Katherine Dunn’s breakthrough finally came in 1989.
That’s when his third novel, “Geek Love,” shot up the bestseller lists, turning its little-known author into literary stardom.
Suddenly called upon, Dunn could have quickly published another novel, titled “Toad,” which she had already completed. But she didn’t. The manuscript remained hidden in his house in northwest Portland.
Dunn had spent an entire decade writing and rewriting the autobiographical story — and unsuccessfully sending it to publishing houses. The failure stung again.
Years later, Dunn summed up the ordeal in an interview with The Oregonian, saying that “Toad” was “rejected by my editor in a very fierce way”.
Now, more than 40 years after Dunn abandoned it — and six years after the author died of cancer at age 70 — “Toad” is about to be released.
The first reviews are good. Kirkus Reviews called the novel “a sweet, funny and heartbreaking indictment of the naive excesses of the 1960s and the testimony of a woman who survived them”.
This survivor is Dunn’s fictional replacement, a loner named Sally Gunnar, who looks back on her “failed youth” with resentment and regret.
Dunn never expected Sally’s counterculture coming-of-age story, which closely follows the author’s, to be revived. But a few years ago, his longtime friend Jim Redden dug through a faded draft from his personal archives. After reading the manuscript, Redden told Dunn’s son, neuropsychologist Eli Dapolonia, that he thought he deserved to be in the world.
Dapolonia agreed, as did Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who jumped at the chance to publish a new book by the “Geek Love” author.
“‘Toad’ demonstrates Dunn’s genius for dark humor and irony, his ecstatic celebration of the grotesque,” FSG said over the summer, announcing the novel’s next November 1 release date.
This genius might be evident now. But editors who came to “Toad” before Dunn secured his reputation with “Geek Love” found it hard to understand the dark humor, irony and grotesqueness.
They knew “Toad” was a unique work, but they weren’t sure anyone wanted to read it.
Harper & Row had signed Dunn to write the book in 1971, after publishing his first two novels, but the company eventually backed out of the contract.
Dunn soon began sending the manuscript to other publishers. She kept the voluminous correspondence she had with acquisition editors for the rest of her life. (It is now housed in the Lewis & Clark College Special Collections Archive.)
In 1976, “Toad” landed at Houghton Mifflin Co., where editor Kathleen Fliegel expressed her enthusiasm. But she told Dunn the publisher wasn’t ready to take on the book. The novel still needed significant work, she said. Structure was a problem, and she was “too minutely interested in things.”
Dunn, living with her young son in Portland, paying the bills by running a bar, was encouraged by Fliegel’s interest. Still, she struggled with the editor’s suggestions for revamping “Toad.”
A few months later, Fliegel inquired about Dunn.
“I continue to believe this is an extraordinary novel, and I hope you find a way to revise it,” Fliegel wrote, trying to cheer up the struggling writer. “I know you have income and livelihood issues – so do I – and obviously I would love to be able to offer you a contract. But I can not; at best, I can promise that if and when you send it back to us, it will get several serious reads.
Dunn worked without a contract and eventually sent in a new draft.
RELATED READING: How Katherine Dunn survived tough times and became a literary legend.
In late 1977, Fliegel wrote to Dunn about the new version, insisting that “I like TOAD as much as ever, more, in fact.” But she added that she had no good news.
“I feel really bad about this, but once again the majority opinion has opposed our TOAD posting,” Fliegel wrote.
“So. Shit. I’m sincerely sorry.”
Even after that stab in the heart, Dunn wasn’t ready to give up on the novel. She kept working on it – and sending it to publishers.
In May 1979, nearly eight years after signing a deal for the book with Harper & Row—and nearly two years after Houghton Mifflin passed it on—she heard about another publisher.
“We have had several readings of your novel,” wrote Michael Denneny, editor at St. Martin’s Press. “Several discussions at editorial meetings ended in an impasse and it was returned to a new reader. To end the suspense: we finally decided not to make an offer on the book.
“The problem is not sentence by sentence or scene by scene, but the overall structure of the book. It seems to be basically autobiographical, meaning things aren’t there for no reason except that they happened. In this sense, the book is not “artificial” enough; the material needs to be worked more into a theme and a story.
With St. Martin’s decision, Dunn concluded that “Toad” would never be released. She filed it.
A few months later, she told a literary agent that she was working on a new novel, saying it “promises, or at least hints, real entertainment.” I’d be happy to send you a few pieces, but it would be a month or so because I’m writing by hand and typing is a torturous final rewriting process for me.
Typing wasn’t the only torturous part of the writing process for her. She now wanted to make sure that when she returned a manuscript, it was perfect – unassailable.
She had quickly released her first two novels — 1970’s ‘Attic’ and 1971’s ‘Truck’, neither of which sold well — and she had finished the first draft of ‘Toad’ within months. But she spent years on “Geek Love” before showing it to a publisher.
The ambitious and unusual “Geek”, about a family of carnival enthusiasts, marked a publisher – Alfred A. Knopf – and a passionate readership. The novel became a finalist for the National Book Award.
Dunn would become even more obsessed with “Cut Man,” the never-completed and as-yet-unreleased sequel to her smash hit. She didn’t even want to talk about the novel until it was in shape.
In 1991, when Dunn had been working on the boxing-themed novel for a few years, his friend and fellow Portland author Ursula Le Guin sent him a brief note that ended:
“How’s the B**K? I didn’t ask.
–Douglas Perry; [email protected]