Thursday, December 15, 2011

New York City, 1959

Film Footage: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr--Harmony Bar & Restaurant--New York 1959

Between Mad Men, the new series Pan Am the 2010 film Howl and the upcoming film adaptation of On the Road, popular media has obviously taken a renewed interest in the late 1950s and early 60s. And what a remarkable time it was, especially in New York City. Fidel Castro eating ice cream at the Bronx Zoo--Nikita Khrushchev brandishing his shoe at the U.N. General Assembly and having a temper tantrum because the authorities would not permit him to go to Disneyland—and of course the Beats emerging from a cult status to becoming the literary voice of a generation.

Fred Kaplan authored an intriguing account of this year in history titled 1959: The Year Everything Changed. As evident in the title, he presents a bold thesis, but lines up such compelling events, from Allen Ginsberg’s triumphant reading at Columbia University to the recording of Kind of Blue, it is clear that this single year in history marked the beginning of the tidal changes of the mid and late 1960s.

To me, it is beyond coincidence that Toole was in New York during this time. In fact, because he taught across the street from the Soviet Embassy, he saw the comings and goings of Castro and Khrushchev in September of 1960.

It was around this period in New York that he started “sketching” what would become his famous character Ignatius Reilly. He would finish his novel in Puerto Rico—but there is no mistake that Ignatius was crafted in the heart of the social changes so evident at the turn of the decade in New York City.

And during this time Toole walked across the Columbia campus--from his dorm room to his classes at Philosophy Hall--everyday passing the School of Journalism--established by Joseph Pulitzer. In that same building over twenty years later (and eleven years after his suicide) the Pulitzer committee would gather with Toole’s novel in hand and award him the Pulitzer Prize.

Surely if I had my hands on a time machine, New York City between 1959 and 1961 would be at the top of my list.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Done with Copyedits

Earlier this week I got my first glance at the design of the book. It is quite exciting to see it coming together. Copy edits were finalized and today they started transferring the text into the designed pages.

On my last day of reviewing the copy edits I received an email from a past student of Toole's. She gave me the phone number of a woman who knew him. I had a lovely conversation with her. Although she did not know Toole very well, he went to several parties at her apartment in the French Quarter in 1967. Luckily, I included some of her memories in the manuscipt, which echoed many of the other stories about him I have documented.

We have also been working hard on the photo insert. It is shaping up quite nicely. I gave Joe Sanford a sneak peak at it and he commented: "Wonderful--It is a most beautiful photo essay of Ken's life."

Proofs will be coming next week. After that there is one last chance for any corrections and then we are off to print.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

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.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moving Forward

This week I heard back from my publisher and we are moving forward with the book. Cover design is in the works and some edits will be coming, but it sounds like nothing drastic.

I stopped by Joel Fletcher's house today to drop off a copy of the manuscript. He had just made some sfoof (a delicious Lebanese cake with semolina, tumeric, pistachios and pinenuts). With a cup of dark Louisiana coffee, it was a perfect treat for a rainy day in Virginia.

I am looking forward to his comments on the manuscript. He has been with me through this whole process. It is hard to believe I have been working on this book for over four years now. And when I started out on this adventure I didn't expect to meet some of the most wonderful people I have ever known. I suppose in some ways I have Ken to thank for that, but in large part, Joel has been the bridge to many extraordinary people.

Stay tuned. In the next few months all the pieces will start coming together.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

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 was the first time I ever ordered a steak at a restaurant. It was delicious!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Film now available

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

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!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

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.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

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...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

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!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Great Start to the New Year

The holidays were filled with hours and hours of writing and editing. Through those hours I dove deep, a depth from which I have yet to emerge....hopefully I won't emerge until this manuscript is complete. The feeling is hard to explain other than to say it is difficult to think of anything else. Even as I carry on with my day, cooking dinner, doing dishes, attending meetings, preparing syllabi, the book buzzes about in the back of my mind.

Perhaps it is because over the break I began the chapter on Toole's suicide, the chapter I fear most. I feel the heavy responsibility of telling the story of another man's life, but to tell the story of Toole's suicide shakes my nerves. I will, of course, carry on with the duty. It is arguably the most intriguing part of the story. But I am determined to not let his suicide cast a shadow over the book.

And as I pondered his darkest hours, I gained access to a letter from Toole that had likely not been read since 1963. It is a letter written right before he started writing the novel in Puerto Rico. It is a good beginning to the new year.