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Portland writer penned book in the 1970s, but it was rejected; a series of events lead to its pending publication.

COURTESY PHOTO: ELI DAPOLONIA - The late writer Katherine Dunn lived in Oregon since 1977, about the time she wrote "Toad," a book rejected by a publisher but brought back to life in past couple years by family, friends and fans.Eli Dapolonia remembers the day well, back in the late 1970s. Mom opened the letter, read it and burst into tears. For a kid not even 10 years old, it was a bit upsetting.

His mother, Katherine Dunn, who already had 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 got rejected, and it was devastating for her," Dapolonia said. "She stopped writing for a while after 'Toad,' it hurt her that much.

"Then, she started working at Willamette Week, doing boxing articles and working for The Slice (column), and it got her enjoyment of writing back. She got the joy back, and that's what eventually led to the writing of 'Geek Love,' her fourth novel."

Dunn's "Geek Love" has taken on cult classic status, and it was a National Book Award finalist in 1989. A nationally known writer in boxing, fiction and nonfiction, Dunn will always be associated with "Geek Love."

Dunn died in 2016 at age 70, of complications from lung cancer. But more than 40 years after being rejected, "Toad" has new life. Some friends, family and fans have bonded to bring "Toad" to publication, and it's set to debut Nov. 1 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) publishing company.

COURTESY IMAGE - The novel Toad is due out Nov. 1.Dapolonia, a longtime Portland resident who's currently doing a postdoctoral residency in neuropsychology in Maine, couldn't be more pleased.

"I feel good about it," he said. "It's an honor and privilege to give those folks who enjoyed her writing something more to read.

"There are so many people I've talked to throughout the years who knew mom and loved her as a friend or knew her writing or loved her writing. They enjoyed boxing articles she wrote, or talked about 'Geek Love' as one of their favorite books and that it had influence on them at 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 folks."

"Toad" follows a young, loner woman, the regrets she lives with and the relationships in her life, and it's an ode to Dunn's time spent at Reed College. (Read Amazon's summary in a sidebar to this story). Resurrecting the book is a story in itself.

Naomi Huffman, who worked at publisher FSG at the time and was a fan of Dunn's and all of her writing, contacted Lewis & Clark College about accessing the writer's archives, which the college had purchased after her death — Dapolonia still owned the copyrights.

It was spring of 2019. The archive, Huffman understood, included stories from the 1980s and '90s, and it was her intent to compile them for a book of short stories.

But, "I was initially driven by my own curiosity and enthusiasm for Dunn's work — I just wanted to read those stories," Huffman said. The college sent her files of the stories, she read them, and "I was thrilled that they possessed all the swagger and strut that enthralled me about her novels."

COURTESY PHOTO: ELI DAPOLONIA - Katherine Dunn was quite a character, her son, Eli Dapolonia (right), said. She loved boxing, enjoyed smoking her own rolled cigarettes and always wore sunglasses.Later, in the fall, Huffman had breakfast with Dapolonia, where she told him about her plan to publish the collection of short stories. Dapolonia told Huffman about "Toad," and she read it and, "It goes without saying that I was enamored with it, too," she said.

A cadre of friends pitched in to help the process. An archivist at Lewis & Clark helped find different versions of "Toad." DK Holm, a former movie critic at Willamette Week, transcribed the entire book into a usable Word document. Pamplin Media Group's own Jim Redden, a longtime friend of Dunn's, helped organize the project, as did his brother, Bill.

Then, it was off to Huffman at FSG, and "she's been instrumental in driving the publication," as well as collecting the short stories, which also likely will be published 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 for the book to finally meet readers when it's published in November," said Huffman, who has left FSG but serves as the book's editor. "It's been an honor to spend the past few years of my life reading and re-reading Dunn's work, immersing myself in the fabulous story of her fabled career. That work changed my career, convinced me to continue to seek work by underpublished writers, and to envision a more inclusive and creative publishing industry."

COURTESY PHOTO: ELI DAPOLONIA - Katherine Dunn, here feeding a lorikeet, reached national acclaim for her fiction, nonfiction and boxing writing. She died in 2016.And, it allows people to once again enjoy Dunn's writing. She was quite a character. She lived in an apartment in Nob Hill for many years and really enjoyed boxing — both writing about it, interviewing boxing champions and being published in Ring magazine and newspapers, and training in it (but not competing).

Dunn wrote a lot of fiction and nonfiction, but boxing, "it was something she stumbled on," her son said.

"She'd always been kind of fascinated by violence as human behavior," Dapolonia said. "She grew up in a household where there was violence. Her mother had a history of violence. Katherine married a man, I think in 1980, and he was a Vietnam vet, a tough blue-collar guy, always a boxing fan, and she started going to boxing matches with him, and developed a passion and interest for the sport."

Upon joining Willamette Week, Dunn wrote about boxing and "her career developed," he added. "She really became respected as a preeminent boxing journalist, and few women were covering boxing. And, she loved fighters, the stories and the characters. Loved the science of it, the art of it."

Dunn trained for several years and "she could really make the speed bag move," Dapolonia said. "She was not a large woman, maybe 145 pounds, but she could hit hard, something she took pride in."

At the same time, Dapolonia said his mother was, happily, a smoker. "She rolled her own cigarettes — Top or Bugler, and then Norwegian Shag," he said. "She knew what smoking was going to do to her. No illusions, it was a lethal process. She loved smoking; it was part of her identity, an experience she really valued."

And, Dunn would always wear sunglasses, even inside "from the 1980s on," her son said. She had sensitivity to bright light.

Dunn had been working on another novel, "The Cut Man," at the time of her 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 loved the musicality of language." He deferred to a recent acquaintance to talk about writing style: Eric Rosenblum, an English professor at Pratt University in Brooklyn, New York, has taught much about Dunn to his classes, and he invited Dapolonia to speak to his class about Dunn. Rosenblum has since pitched a Dunn biography to editors.

"Here's this person, this iconoclastic person, and she wrote this book that really touched me, and I've continued to read it," he said. "She's able to look unflinchingly at pretty dark and sometimes ugly subject matter, by describing it as is, and she somehow makes it beautiful. She was able to see things in the world for what they were."

Dapolonia said putting out his late mother's work is the right thing to do.

"She would feel some redemption — a publisher interested in 'Toad' after being so hurt the first time," he said.

"The written word allows you to go see and experience something somebody wrote a year ago or a thousand years ago. Putting work out there is an opportunity for people to see her and know a part of her. That's a wonderful thing."

ABOUT 'TOAD'

A summary from Amazon:

A previously unpublished novel of the reflections of a deeply scarred and reclusive woman, from the cult icon Katherine Dunn, the author of "Geek Love. " Sally Gunnar has been in love, has been mad, has been an agent of destruction, has been spurned; and now she has retreated from the world. She lives in isolation 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 supplies once a month. From her comfortable perch, she broods over her deepest regrets: her wayward, weed-hazy college days; her blighted romance with a scornful poet; a tragically comic accident involving a paper cutter; a suicide attempt; and her decision to ultimately relinquish a conventional life. Colorful, crass, and profound, "Toad" is Katherine Dunn's ode to her time as a student at Reed College, filled with the same keen observations, taboo-shirking verve, and singular characters that made "Geek Love" a cult classic. Through the perceptive Sally, a fish out of water among a cadre of eccentric, privileged young people, we meet Sam, an unwashed collector of other people's stories; Carlotta, a free spirit who nevertheless fails to escape the deception of marriage; and Rennel, a shallow, self-obsessed philosophy student.

With sly self-deprecation and mordant wit, Sally recounts their misadventures, up to the tragedy that tore them apart. Through it all, "Toad" demonstrates Dunn's genius for black humor and irony, her ecstatic celebration of the grotesque. Daring and bizarre, "Toad" is a brilliant precursor to the book that would make Dunn a misfit hero — even 50-some years after it was written, it's a refreshing take on the lives of young outsiders treading the delicate lines between isolation and freedom, love and insanity, hatred and friendship.


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