An interview with Cory MacLauchlin and review of his new biography on John Kennedy Toole, “Butterfly in the Typewriter.”
by Hunter Murphy
Is there anything quite like finding a book that will keep you up at night reading? If someone asked me, “Hunter, what do you like to read?” I’d have to say, “I like reading living poets, dead novelists and biographies of great artists.”
“Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Short, Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces” is the story of a great artist, written by Cory MacLauchlin, a professor and writer in Virginia. MacLauchlin has created a book that is literary, erudite and accessible all at the same time. He has married scholarship with storytelling, which is not an easy feat (as evidenced by the scores of biographies that will make you cross-eyed and teary from ennui).
And what a subject to choose! John Kennedy Toole may be one of the most fascinating characters to ever walk Southern soil. Brilliant and tragic, hilarious and manic, Toole was a mystery that biographer MacLauchlin uncovers in “Butterfly in the Typewriter.”
Like all good biographers, MacLauchlin starts with Toole’s roots. In my opinion, Toole’s family was the most critical element in his tragic story. In fact, while reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of a quotation from Anthony Brandt: “The most powerful ties are the ones to the people who gave us birth … We remain connected, even against our wills … Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.”
MacLauchlin shows that Toole was not as much connected to his family as he was chained to it, especially his mother. Thelma Toole was what one might call “a piece of work.” From just outside the womb, she believed her son to be destined for greatness, claiming he had an “aura” about him and an incredible effect on people. (She even claimed that in the hospital nursery, when he cried, the other babies cried too).
Sadly, John Kennedy Toole could never shake his feeling of responsibility for his mother and father. From his travels to New York for graduate school at Columbia to his days in the Army in Puerto Rico, Toole was bound to them, even having to support them financially during several phases of his life, including his last, while teaching at Dominican College in New Orleans.
With delicate care, MacLauchlin handles the oft-debated questions of Toole’s sexuality and suicide. He urges scholars and readers to tread carefully before labeling Toole with a particular orientation. Nothing left behind – letters, notes, journals or personal recollections – suggests Toole was a homosexual and neither do the interviews MacLauchlin or his predecessors conducted.
“Ken” Toole dated girls, but MacLauchlin suggests (and I agree) that the writer was too focused on achieving greatness to allow himself a meaningful romantic relationship. Judging from the tenuous marriage his parents had, few could blame him. The suicide was tough and I felt myself reading more slowly, not wanting to see the end of such a fascinating life. It’s not an easy subject to explore, but MacLauchlin does a fine job.
Immediately following Toole’s demise, “Butterfly in the Typewriter” shows us the fascinating road “A Confederacy of Dunces” traveled to publication. I loved the story about Walker Percy and his wife, Bunt, who was the first Percy to approve of the novel. Likewise, it was fascinating to read about Thelma Toole’s erratic behavior during the pre-publication drama.
Once the book finally came to print and, subsequently, to an enormous audience, Thelma Toole finally got the fame she had desired for a lifetime and which she had pressured her son to achieve. The reader realizes that this invasive mother was oddly prophetic: her son would achieve greatness.
I also loved reading about the relationships Toole had with his friends (those he met in New Orleans, Lafayette, New York and Puerto Rico), with him as the engine that pushed the witty repartee. He could mimic anyone, and his impersonations were legendary. He loved being around normal families, such as his good friend Cary Laird’s family or the Rickelses from Lafayette, Louisiana. He seemed to feel best around functional families.
Ironically, it was during his stay in Puerto Rico, away from the people he loved, that he wrote the first draft of “A Confederacy of Dunces.” It made me wonder if Toole created Ignatius Reilly and the host of quirky and hilarious characters in order to surround himself with the people of Louisiana.
MacLauchlin’s book deserves many accolades. I saw traces of the novelist in his prose, which made the reading of “Butterfly” even more pleasurable. He treated his subject like one would an old friend (or at least a fun, crazy uncle). What was most surprising about this biography is that MacLauchlin proved John Kennedy Toole was an even greater character than Ignatius Reilly or any of the other ones he created.
We haven’t heard the last from Cory MacLauchlin. I hope and believe that we will be reading his work for years to come. He participated in Deep South’s first Literary Friday chat, where we discussed bromance in Southern literature, and said he wished John Kennedy Toole could have found a bond such as the one Walker Percy and Shelby Foote shared, suggesting that maybe a good friendship would have kept Toole alive.
I wanted to hear more of his thoughts on Toole and “Butterfly,” so here’s what MacLauchlin had to say in a recent interview.
HM: Cory, tell me about your background and how the book came to be.
CM: I got my master’s degree from UVA. “Butterfly in the Typewriter” was going to be a dissertation at the University of Georgia’s Ph.D. program, but I wouldn’t be able to touch the book for two years during school, so I decided against it. It took over half a year to get an agent, a year to shop it around and then two years to write. In the publishing houses, they were huge fans of it, but they were afraid it wouldn’t sell.
HM: What sparked the idea for the biography?
CM: I’ve been traveling to my favorite city, NOLA [New Orleans], for years. After Katrina, I decided to teach a class on New Orleans history and culture. I ordered “Ignatius Rising,” which made bizarre and unsubstantiated claims about John Kennedy Toole. The book didn’t give Toole a fair shake. Joel Fletcher, Toole’s friend from Louisiana – Lafayette – was horrified when he read the galleys of “Ignatius Rising. Fletcher called the authors and told them how terrible it was. “Ignatius Rising” uses a source who claims Toole was in a gay brothel, but the source was drunk and unnamed.
Afterwards, Joel Fletcher, who has a lifelong partner, wrote a book called “Ken and Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces.” I was taken by Fletcher’s sensitivity to Toole. I read Fletcher’s book, loved it, then flipped the cover and realized Fletcher lived an hour away, so I contacted him and we began corresponding. At the end of his book, Fletcher admits that a true biography of Toole has yet to be written and I wanted a biography of Toole, so I decided to write one.
HM: What inspired you to write about John Kennedy Toole?
CM: I read portions of “Confederacy” in college, but I dove into the book after Hurricane Katrina. John Kennedy Toole weaved the masterpieces of western literature into “Confederacy.” I found “Confederacy” transcended regionalism. I get emails from people all over the world who read Toole’s book once a year and can relate to it, which I find fascinating.
HM: Which details about his life did you find most interesting or surprising?
CM: From a personal standpoint, I could relate to Toole’s struggles with academia, writing and career, whether or not to pursue a Ph.D. Also, I enjoyed Toole’s off-kilter humor and I could sympathize with his mid-20s struggle for identity and for a place in the world.
The thing that surprised me most about Toole was his uncanny ability at mimicry. He could impersonate people incredibly. He could observe and even catalog people (speech, gestures, etc). To be able to observe characters, absorb, catalog and recall characters was one of his greatest gifts.
HM: What sources did you use in writing this biography? Did it take five years to gather the research and conduct interviews?
CM: The main source was the Toole papers at Tulane University.
When I started talking to Toole’s friends and gaining their trust, I wanted them to recognize their friend, so I avoided conjecture. In terms of the testimonials, Patricia Rickels was one of the most interesting sources. She loved Toole, but it was not romantic. She had a deep love for her friend, though. When I showed her pictures, she would say either “that’s him” or “that’s not the Ken I knew.” When she saw the man she knew in my pictures, she became excited because Ken Toole seemed to come to life.
“Lafayette friend Cary Laird’s sister [Lynda Laird] would talk about the impromptu skits that Cary and Ken Toole would put on for the Laird family. They had a famous one with Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, which the men could do together and Ken Toole could do alone. Everyone loved Toole’s humor.
HM: What was your favorite part of the book (or easiest part to write)?
CM: Probably recounting the character of Bobby Byrne, who served as the inspiration for Ignatius Reilly. [Click here to read more about Byrne and Toole’s time in Lafayette.] Also, I enjoyed writing about the moment when Toole started “Confederacy” while stationed in Puerto Rico for the Army.
HM: What was the hardest part to write in “Butterfly”?
CM: The beginning was challenging because the main source was Thelma, so I had to give in to her and the sort of myth she had created, but there was no other alternative from which to choose. It was a challenge. The first few chapters were the most difficult because of the lack of material. Likewise, the Columbia University section didn’t have a lot of information.
In the 1980s, after “Confederacy” became a publishing phenomenon, journalists began interviewing Toole’s former associates and friends. In many cases, these associates and friends felt the resulting articles misrepresented them, Ken Toole or in some cases, Thelma. I had to build a relationship with some of the interviewees because previously they felt they had been exploited. This took time.
HM: I think I know the answer, but what information in particular do you wish you could have researched?
CM: The suicide note and the information Thelma destroyed. There were some huge gaps in her material, which was odd because Thelma meticulously collected memorabilia and artifacts from her son’s life. She was tailoring the narrative of her son’s life and, incidentally, her life. Also, there was a girl linked romantically to Toole from Columbia in 1958 and 1959 but she had been misrepresented by journalists, so she preferred not to speak.
HM: Did you outline? What is your writing process like?
CM: I started out with a white board and worked on the chapters. The other part of my process is after writing a draft, I read everything out loud. I identify moments in the book where I’m doing things emotively and if the writing connects with the idea of the passage or chapter. I need to hear the lines.
HM: Have you thought about writing fiction?
CM: I have enjoyed writing some fiction. I think there’s a possibility for a fiction project down the road. Interestingly, I had to take some of my scholarly writing out of “Butterfly in the Typewriter” or at least tone it down. Editors said that readers would want some vibrant moments because it was a book about New Orleans, so I had to experiment with my narrative style.
HM: What’s next? Another bio? Fiction?
CM: I have considered writing a biography of James Purdy [who wrote the novel “Malcolm” and many others]. He was an interesting character but the critics have not looked favorably on him, and his legacy and opus has suffered.
HM: Would you like to share any final thoughts on Toole or “Confederacy”?
CM: My goal was to discover the truth and set the story straight. That’s what I decided to do. Interestingly, I had traveled to NOLA many times but had never visited Toole’s grave. On the day “Butterfly” was released, I finally made that visit with Joe Sanford and Bobbie Westerfield [producers of the recent JKT documentary, “The Omega Point“]. We had worked hard together to get the story straight in both film and book form, which was another reason it was so meaningful.
At the grave, Toole fans and admirers had left coins and notes with the writing wiped out by the rain and weather. There was something very satisfying about being there and also about the publication of “Butterfly.” The book wasn’t about me, it was about giving John Kennedy Toole some justice, because he had been wronged. We released “Butterfly” on the anniversary of Toole’s death. I despaired that people may think of Toole as a “suicide,” and I wanted to help change that perception.
And finally, to go to the same bookstore – Garden District Bookshop, originally Maple Leaf Bookshop – where Thelma introduced “A Confederacy of Dunces” in 1980, was an amazing experience. I feel honored to be a part of this process and of John Kennedy Toole’s life.
Cory MacLauchlin will host our Literary Friday Twitter chat this Friday, May 11, from 2-3 p.m. CST. Use the hashtag #southernlit to follow, ask questions and participate with us. Also, to enjoy the haunts John Kennedy Toole and Ignatius Reilly visited, download out our Literary Trail App here.
Photo credits: Cory MacLauchlin, Toole family tomb and MacLauchlin at the gravesite by Joe Sanford of Pelican Pictures.
Hunter Murphy has written two novels for which he’s currently seeking representation. He is a Southerner who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his partner of many years, his mother-in-law (a feisty senior citizen who continues to tell him tall tales), and an English bulldog, who is a tough critic. Find out more about Hunter in our “Contributors” section or email him at hmurphy1976 (at) gmail.com.