Carroll and Jodee Blanco recreate the life and career of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, in I, John Kennedy Toole (Pegasus, May.).
Why did you write a novel about Toole instead of a biography?
I originally proposed a biography to an agent, Andrew Wylie, who was very enthusiastic about the idea. He was sure he could get a large advance. In the end, though, there simply wasn’t enough information, and my coauthor and I realized it had to be done as a nonfiction novel. We had to fill in the backstory on how Toole came to create his highly unusual hero, Ignatius J. Reilly.
How did you divide the writing between you and your coauthor?
I outlined each chapter. Jodee, who is based in Chicago, would write a first draft, then I’d edit and rewrite from New York. We talked to family members and from their shorthand responses we wrote the dialogue between Toole and his mother and others. It took us three years.
You treat Robert Gottlieb, the Simon & Schuster editor who encouraged Toole and ultimately rejected A Confederacy of Dunces, with great sympathy. Why so?
Gottlieb deserves credit for recognizing that there was something important there, but he had no idea how sensitive Toole was. After he rejected A Confederacy of Dunces, he assumed Toole would go elsewhere. But the tragedy is that Toole didn’t do that. He was too discouraged to pursue other publishers.
The book mentions a forgotten 1968 novel, Superworm, which Gottlieb edited and highly touted just before moving to Knopf. Did you read it?
No, but Jodee did. She didn’t think it was very good.
Why did you invent a fictional journalist to research Toole’s life?
To cover all the later history after Toole killed himself in 1969, in particular all the failed efforts to make a movie of A Confederacy of Dunces. John Belushi was the first actor selected to play Ignatius, but he died. Other actors had similar bad luck. Then there’s the story of Thelma Toole, the author’s mother. She submitted the manuscript eight times before she finally hand-delivered it to Walker Percy. Percy being a Southern gentleman, he felt he had to at least read a few pages. And of course, it was Percy who ensured that it was published in 1980 by LSU Press.
In your research, did you come across evidence of a lost manuscript, as suggested at the end of the book?
That part’s not made up. It came from a couple of different sources—family members who were aware that Toole kept a manuscript in his bedroom closet. It was apparently thrown out when his parents sold the New Orleans house and moved.