Cory MacLauchlin is a lecturer in American Literature, Southern Literature, Writing and Research at Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. His biography of author JK Toole, Butterfly in the Typewriter was published to much critical acclaim in 2012.
The biography deals with both the tragic life of John Kennedy Toole – the New Orleanian academic and writer, known simply as Ken; and the remarkable story behind his posthumously published novel A Confederacy of Dunces.
Despite initial interest in A Confederacy of Dunces from publishers Simon and Schuster, Toole remained bereft of literary success, his tale of 30 year old Ignatius J Reilly, an overweight, work-shy, self-styled intellectual who still lives with his mother in his childhood home in New Orleans, seemed destined to gather dust. Blighted by rejection and suffering from paranoia and depression, Ken Toole took his own life on a country road outside Biloxi, Mississippi in 1969 aged just 31.
But the story does not end there. Toole’s formidable, domineering mother, Thelma, always certain of her son’s literary talents hawked his manuscript from publishing house to publishing house. Her lack of success seeming only to fuel her determination, she finally demanded that Loyola University professor and author Walker Percy read her son’s work. Three years later, in 1980 the novel was published by Louisiana State University Press with a glowing foreword by Percy. Critics immediately hailed it as the most accurate description of New Orleans captured in a work of fiction. The following year A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, twelve years after Toole’s death.
Next year marks the 35th anniversary of the novel’s publication, with new artwork gracing the book’s cover to honour the occasion. March this year marked 45 years since Toole’s passing.
Cerith Mathias spoke to his biographer Cory MacLauchlin.
Cerith Mathias: You say in Butterfly in the Typewriter that the life and death of JK Toole is ‘one of the most compelling stories of American literary biography’. That’s quite a statement. What makes it so?
Cory MacLauchlin: It’s a great under-dog story; it has all these compelling aspects: an artist who was trying to figure himself out, trying to figure his voice out as a writer. And then he ran into where writing and art meets the market place and that is always an uncomfortable and painful meeting for most artists. Some artists adapt, or some artists are embraced and Toole, at least initially was neither, but he was too entranced by literary success to simply forget it. And then that meets a classic theme in a lot of arts tales, that of mental illness. That’s not to suggest that every artist has a mental illness by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve certainly seen it happen – the mental struggle takes over. And then there are all kinds of dynamics in his relationships – the mother, the father, the family.
I was always interested in the sense of filial duty it’s clear that he felt as an only son. His father had a mental illness and his mother was, well eccentric. When I was researching the book I had about an hour, maybe about two hours’ worth of video footage of her and I could only watch 15 minutes at a time, she was that taxing. Just on a video. I kept thinking, I mean, I’m not her son, so maybe he got used to it to a certain degree, but I just can’t imagine being around her, living with her. But then, of course the story of Thelma’s persistence is also Toole’s great victory. But what interested me the most was someone who had captured his hometown so well, felt so alienated and so alone to the point where he couldn’t even return there to take his own life. And that, I think is a heart-breaking narrative.
What drew you to Toole initially?
It was shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and there were a lot of people who questioned why even have a city there and I was teaching at a school and one of my colleagues in the faculty lounge said ‘You should just let the damn place drown.’ And that was a seminal moment for me. I’d already taken student groups down there to help after the hurricane, so I decided to do a seminar at a college on New Orleans history and culture. There’s just something there – I think Tennessee Williams called it his ‘spiritual home’ and I felt the same way. But then when these kinds of conversations started happening I was really disturbed and I felt like a lot of people didn’t understand how much that city has influenced American culture. To be able to just dismiss it – you can’t even imagine someone saying something like that about New York. So that’s when I decided to do this class, so that in my own little way I could say we need to stop and think about the meaning of that city to the rest of America. It’s not just Mardi Gras.
How did you move from teaching Toole’s novel to writing his biography?
When I put A Confederacy of Dunces on my syllabus and started doing talks on Toole I read Ignatius Rising (a 2001 biography of Toole by René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy) and I was really disturbed at the treatment he received. Then I picked up Joel Fletcher’s book (Ken and Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces) and in that he directly calls for a biography. His book was a response to Ignatius Rising, he says something like ‘a quality biographer hasn’t come along and I hope someone somewhere is working on this’. I flipped over to the back of the book and he lived an hour away from me. So I called him up. I felt it was not fair the way the story had been told, it wasn’t right to just have Ignatius Rising out there as the main text.
As you say, Toole’s story is remarkable, why do you think there had been relatively little interest in writing a definitive biography until you came along with Butterfly?
When the book was published, reviewers started to scramble. They were trying to figure this guy out, where did he come from and who was he? And of course they couldn’t all go down to New Orleans and interview Thelma, and even with Thelma – she was telling them the story that she wanted to tell. So then of course, they made a lot of stuff up. With a lot of material, they started filling in the narrative – but just to serve the purpose of an article. I remember one reviewer saying ‘You can almost imagine him taking his life after receiving the last rejection letter.’ Which created this drama that just wasn’t true.
So there was interest at first but it was a difficult pitch to make. The novel is cultish – people love it and people hate it. I’ve talked to people who not only love it; they say they read it every year. That’s devotion. There was one woman who told me that her first criteria when meeting a new friend is asking if they’ve ever read A Confederacy of Dunces, and she knows the relationship won’t go well if they say they don’t like it. That’s a steep criteria! There are people that are really, really passionate about it. I’ve also met people who have read my book and said ‘I didn’t like the novel, but I liked the story of his life.’
Indeed– his fiction is great, but there’s also the real story, that is almost as fantastical as the novel itself. How difficult was it piecing it all together – you’ve touched on Thelma, who controlled and moulded her son’s legacy by destroying items such as his suicide note. How difficult was it to create an accurate picture when vital pieces of information were missing?
The Toole Papers at Tulane University were incredibly helpful. Now as I understand it, all of those were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. I spent a week there, even before I had a book deal. I was going to go down to check things out, take a look at the Toole papers to see if I could get a story together. And they usually allow you to take out four folders or something like that, but I overheard they were close to the flood water of Hurricane Katrina and I asked if they’d digitised the materials and they hadn’t, so I ordered all the folders and I just stood over them with a camera. That was a big piece of the puzzle. But, like you said, the Toole papers are Thelma’s version of the story. It’s clear she kept things that she wanted, like her dental bridge and quirky things like that. You think ‘you destroyed your son’s suicide note but you think researchers want to see your dental bridge?’ I don’t get it. Tracking down people who knew him was helpful too, though many of them, even since working on the book, have passed.
There was a lot of work trying to earn trust. Many people felt that they had been exploited by Ignatius Rising. They were interviewed and then when the book came out, they told me that they were really hurt by the way their story had been presented. So I had to overcome that and say ‘I don’t have an agenda, I just want to come to understand him as a person as you knew him’. I found that once I’d earned people’s trust – they really opened up. There was a consistent point in almost all the conversations I had with the people that knew him, whether they went to elementary school with him or they had him as a professor at Dominican, there was this vibrant and very real love that they felt for him still. It’s hard to explain other than you could just feel it and I was just struck almost after every interview by that.
Yes, a big strength in the narrative of Butterfly in the Typewriter is that is filled with interviews with those who knew Toole best – friends, family and colleagues. Was there anyone who you were unable to convince to contribute?
There was one woman in particular who wouldn’t talk to me and she was a difficult case as she was the woman who Toole had supposedly proposed to. She had done an interview in one of the publications in New Orleans and she felt really violated and had decided that she didn’t want to speak with anyone. She said ‘the way I feel about it is what Ken and I had is between Ken and I and no one else.’ Then she dangled this little carrot and said ‘I have a letter from Ken that would change the way everyone thinks about him.’ And I thought – you’re killing me! I asked her what she was going to do with it, because you know so much of Ken’s documents, personal letters and the like had been destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. I asked her to donate it to an archive, even to donate it and stipulate that they don’t show it. I was just trying to encourage her to save the letter somehow, and she said she’d think about it.
The pressure felt by a biographer when handling a person’s legacy must be a difficult thing.
I was real nervous when the book came out that the people who had trusted me might be offended by some of the things I wrote. I tried to walk the line where I could be honest and objective but there are certain things that I can’t sugar coat – I can’t sugar coat his suicide, I can’t sugar coat his father’s demise, I can’t sugar coat some of the things his mother said. So on the one hand you want to get the story and you want to get the interesting parts of the story but on the other hand you don’t want to violate someone’s memory.
According to Thelma’s version of events, in her telling of Toole’s fated final trip across the country, before committing suicide he made a last stop at the Georgia home of fellow Southern author Flannery O’Connor (who had passed away five years previously). Was O’Connor a big influence on Toole?
I guess we’ll just have to take Thelma’s word that that’s what he did. It’s a lovely narrative to have – that he visited Marilyn Monroe and Flannery O’Connor at opposite sides of the country. But I was a little taken aback by Thelma on that subject. In the video of her I mentioned, when she was asked how she knew Ken had gone to Milledgeville (O’Connor’s hometown in Georgia) she had, well, it was an outburst. She said ‘We found the ticket stump in his pocket’. It always makes me a little suspicious if someone is so defensive. (O’Connor’s home, Andalusia is now a museum but was not at the time of Toole’s reported visit.) Thelma had also said that his dissertation was going to be on Flannery O’Connor but the coursework he took didn’t really suggest that in any way, and again there’s no writing in the Toole papers to suggest that. Nowhere in the Toole papers does he really talk extensively about Flannery O’Connor. In fact people who knew him said he loved Evelyn Waugh, that was who he considered to be a genius – which of course has nothing to do with the South.
A Confederacy of Dunces has been described as the most accurate depiction of New Orleans in a work of fiction. It is so deeply rooted in the city, yet remains popular the world over. How does the novel transcend regional and national boundaries so effectively?
People in New Orleans say ‘you must be from New Orleans to get the book’, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that there is interest in character and that there is interest in absurdity and an interest in eccentricity. There is a certain truth that New Orleans does have all of these quirky people, they are part of the fabric but I think there’s a real human element there. So I think it’s the characters that make it so relatable. Now, that said, there are a lot of European Literature roots that you can identify in the novel. You could do an annotated version of Confederacy of Dunces, like has been done with Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.
Several film adaptations of the novel have been attempted with the likes of John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley in the lead role – all of whom died before the project could be realised. A further attempt was made with Will Ferrell as Ignatius but was halted by Hurricane Katrina, leading many to dub the venture as ‘cursed’. Would you like to see a film version? And who could take on the role of Ignatius?
They are in the process of making a film with Zach Galifianakis that seems is more likely to happen than previous attempts. The curse is an interesting idea, but I think it has more to do with funding and how movies are made. One of the reasons that it never really got off the ground was there were people who wouldn’t sign on to fund it completely because they didn’t think that it would make the money out. We are going to have a Spider-Man 10 and a Spider-Man 11 because it’s going to make money, but they’re real hesitant to do something experimental and Confederacy of Dunces, no matter how much you love it, is a real challenge. But the stars seem to be aligning well. I think Zach Galifianakis is a good pick. A lot of people say that they don’t want the movie made because it will ruin the book. I don’t know why people think that way, if they make a movie and it’s great – then great, and if they make a movie and it’s not great then I’ll still love the novel. But not everyone’s going to be satisfied.
Finally – this is a big year for A Confederacy of Dunces – the 35th anniversary of its publication is fast approaching and this year is the 45th anniversary of Toole’s death. Should more be done to mark his contribution to American literature? After all in his hometown of New Orleans a very popular festival is held every year to honour the work of Tennessee Williams. Is there room for a JK Toole festival?
Why not?! I talked to a few people when I was travelling around with the book who enjoyed dressing as the characters. I remember one time I was at a talk in Washington DC, and a guy came up to me and said ‘I was going to come in my Ignatius J Reilly costume, but I figured it may not be appropriate.’ A lot of people love the story and they have ideas like doing tours. I was talking to a lady in Madrid who wanted to bring me over for a Toole festival but funding for these things is always an issue. Tennessee Williams resonates, and it’s easier to justify a festival for him because so many writers have recognised him and he has a lot of works. Toole would be a more difficult sell than say Tennessee or William Faulkner, but it would be fun.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis