Friday, 10 May 2013

Butterflies and Typewriters

The story behind John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces has become one of the great yard-sticks writers use to beat unsympathetic publishers.

A genius author, shamelessly ignored by the publishing world, dies unknown and his aging mother sets about haranguing editors to read her son's masterpiece. She finds a publisher and the book, after finding its receptive public, wins the Pulitzer.

Of course, it's a posthumous prize for Toole. He committed suicide after falling into despair that his book would ever see the light of day. On closer inspection, the story gathers more layers: an editor at a major house had shown interest but his seemingly endless calls for alterations drove Toole to the edge.

At least, that's the now accepted myth: Toole was hounded to death by an uncaring world waged in war against all literary effort. It's a comfortable tale told by embittered writers everywhere, but how much of it is actually true?

Cory MacLauchlin.
In his book Butterfly in the Typewriter Cory MacLauchlin uncovers a much more complicated story. It's one where family issues run deep and where none of the accepted wisdom can be taken at face value.



I spoke to MacLauchlin about exploding the legend that surrounds John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces.


Tony Black: Most people know the 'romanticised' version of the John Kennedy Toole story - a tortured genius commits suicide when his talent goes unnoticed - but that's really just the marketing pitch, the real story's more prosaic, isn't it?

Cory MacLauchlin: Suicide is complicated, especially when preceded by a mental illness. The truth is the more poetic version of Toole the martyr depends on the notion that he was actually rejected by publishers. He wasn’t. He submitted it to Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster. They corresponded about the manuscript for nearly two years, and Gottlieb encouraged Toole to keep writing. A literary genius rebuffed by the publishing world serves the purpose of writers beleaguered by rejection. So he becomes the patron saint of struggling authors. But this overlooks the devastating effects of his mental illness and a home environment that was toxic. Unquestionably, he was frustrated his novel had not been published, but other factors took a substantial toll on him.  His mother dominated the home, his father had gone senile and it is clear he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. It’s impossible to untangle these root causes. They all contributed to his demise.

What seems extraordinary to me, as a writer, is that Toole only tried Confederacy on one publisher . . .

Toole loved many of the novels Gottlieb had published, like Catch-22 and Stern by Bruce Jay Friedman. He determined Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster was the right editor for the book.  When Gottlieb responded with interest, Toole saw his plan coming together. In his mind, the book was going to be published and he could live the literary life.  But he also felt a deep sense of connection to the work.  So deep in fact, he could not bear to make some of the cuts Gottlieb suggested. After two years of editing he was exhausted. He could have gone to a small press or self-publication, but his mind was set on a top publisher.  Being widely read was part of his goal.

Robert Gottlieb's edits, again to me as a writer, seemed incredibly vague, more so when you think of the time he lavished on the likes Joseph Heller's Catch-22 . . .

It would have helped if Toole and Gottlieb could have sat down together.  On two occasions Toole tried to meet with Gottlieb in New York. On the first occasion Gottlieb’s assistant asked to reschedule with Toole, but for whatever reason, Toole decided to come to Simon and Schuster anyway.  On the second occasion Toole was incensed by Gottlieb’s suggestion that the book has no point.  Toole drove from New Orleans to New York and showed up unannounced at Gottlieb’s office. When the assistant told him Gottlieb was away, Toole had a nervous breakdown and passed out right there in the offices at Simon and Schuster. It is difficult to say how he would have reacted had Gottlieb suggested more direct revisions. At times Toole defended Confederacy, but then later admitted much of the book needed a red pencil through it.  According to Toole’s mother, Thelma, the version we have is the “original genius of her son” untouched by an editor.  So presumably it is the version Gottlieb deemed unready for publication.

Certainly, Gottlieb has been portrayed as the villain of the piece by some people - that's far from the truth, isn't it?

Robert Gottlieb.
I think so. After the success of the novel Toole’s mother, Thelma, went on a campaign against Gottlieb, calling him a villain and “Jewish monster” in the New York Times. She misrepresented the correspondence between Gottlieb and her son, saying that Gottlieb devastated Toole with his cruelty.  Like any editor Gottlieb encouraged and critiqued Toole’s writing, but I found no cruelty in his letters. Their last exchange was friendly and the door remained open to Toole to keep submitting revisions or other work. Gottlieb thought Toole was too close to the novel to see straight, so perhaps starting another project would provide some healthy distance from the character.

Of course, I think Gottlieb was wrong in his final assessment of the book. It is a marvellous story that explores the absurdities of the human condition. And it is filled with unforgettable characters. But not everyone loves Confederacy.  Many people despise it with a passion. 

Toole never met him, but didn't really do himself any favours with an editor who had expressed an interest in his work, did he?

For Toole, everything depended on the publication of his novel. It was his pathway to the life he wanted to live as a writer. But he was also unsure what to do with some of Gottlieb’s criticisms. How would he go about limiting Ignatius, a character who refuses to be quieted? Toole was navigating a divide between a publisher in New York and the intensity of his feelings towards the novel in New Orleans.  Obviously this struggle became unbearable and so he eventually tucked away the manuscript.

When Toole doorstepped Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster's offices and had a nervous breakdown there, that was really the beginning of the end wasn't it?

I think this indicated the end for Gottlieb and Toole, at least in the short term.  They continued to write, but I suspect Gottlieb would have to be stunned at what Toole produced to enter into a contract with him.  Obviously, there were all kinds of factors that led to Toole’s breakdown.  He was frustrated and not just with Gottlieb. If the book wasn’t published he would be sentenced to a life of teaching college English and supporting his aging parents.  So he drove over fifteen hours in one last effort to confront Gottlieb and gain some clarity. His plan for his life was crumbling.  It was the beginning of the end for him.

He was clearly a very ill man by the end of his life, you dismiss the repressed homosexual angle that's been offered in the past, would you hazard a guess as to what Toole was suffering from?

John Kennedy Toole.
He was never diagnosed, so all we have is anecdotal stories of his deteriorating condition.  People close to him explained the classic signs of paranoid schizophrenia. Several of his friends and confidants suggested this possibility to me. It is clear that his perception was distorted, from believing his students were chasing him to his conviction that A Confederacy of Dunces was stolen and published under a different title.

Let's talk about A Confederacy of Dunces - a title taken from 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" - the book's a bit like Marmite, you either love it or loathe it . . .

It divides readers. I find most people who dislike the book take issue with the main character. As Walker Percy said, Ignatius is an anti-hero.  We aren’t really supposed to cheer for him. We marvel at his audacity, his ridiculousness and the humour of his failures. Some have suggested perhaps you need to understand New Orleans to get the book.  But that does not reflect the readership. It has been translated into over 18 languages.  It is a cherished book all over the world.  Almost monthly I receive an email or a tweet from a person who just completed their “annual reading of A Confederacy of Dunces.” I have been amazed at how many people read it at least once a year as a ritual and an act of devotion. 

I take it you loved the book - is this how you came to write Butterfly in the Typewriter?

It is my favourite novel.  And I have long loved the city of New Orleans. In 2006 I was preparing to teach a course on New Orleans history and culture, but was disappointed with the limited resources available on Toole’s life.  I read Joel Fletcher’s memoir Ken and Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, where Fletcher called for a quality biography on Toole. I found out Fletcher didn’t live that far from me in Virginia so we began writing to each other. 

Like most people, I was intrigued by Toole’s tragic end, but I became more intrigued with how Joel and others described his wit, his humour and his keen perception of character.  I felt his life story and the story behind the book deserved to be told with clarity and sensitivity, not speculation and sensationalism.

It's a picaresque novel, but it's also a potage of all Toole's influences, isn't it?

Absolutely. Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, Salinger—the list goes on. Toole was an insatiable reader. What I find so remarkable, and exciting as a reader, is that all of these elements are there but not emphasized. One does not need to understand the allusions to enjoy the book.  It’s as if Toole didn’t try so hard as say T.S. Eliot; it all just seemed to come together. As he said, when writing the book he was propelled by a decade of pent up energies.

It's pretty safe to say such an anti-hero as Ignatius Reilly would struggle to find a publisher in today's relentlessly profit-driven publishing world, isn't it?

Maybe. There is a place for anti-heroes, but they usually offer us some resolution in the end, some sense of redemption. I actually think the picaresque presents more of a problem. Compared to today, it is remarkable that Toole sent his manuscript directly to Simon and Schuster and got a response. Today, he would first have to get an agent who believed in the book. Although, I guess in the end he landed Walker Percy as his posthumous agent.

There's been a few film projects of Confederacy - Stephen Fry wrote one screenplay and John Belushi was earmarked to star as Ignatius in another . . . they talk about the book as jinxed in Hollywood now, I believe . . .

The project is riddled with challenges, but the jinx has had more to do with layers of contracts, I believe. I am sure one day it will be made into a film. It is under Scott Rudin’s production company now.  Of course, casting Ignatius is key to the film—along with a strong screenplay. I imagine Ignatius Reilly to be one of the more terrifying roles to take on as an actor. 

Back to the publication process, or the romanticised version, Toole's mother, Thelma, is widely credited with getting the book published - again, it's a more complex tale isn't it?

Thelma certainly had persistence in submitting the manuscript. And undeniably if it wasn’t for her we would not have the novel today.  She tried for years to get a publisher, but was rejected from major publishers to small presses.  Then she cornered Walker Percy and, essentially, thrust the manuscript on him.  He didn’t want to read it so when he got home he handed it to his wife, Bunt Percy.  Bunt fell in love with the book and told her husband to read it. That was really what jumpstarted Walker’s interest in it. And it took Walker years to land a publisher for Confederacy. Thelma did persevere, but it was also because of the Percy’s efforts the book was published.

Thelma truly dined out on her son's fame after the Pulitzer win, though . . .

Thelma Toole.
Through the novel’s success she lived the life she always wanted to live. She was invited to give talks about the book, but she took it as an opportunity to play the piano, sing a few songs and give a dramatic reading of some characters in the novel.  She would often end her programs with “I walk in the world for my son.” She paid tribute to him, but she also revelled in the attention. 

She seemed quite an irascible character - why do you think she destroyed her son's suicide note?

At that time suicide would shame a family. Considering he was buried the next day, only three people were at the funeral and a death announcement was not posted in the paper until the day after the services, I am sure Thelma felt a deep sense of shame, along with guilt.  No one knows for sure what the note said. When asked she would sometimes say, “Horrible things, just horrible things.”  In destroying the letter she made her first act in revising her son’s life. She created and emphatically defended a one-dimensional portrait of him: the genius who was never fully understood or appreciated throughout his life—from his elementary school days to his interaction with a New York publisher. The challenge in understanding Toole is to acknowledge her portrait of him, but also see the other sides of his personality.


Love or hate her, Thelma is integral to the mythology now; why do you think people are still so fascinated with the Toole story?

In many ways the story speaks to the artistic struggle.  He was a man searching for his voice through his writing. And he found it after decades of observing the characters of his city and gaining some distance from it all in his little room in Puerto Rico.  It just took us nearly twenty years to hear that voice. 

The story has also been used countless time to despair the publishing industry. The relationship between business and art is rarely a cosy one.  But I find it more remarkable to focus on the number of people that believed in the book.  It wasn’t just Thelma. There were many integral people that fought for its publication and its lasting success.  So in the end, his creation overcame his death—and in some way that is what we want art to do, to strike a chord that reverberates through the ages.

Toole’s suicide, rightly or wrongly, has become every embittered writer’s barometer of the misbehaving publisher now . . .

Understandably so.  This is the version of his life his mother crafted and critics largely embraced.  After the publication of the book many frustrated writers wrote to her to pay their respects and commiserate over those nefarious publishers in New York. One even wrote to Gottlieb and scribbled devil horns and pointed tails in the margins. 

To a degree writers are justified in seeking solace in Toole’s story.  I certainly did as I went through the process of finding an agent and securing a publisher.  The pursuit of publication is difficult, frustrating, even maddening at times. 

But Toole’s demise is far more complicated than despair over rejection.  Mental illness consumed him and I think that is important to acknowledge.  I have seen too many times writers and readers taking liberties with his story to suit their own ends.  I just think he deserves more than that.  

And finally, how do you think Toole's career might have progressed if he hadn't committed suicide when he did?


He may have carried on as a professor in New Orleans for a time. But I don’t think he could have lasted much longer living with his mother and his senile father.  If he had broken free from them his world may have changed.  Much like Ignatius, had someone like Myrna Minkoff carried him away from his situation, he would have been relieved from the pressure in the Toole home. Then again, if that had happened, we likely would not be talking about him or his novel today.


:: Butterfly in the Typewriter by Cory MacLauchlin 
     is published by Da Capo Press.