Almost 50 years after it was written, Katherine Dunn’s novel Toad will be released on Tuesday.
Best known for her third novel, geek love, Dunn was a writer, journalist, radio host, and literary cult icon who spent much of her life in Portland. She went to high school in Tigard before attending Reed College in the 1960s, where she began writing her first novel, Attic. After finishing Truck in 1971, she hosted a literary radio program on KBOO before becoming a professor of creative writing at Lewis & Clark College and Pacific University. Dunn, 70, died in May 2016 in Portland.
Although she did not graduate, Dunn’s time at Reed Glueage played an important role in her career, and she was proud to have attended, according to her son, Eli Dapolonia, a doctor of psychology and neuropsychology living in Maine. Dunn’s time there inspired Toad, an autobiographical account of her youth through the eyes of a reclusive, melancholy woman named Sally Gunnar. Sally has withdrawn from her surroundings and spends her days nitpicking at home and brooding over a cast of difficult men and equally difficult peers. As Sally laments her soul-searching time in isolation, she recounts the shaky foundation her eclectic friendships were built on and becomes filled with worry about her position as an outsider.
Toad is more firmly a tragedy than a coming-of-age story; Kirkus Reviews called it “a sweet, funny and heartbreaking indictment of the naive excesses of the 1960s and the testimony of a woman who survived them.” Despite her courage and honesty, the book was rejected by publishers throughout Dunn’s life, causing her to put it away for many years. It was only years after the author’s death that his son showed Toad at Naomi Huffmanformer editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
“Naomi Huffman came to see me after the release of On swearing and asked if my mom had any unpublished work,” Dapolonia said via email. “Toad was in a rough typewritten manuscript with all sorts of notes in the margins and was not in good enough shape to scan into a text document. My mother’s friends – Jim Redden, Bill Redden and DK Holm – spent several weeks transcribing the novel so it could be shown to Naomi and FSG in a usable form. They worked hard to make it readable. Naomi and FSG liked what they saw, and on November 1 Mom readers will get to see it too.
Besides being a famous writer, Dunn was a devoted mother and community member.
She was kind and generous, her son recalls, especially to fellow struggling artists and writers. She spent many years working in service jobs to support her writing career and understood the difficulties of balancing creative endeavors with the support of a family.
“When she had money, she always tipped 50 to 100 percent,” Dapolonia said.
When asked what Toadwould mean to her mother, Dapolonia replied, “Redemption.” The book is part of his legacy. The first rejections were very painful for her. I hope this will make her proud. I am also happy to be able to share more of his writings with his readers. It’s always a privilege to be able to speak with people who enjoyed my mother’s writing or found it meaningful in some way.
Toad will be published on Tuesday by MCD, a division of FSG dedicated to “the experimental, the stunning, the strange”. In honor of the book’s publication, the Portland Book Festival will present a Katherine Dunn tribute event featuring Toad editor Naomi Huffman and author Lydia Kiesling at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Powell’s Books.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Dapolonia about Dunn’s legacy, his rejection, and what it was like to be his son.
I read that you were born in Ireland and traveled often with your mother as a child. What was it like discovering different parts of the world at a young age and having Katharine Dunn as a mother?
I think it gave me a broader perspective, traveling through Europe and the United States I was exposed to other languages, like French and Italian, very early on, and that facilitated language learning in adulthood. We were pretty poor all the time, but the experience was rich. Mom was very comfortable wherever she traveled. She was outgoing and friendly and related well to people, even in places whose language she didn’t know.
Dunn has lived in Portland for much of his life. What did the city represent for her and her work?
In the 1970s when we moved to Portland, it was a unique city with the flavor of many small European towns. It was walkable, and the cost of living was such that artists and writers could work part-time and afford an apartment. Northwest Portland was still working class, and it became a stronghold of artists, musicians, and writers. She loved the Nob Hill area with its amenities, art galleries and theaters. Her luck followed the development of the neighborhood, and as she succeeded, the neighborhood followed. She moved several times but was always in the same two-block area.
Revised Dunn Toad for many years, apparently working on its structure. Did she consider herself a perfectionist when it came to writing?
She was very perfectionist. She cared about the musicality of the language and the structure of each phrase.
Toad explores, in part, the counterculture of the 60s. Did this period affect your education?
How was the rejection of Toad over the years affect Dunn? Do you remember the first rejection letters?
I only remember one. I remember it made her cry, and I remember it caused her to stop writing for a few years.
What drew Dunn to the boxing world when she wrote for The Oregonian and Willamette Week? Was she a boxer?
She was introduced to boxing by a man she was dating. She fell in love with sports and started writing about it. Writing about boxing was one of the things that brought her back after the Toad rejection. It helped her love writing again. She was a boxer for many years. She trained at Grand Avenue Gymnasium and Matt Dishman Community Center. She used these skills to defend herself when, in her 60s, someone tried to mug her on the street outside her building. She successfully defended herself using only her left hand and never dropped the grocery bag in her right. She was right-handed.
Are there any other upcoming projects or releases that we can look forward to?
FSG will publish an anthology of short stories by Katherine Dunn in the next year or two, and Eric Rosenblum working on his biography.