Friday, December 17, 2010

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!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

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.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Deal!

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks. I recently returned from New Orleans where we had two screenings of the documentary, one at Loyola with a lively audience. I met with Bunt Percy, the wife of Walker Percy, and her daughter. I had a drink at the Sazerac Bar where Toole met some friends, just before beginning the novel. I had the good fortune of strolling through the French Quarter with my dear friend, as well as Toole’s friend, Joel Fletcher. And many thanks to Joe Sanford for putting me up in the studio, driving me around and taking me out to the Gulf Coast, a long overdue trip.

But best of all, a few hours after my plane landed in New Orleans, my agent called. We have a book deal with Da Capo Press for the biography of John Kennedy Toole. Now I am writing, writing, writing. The tentative date for release is spring 2012!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Beyond Freud

Over the last few weeks the topic of suicides related to bullying has made headline news. And in many of these cases the bullying focused on the perceived sexuality of the victim. These recent tragedies bring to mind the many people that believe Toole was driven to suicide because of his repressed sexual identity. There is no clear indication that Toole was being bullied; however, one might argue that a society intolerant of homosexuality, forcing and trapping many people in the proverbial closet, is a society of bullies.

But the fact is, Toole is not here to tell us his tale and what he left behind offers nothing definitive that suggests his sexual preference. Several publishers have requested that I address the topic and so in the book I give a full explanation of my take on the issue, surveying and weighing the testimonies I have collected in my research.

I comment on the topic here in brief. I have come across many people that are quick to label him as a gay writer, many people that did not know him. And I suppose they think somehow by doing this they make a case for the dangers of repressed sexuality, while attempting to demonstrate the contribution that talented gay and lesbian people make to our world every day. But I also presume “outing” someone against their wishes and without any substantial evidence is quite taboo within the gay community, let alone simply insensitive. And despite the seemingly inclusive spirit in which this label is placed on Toole, isn’t it similar to what we now understand bullies do in schools and businesses across the nation?

Alas, this seems the fate of a writer that never had a chance to shape his legacy. Perhaps he attempted to shape his legacy in his final letter to his mother. But she destroyed it, leaving the questions surrounding his death a mystery. Her destruction of the letter may have been out of grief, but it was also her first step in molding the story that she wanted. And it seems to me others have continued that tradition of molding his story for specific ends. Perhaps identifying Toole as latently homosexual gives readers what they want out of Toole today--an explanation of his suicide that speaks to contemporary society. Indeed, many people have tried to own his story. But no one owns it, except him. And thankfully, the contributions of Joel Fletcher and Joe Sanford demonstrate that crucial balance between honesty and sensitivity that anyone telling the life story of another person must have.

I fully understand my role in this tradition. I am in the process of telling his story. Hopefully, I will not be the last. I expect people will be reading his novel for generations to come. They too will be plagued by the same questions we ask today. Who was John Kennedy Toole? How did he create such a brilliant work of humor? And what lead him to take his own life?

But I wonder if 100 years from now our society will still be consumed with questions of sexual identity and sexual expression. I wonder if these questions will still hold such a grasp on our social discourse. And if not, if we have somehow moved on to other questions, other ways to understand our selves, will we also ask different questions about the lives of people that left behind such mysteries? In doing so we might find we need very different answers.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

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.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

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.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Mallord Mystery Continues


Dear Daniel,
Thank you for your comment and your research. You are right that the Tulane Catalog lists the inscription dated January 30, 1969. But the actual inscription appears to have both dates. “20” appears to have been inscribed over “30.” It seems almost too coincidental that someone would have revised the date to correspond with the day that Toole left New Orleans, but there it is. The pen and penmanship appears similar to the rest of the note. And because this inscription includes the line “universal oneness with you and Shelley” which Mallord also wrote in a letter to philosopher Bertrand Russell, I am confident that the inscription is his.

You bring up a great point that this could be self-promotion. In fact, someone placed a newspaper ad for the book on the inscription page with the date 2-2-69 written on the ad. But the February date looks similar to Thelma Toole’s handwriting. So it seems possible, and perhaps even likely, that Mallord and Toole never met. However, I find it intriguing that a young poet, likely based in the Quarter, would seek out an Uptown professor at a small catholic college to help promote his book. And this certainly speaks to the space between Toole, perhaps the most famous New Orleans novelist, and the bohemian artists living in the quarter during the late 60s.

I have contacted one Richard Mallord Silverman in New York who replied to say that he was not the Mallord I sought.

____________________________________________________________


Idiosyncrat said...
Dear Cory:

The fact that the copy is inscribed to "Mr. Toole" certainly augurs against even a passing friendship between the two. If the Tulane Web site's cited reference is correct, the book was actually inscribed on the 30th, not the 20th-- suggesting that it was merely mailed to Toole's New Orleans residence, not presented in person.

Might it not be that Toole had never met Mallord, and that the latter somehow knew that the former was, or had been, an English instructor, and that the latter merely sent the copy of his book to the former to promote it? If he used basically the same inscription to send a copy to a famous intellectual whom he presumably had never met, it strikes me as doubtful that the inscription to Toole would imply any necessary relationship between him and Mallord.

I ran Mallord's full name through the Social Security Death Index, and it came up with no results. Unless he left the country and died abroad, it seems likely that he is still alive. Running the name through Intellius.com and Peoplefinders.com, there is no listing for that full name; but, unsurprisingly, there are quite a few Richard M. Silvermans. There are only a few, however, who would seem old enough to be a good candidate for Mallord. One is 71, which would have made him thirtyish in January 1969. The other two are 82 and 86, which would have made them in their forties already-- which strikes me as older than the photographed Mallord appears!?!

I believe that the 71 year old is a real estate agent and landlord, with an N.Y.U. degree in Management and Marketing: http://www.bellmarc.com/agents/profile.asp?id=SIL. That seems like an unlikely match-- but, then again, look what happened to Jerry Rubin, after his Yippie days!?! If nothing else, it might be worth your contacting that Richard M. Silverman to see if he has any knowledge of Richard Mallord Silverman. F.W.I.W. Good luck! I look forward to the book....



Sincerely yours,

/s/ Dan Hand

Daniel Kevin Hand, B.A., M.S., M.B.A., J.D.

DKHand@gmail.com

6/27/10 @ 5:00 a.m. E.D.T. :: 4:00 a.m. C.D.T.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I spent this past weekend in New York. I visited the room in which Toole lived while he attended Columbia University. The trip offered me insight into his time in New York in the late 50s and early 60s. I saw the view he had from his dorm window and I strolled the tranquil Columbia campus, forgetting I was in Manhattan. And it became clear, after reviewing his transcripts how Toole began to veer from the often seeming inanity of graduate studies towards a more “authentic” literary life as fiction writer.

I also took a stroll around Hunter College and got some pictures of the exterior of the house he moved to on the East Side, the same place he began drafting the character that would become Ignatius Reilly. It was one of those moments where Toole’s letters came alive to me.

But perhaps the most intriguing event I experienced seemed beyond coincidence. However it will likely not make it into this biography. So I share it with you here…

After seeing the room in which he stayed at Columbia, my wife and I got a bite to eat at a Greek restaurant. Being the end of term it was almost empty and we overheard the mixed conversations of two parties. The two men behind us were smug religious scholars who discussed Saint Ignatius and how one of the scholars had found the "key" to the moral dilemma of the modern age. The couple behind them talking in a loud New Jersey accent discussed the marvel of caffeinated vitamin-enriched water: "I'm tellin ya I feel betta in da mornin wid just some nutrients and a pick-me-up. Cawfee got nut’n on dis watta stuff." I couldn’t help but smile. It was the kind of moment Toole would have relished.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Screening a Success


It is not everyday I dine with an award winning filmmaker and a published author. And it is a rare occasion to be on a panel with both of them to discuss the life and works of John Kennedy Toole. But on May 8th Joe Sanford and Bobbie Westerfield flew up from New Orleans and joined Joel Fletcher and me for dinner. Compliments to Joel and John Copenhaver--chef and host extrordinaire, respectively. Afterward we all went to the screening of Sanford's documentary.

The first screening was sold out. It was wonderful to hear the audience respond to interviews with people that Joe, Joel and I have come to know well in our exploration of the Toole story. And it was much fun to field the many questions that surround Toole's life and work. Many thanks to Paul Lewis of the Athenaeum and Rappahanock Independent Film Festival for organizing the evening.

For those of you who could make it, thank you for coming. And for those who could not make it, I hope the film will be available in a theatre near you soon. I like Susanna Powers's suggestion of a screening at the Prytania....How fitting!

Image--Standing from left to right: Joe Sanford and Paul Lewis. At table from left to right: Bobbie Westerfield (Producer), Cory MacLauchlin and Joel Fletcher.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Film Screening in Fredericksburg VA


The film screening for Joe Sanford's John Kennedy Toole: The Omega Point will be held on May 8th at the Fredericksburg Athanaeum. Click here for more details. There will be two screenings: 7pm and 10pm. Joe Sanford, Joel Fletcher and I will be on a panel answering questions between the two screenings. Space is limited so tickets are a necessity. Hope to see you all there!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bravo Mr. Sanford!

Today I had the pleasure of watching the documentary John Kennedy Toole: The Omega Point with my good friend and author Joel Fletcher. I am in the film so I may be inherently biased. But regardless of my contributions, it is a brilliant work of documentary craftsmanship. As a biographer, I can attest to its remarkable balance between compelling storytelling and historical accuracy. And the images are simply beautiful.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. It recently won The Rising Star Award for Excellence in Film at the 2010 Canada International Film Festival.

The Athenaeum in Fredericksburg, VA will host a screening of the film on April 17, 2010. Following the screening there will be a panel with Joe Sanford (Filmmaker), Joel Fletcher (friend of JKT and author of Ken & Thelma) and me.

I look forward to the day you all will be able to select this film in your Netflix queue. Until then, you can keep an eye on the progress of the film at www.jktoole.com.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Importance of Boogie Woogie

Over the holidays I took some time to revise my book proposal. One of the editorial suggestions I received from one of the most respected editors in the publishing world was to add “more color”—especially for a New Orleans based book. While I don’t think my style is bone-dry, I must admit, scholars are known for their obsession with precision. Because so many liberties have already been taken with Toole’s life story, I initially dedicated myself to getting the story accurate and making it cohesive. But I know the importance of color. Even Piet Mondrian recognized the need for boogie woogie as he painted with remarkable precision.

So I decided to address some of the most colorful questions that readers would certainly ask when reading this biography. Questions about Toole’s sexuality and insights into his last few months on this earth form much of the intrigue surrounding his brief life. But the question for me was how to answer these questions. My treatment of such topics could not be reckless, simplified or overly grand.

Like most writers, when stuck, I turn to reading. And one of the books I picked up over the holidays was Ned Sublette’s The World that Made New Orleans. I was looking for a new text for my class on New Orleans Literature and Culture and I had grown tired of Herbert Asbury’s The French Quarter. Thus far, I have found that Sublette’s work is one of the first books on New Orleans that energetically synthesizes the city’s complex roots from a global perspective, without falling into that clich├ęd metaphor of New Orleans as a “cultural gumbo.” I have yet to finish the book, but so far Sublette has given me a worthy lesson in adding color to a historical narrative, without compromising its integrity.

And so I returned to my proposal with fresh eyes. And instead of paining over edits, I embraced the need to discard five pages here and add three paragraphs there. I thought of the dozens of studies Gericault did for The Raft of the Medusa or Picasso’s many studies leading up to Las Meninas, and I strived for a bigger picture.

The picture is not complete, but I think my colors are more vibrant. So to Mr. Sublette I say, thank you.