The Portland writer wrote a book in the 1970s, but it was rejected; a series of events led to its pending publication.
Eli Dapolonia remembers that day well, in the late 1970s. Mom opened the letter, read it, and burst into tears. For a child not even 10 years old, it was a bit upsetting.
His mother, Katherine Dunn, who had previously written two books that had been published, received a rejection letter for her third novel, “Toad,” and it sent her into a tailspin as a writer.
“It was rejected and it was devastating for her,” Dapolonia said. “She stopped writing for a while after ‘Toad’, it hurt her so much.
“Then she started working at Willamette Week, writing boxing articles and working for The Slice (column), and that gave her the joy of writing. She found joy again, and that’s which ultimately led to the writing of ‘Geek Love,’ his fourth novel.”
Dunn’s “Geek Love” achieved cult classic status and was a National Book Award finalist in 1989. A nationally acclaimed writer of boxing, fiction and non-fiction, Dunn will always be associated with “Geek-Love”.
Dunn died in 2016 at the age of 70 from complications of lung cancer. But more than 40 years after being rejected, “Toad” has new life. Friends, family, and fans have bonded to release “Toad,” and it’s set to debut November 1 through publishing company Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG).
Dapolonia, a longtime Portland resident who is currently doing a neuropsychology postdoctoral residency in Maine, couldn’t be happier.
“I feel good about it,” he said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to give those people who loved her writing something more to read.
“There are so many people I’ve talked to over the years who knew mom and loved her as a friend or knew her handwriting or loved her handwriting. They liked the boxing articles she wrote or talked about “Geek Love” as one of their favorite books and that it had an influence on them on some level. “Toad” is a continuation of the tone, experience and artistic vision of “Attic and “Truck”, and those (first two) books meant something to a lot of people.”
“Toad” follows a lonely young woman, the regrets she lives with and the relationships in her life, and it’s an ode to Dunn’s time at Reed College. (Read Amazon’s summary in a sidebar to this story). Resurrecting the book is a story in itself.
Naomi Huffman, who at the time worked for publisher FSG and was a fan of Dunn and all of his writings, contacted Lewis & Clark College to access the writer’s archives, which the college had purchased after his death – Dapolonia still owned the copyright.
It was spring 2019. The archive, including Huffman, included stories from the 1980s and 90s, and she intended to compile them for a short story book.
But “I was initially driven by my own curiosity and enthusiasm for Dunn’s work — I just wanted to read these stories,” Huffman said. College sent her story files, she read them, and “I was thrilled they had all the swagger and parade that fascinated me about her novels.”
Later that fall, Huffman had lunch with Dapolonia, where she told him about her plans to publish the short story collection. Dapolonia told Huffman about “Toad,” and she read it and, “Needless to say, I was in love with it, too,” she said.
A group of friends stepped in to help the process. A Lewis & Clark archivist helped find different versions of “Toad”. DK Holm, former film critic at Willamette Week, transcribed the entire book into a usable Word document. Jim Redden of Pamplin Media Group, a longtime friend of Dunn’s, helped organize the project, as did his brother, Bill.
Then it’s off to Huffman at FSG, and “she was instrumental in getting it published,” as well as gathering the news, which will also likely be released next year, Dapolonia said. Huffman got one of Dunn’s short stories, “The Resident Poet,” published in The New Yorker in May 2020.
“I’m so excited that the book will finally meet readers when it’s released in November,” said Huffman, who left FSG but serves as the book’s publisher. “It was an honor to spend the last years of my life reading and re-reading Dunn’s work, immersing myself in the fabulous story of his legendary career. This work changed my career, convinced me to continue to seek work with under-published writers, and envision a more inclusive and creative publishing industry.”
And it makes people appreciate Dunn’s writing again. He was quite a character. She lived in a flat in Nob Hill for many years and really loved boxing – both writing about it, interviewing boxing champions and being featured in Ring magazine and newspapers, and speaking about it. training (but not competing).
Dunn has written a lot of fiction and non-fiction, but boxing, “it’s something she stumbled upon,” her son said.
“She was always fascinated by violence as a human behavior,” Dapolonia said. “She grew up in a home where there was violence. Her mother had a history of violence. Katherine married a man, I think in 1980, and he was a Vietnam veteran, a tough blue collar, always a a boxing fan, and she started going to boxing matches with him and developed a passion and interest in the sport.”
Upon joining Willamette Week, Dunn wrote about boxing and “his career grew,” he added. “She really became respected as a preeminent boxing journalist, and not many women were covering boxing. And, she loved the fighters, the stories and the characters. She loved the science, the art.”
Dunn trained for several years and “she could really get the speed bag moving,” Dapolonia said. “She wasn’t a big woman, maybe 145 pounds, but she could hit hard, which she was proud of.”
Meanwhile, Dapolonia said her mother was, thankfully, a smoker. “She rolled her own cigarettes – Top or Bugler, then Norwegian Shag,” he said. “She knew what smoking was going to do to her. No illusions, it was a deadly process. She loved smoking, it was part of her identity, an experience she really enjoyed.”
And, Dunn always wore sunglasses, even indoors “starting in the 1980s,” his son said. She was sensitive to bright light.
Dunn was working on another novel, “The Cut Man”, at the time of his death. It’s unfinished and incomplete, Dapolonia said, so it’s unlikely the book can be finished.
Dapolonia described Dunn’s writing as “clear and direct, and she liked the musicality of the language”. He defers to a recent acquaintance to talk about the writing style: Eric Rosenblum, an English professor at Pratt University in Brooklyn, New York, learned a lot about Dunn in his classes, and he invited Dapolonia to tell his class about Dunn. Rosenblum has since submitted a biography of Dunn to editors.
“Here is this person, this iconoclastic person, and she wrote this book that really touched me, and I kept reading it,” he said. “She’s able to look at a pretty dark and sometimes ugly subject without flinching, describing it as it is, and she somehow makes it beautiful. She was able to see things in the world as they are. were.”
Dapolonia said publishing her late mother’s work was the right thing to do.
“She would feel some redemption – an editor interested in ‘Toad’ after being so hurt the first time around,” he said.
“The written word allows you to go see and experience something that someone wrote a year or a thousand years ago. Putting work there is an opportunity for people to see it and experience a part of her. It’s a wonderful thing.”
A summary from Amazon:
An unpublished novel of the reflections of a deeply scarred and reclusive woman, from cult icon Katherine Dunn, the author of ‘Geek Love’. Sally Gunnar has been in love, been mad, been an agent of destruction, been rejected; and now she has withdrawn from the world. She lives isolated in her small house, where her only companions are a vase of goldfish, a garden toad and the door-to-door salesman who sells her cleaning products once a month. From her comfortable perch, she ruminates on her deepest regrets: her wayward, weedy-hazy college years; his wasted romance with a contemptuous poet; a tragically comical accident involving a letter opener; a suicide attempt; and his decision to finally abandon a conventional life. Colorful, gritty and deep, “Toad” is Katherine Dunn’s ode to her time as a student at Reed College, filled with the same pointed observations, anti-taboo verve and singular characters that made “Geek Love” a cult classic. Through the shrewd Sally, a fish out of water among a group of eccentric and privileged young people, we meet Sam, an unwashed collector of other people’s stories; Carlotta, a free spirit who does not however escape the deception of marriage; and Rennel, a shallow, self-obsessed philosophy student.
With sly self-mockery and biting wit, Sally recounts their misadventures, right up to the tragedy that tore them apart. Through it all, “Toad” demonstrates Dunn’s genius for dark humor and irony, his ecstatic celebration of the grotesque. Bold and bizarre, “Toad” is a brilliant precursor to the book that would make Dunn a misfit hero – even 50 years after it was written, it’s a refreshing take on the lives of young strangers walking the delicate lines between isolation and freedom, love and madness, hatred and friendship.
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