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From Self-Pity to Pulitzer: Lessons from the Life of John Kennedy Toole

Why you should never count yourself out as a writer, especially in the internet era.

That’s Toole in the middle

Welcome to today’s issue of Other Life, a newsletter dedicated to the greatest books and most interesting writers in history. If you received this from a friend, subscribe for yourself here.

Nota bene: The next cohort of our independent writers program will start on July 17. Request an invitation here.

Today, I want to share some highlights from the latest episode of the Other Life podcast, John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces With Dan Baltic.

In this episode, we explore the life, times, and influence of the mysterious outsider novelist John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969). Toole was an Army man and minor professor of English, who struggled for many years to find a publisher interested in his novel. Eventually he found a sympathetic editor but Toole refused his editor’s requests and A Confederacy of Dunces was never published in his lifetime. Though Toole would never know it in his short life (which sadly ends at his own hand), his novel would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize.

We are accompanied by independent novelist Dan Baltic, who helps us draw some lessons from Toole’s challenging career. We dissect the character of Ignatius J. Riley, discuss the importance of Toole's persistence (and its eventual collapse), and how Toole influenced Dan’s own trajectory as an independent internet writer. Dan provides some insightful parallels between Toole's struggles and his own journey navigating the digital era.

If you’re busy, here are some highlights for your lunch break:

  • John Kennedy Toole's Life Story (0:15:45)

  • The Importance of Persistence and Patience for Writers (0:29:40)

  • Navigating the Confusion of Independent Publishing (0:33:21)

  • Building a Twitter Audience (0:43:02)

  • Traditional vs. Independent Publishing (1:02:17)

Listen to the whole episode on the Other Life podcast—you can find it anywhere you get your podcasts.