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Katherine Dunn’s ‘Toad’ sees publication nearly 50 years after completion

Eli Dapolonia says his mother was a perfectionist who cared about the musicality of language and was reduced to tears by the novel’s early rejection.

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Katherine Dunn's autobiographical novel about her time as a young woman in Portland, "Toad," is being released Nov. 1, 2022. Photo courtesy: Katherin Dunn Archives at Lewis & Clark
The late Katherine Dunn will be the subject of a tribute event Tuesday at Powell’s Books in conjunction with the release of her long-delayed novel, “Toad.” Photo courtesy: Katherine Dunn Archives at Lewis & Clark

Almost 50 years after it was written, Katherine Dunn’s novel Toad will be released 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 during the 1960s, where she began writing her first novel, Attic. After finishing Truck in 1971, she hosted a literary radio show on KBOO before becoming a creative writing instructor at Lewis & Clark College and Pacific University. Dunn, 70, died in May 2016 in Portland.

Although she didn’t graduate, Dunn’s time at Reed College 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 and melancholy woman named Sally Gunnar. Sally has withdrawn from her surroundings and spends her days nitpicking her home and brooding over a cast of difficult men and equally difficult peers. As Sally laments her introspective time in isolation, she recounts the frail foundations on which her eclectic friendships have been built and becomes filled with worry about her position as an outsider.

Toad is more firmly a tragedy than coming-of-age story; Kirkus Reviews called it “a gentle, funny, heartbreaking indictment of the naïve excesses of the 1960s and the testament of a woman who survived them.” Despite its grit and honesty, the book was rejected by publishers throughout Dunn’s life, causing her to put it away for many years. It wasn’t until years after the author’s death that her son showed Toad to Naomi Huffman, a former editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

“Naomi Huffman came to me after the release of On Cussing and asked if my mother had any unpublished work,” Dapolonia said over email. “Toad was in a rough typewritten manuscript with all sorts of notes in the margins and wasn’t in sufficient shape to scan into a text document. My mother’s friends – Jim Redden, Bill Redden, and D.K. Holm – spent several weeks transcribing the novel so it could be shown to Naomi and FSG in a usable form. They did the hard work to make it readable. Naomi and FSG liked what they saw, and on Nov. 1, Mom’s readers will get to see it, too.”

In addition to being a celebrated writer, Dunn was a dedicated mother and community member. 

She was kind and generous, her son recalled, especially to struggling fellow artists and writers. She spent many years working service jobs to support her writing career and understood the  difficulties of balancing creative endeavors with supporting a family.

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“When she had any money, she would always tip 50 to 100 percent,” Dapolonia said.

When asked what Toad’s publication would mean to his mother, Dapolonia answered, “Redemption. The book is part of her legacy. The initial rejections were very painful for her. I hope that this would make her proud. I’m also happy to be able to share more of her writing with her readers. It is always a privilege to get to speak with people who enjoyed my mother’s writing or found it meaningful in some way.”

Toad will be released Tuesday by MCD, a division of  FSG dedicated to the “experimental, stunning, 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 chatted with Dapolonia about Dunn’s legacy, rejection, and what it was like being her son.

I’ve read that you were born in Ireland and traveled often with your mother as a child. What was it like to experience different parts of the world at a young age, and to have Katharine Dunn as a mother?

I think it gave me a broader perspective, traveling across Europe and the U.S. I was exposed to other languages, like French and Italian, very early, and that has made it easier to learn languages as an adult. We were pretty poor the entire time, but the experience was rich. Mom was very comfortable wherever she traveled. She was outgoing and friendly and connected with people well even in places she didn’t know the language.

Katherine Dunn and her then-husband, Danta Dapolonia, hold their young son, Eli Dapolonia, in a family photo from the 1970s. Photo courtesy: Katherine Dunn Estate
Katherine Dunn and her then-husband, Dante Dapolonia, hold their young son, Eli Dapolonia, in a family photo from the 1970s. Photo courtesy: Katherine Dunn Estate

Dunn lived in Portland a large portion of her life. What did the city mean to her and her work?

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In the 1970s, when we moved to Portland, it was a unique city with the flavor of many smaller European cities. 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 blue-collar, working class, and it became a bastion of artists, musicians, and writers. She loved the Nob Hill neighborhood with its convenience, art galleries, and theaters. Her luck followed the evolution of the neighborhood, and as she achieved success, the neighborhood followed. She moved several times but was always within the same two-block area.

Dunn revised Toad for many years, seemingly working on its structure. Did she consider herself a perfectionist when it came to writing?

She was very much a perfectionist. She cared about the musicality of language and the structure of every sentence.

Toad explores, in part, the counterculture of the ‘60s. Did you feel any effects of that time on your upbringing?

Of course, the counterculture was a core part of who she was, and also something she sometimes rebelled against. I grew up with counterculture comic books like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and R. Crumb.

How did the rejection of Toad throughout the years affect Dunn? Do you remember the first rejection letters?

I only remember one. I remember that it made her cry, and I remember that it caused her to stop writing for a couple of years.

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What drew Dunn to the world of boxing when she wrote for The Oregonian and Willamette Week? Was she a boxer?

She was introduced to boxing through a man she was dating. She fell in love with the sport and began 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 the Grand Avenue gym and Matt Dishman Community Center. She used those skills to defend herself when, in her 60s, someone attempted to mug her on the street in front of her apartment building. She defended herself successfully using only her left hand, and never dropped the bag of groceries in her right. She was right-handed.

Are there any additional upcoming projects or releases we can look forward to?

FSG will be publishing an anthology of short stories by Katherine Dunn in the next year or two, and Eric Rosenblum is working on her biography.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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