talked about doing a Toole walk through the French Quarter for years. Perhaps this will be the year!

While in New Orleans, I will be doing more research. I received a call from the owner of the Toole House, the last place Toole lived before he went on his final journey. The owner of the home has invited me to come visit the house. It will be quite interesting to walk Toole’s last steps as he departed from his mother’s home and his beloved city.

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