This is a tad lengthy, but if you're interested, here's my piece on Doug Marlette from 2002 in the (Raleigh, N.C.) News and Observer.
Hillsborough -- The writers began to talk back in June. That's when galleys of Doug Marlette's first novel began floating around town. The early buzz was not good. Marlette, the editorial cartoonist known for his fearless newspaper takedowns and satirical comic strip, "Kudzu," had done the unthinkable in "The Bridge." He had aimed his pen at his neighbor, writer Allan Gurganus.
This did not sit well in Hillsborough. Over a decade, the once-grimy mill village has, thanks to quaint rows of historic homes and its proximity to the academic cradle of Chapel Hill, attracted the A-list of the local writing community. And nobody exemplifies the spirit of Hillsborough more than Gurganus. His home, next to a historic graveyard, is a kind of mountain voodoo church, each room containing a set of artifacts: washboards, carved Jesus heads, stained glass. He throws a popular Halloween party and maintains close relationships with bookstore managers, radio hosts and the rest of the writers on the roster -- Lee Smith, Hal Crowther, Michael Malone, Annie Dillard, Alan Shapiro and Tim McLaurin, among others.
Now, the word was, the high priest of the Hillsborough writer's colony had been wounded.
Passages of "The Bridge" were underlined, pages dog-eared to mark the crime. Before long, Marlette began to get phone calls and letters. The dispute centered on the character of Ruffin Strudwick, who shared several distinctive features -- red sneakers, the Halloween party, authorship of a Civil War epic -- with Gurganus. Strudwick was also a boozy, fashion-challenged jerk. Marlette's response: This was fiction, not the author.
Gurganus isn't talking about "The Bridge," but through interviews with his friends, letters and e-mail, the story emerges.
"He was very hurt," said Lee Smith, mentor to many an aspiring Triangle writer and author of "Fair and Tender Ladies." "I would have been so hurt. Take the most idiosyncratic traits that you have and make fun of them and make fun of your work. I would be in tears."
Smith called Marlette as soon as she heard about the character. She told him he still had time to change Strudwick before the book was published. Forget it, he said. They would not speak again.
For Marlette, who moved to Hillsborough in 1991, these complaints marked the start of a campaign against his book. Over the fall, he would be accused of sins ranging from character assassination to homophobia and, perhaps worst of all, bad writing. He would have a reading at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill canceled. He would cut himself off from anyone -- writers, artists and assorted admirers -- he suspected of being in the Gurganus camp. Marlette was under attack, increasingly suspicious and angry. In other words, he was right at home.
Because conflict has always traveled with the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. As a teenager growing up in the South, his turmoil was largely internal, that universal, small-town desire to live somewhere, anywhere, other than with his conservative, Paul Harvey-listening family. Once he escaped, Marlette became the consummate agitator, an editorial cartoonist who took on senators, sports heroes, even the pope. If a cartoonist is doing his job, Marlette once wrote, his "hate mail runneth over."
Now, he had created a war of words in the peaceful writer's colony of Hillsborough. And he didn't sound like a man ready to back down.
"The premise is Allan's feelings were hurt and people's feelings should not be hurt and all I'm questioning is why Allan should be exempt from that," Marlette said. "I'm not exempt from that. My feelings are hurt all the time."
Marlette says he never meant to cause any trouble, at least consciously. "The Bridge" is supposed to be a love letter to the town. Using a mix of family history, research and imagination, Marlette tells the almost-forgotten story of the underprivileged millworkers, or lintheads, who were crushed in the '30s when they tried to unionize.
The protagonist is Pick Cantrell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who returns to his native South after losing his job at a New York newspaper. Back home, Cantrell finds an alternative history that contradicts the seemingly redneck exterior of his family. In particular, he finds that his grandmother, Mama Lucy, who packs snuff and a .38 pistol and terrorizes several generations, was bayoneted by National Guardsmen at a plant. The book centers on this discovery and how it helps Cantrell come to terms with his roots.
"The Bridge" may be fiction, but Marlette didn't have to stretch much to imagine Cantrell. Like his character, Marlette won a Pulitzer for editorial cartooning and worked for a Long Island newspaper until last year, when his contract wasn't renewed. His paternal grandmother, Grace Pickard, was bayoneted in 1934 during a union demonstration in Burlington.
Marlette also shares his character's need for reconciliation. As a child, he always felt out of place, as if he had dropped into the center of a Southern family from outer space. Also, the Marlette family never really settled, the product of father Elmer's military service.
From Greensboro to Burlington and Durham. To Laurel, Miss., and eventually Sanford, Fla. Cantrell and Marlette also share a mother with a serious mental illness. With Elmer away for long stretches during Vietnam, Billie Moore, as hard as she tried to hold herself together, would break down, sobbing uncontrollably. She would eventually be institutionalized.
The teenage Marlette, the middle of three children, spent a lot of time alone. He was not successful with girls, a fact he has brought to life for 20 years through Kudzu, his comic strip alter ego. He drew, all the time. His images were often inspired by Mad magazine and TV culture.
Over time, they became sharper edged and political. At just 21, Marlette landed a job as the Charlotte Observer's editorial cartoonist.
He was part of a wave of Vietnam-era cartoonists, the generation that included Tony Auth, Jeff MacNelly and Mike Peters. Marlette's work was brash and biting, but with a sense of humor and outrage anchored by a decidedly Southern take on morality. Having spent much of his childhood in church, he could quote Bible passages at will and attack, without fear, when a religious leader or policy struck him as misguided. For years, he would submit an anti-death penalty cartoon to his bosses in Charlotte. It showed Jesus carrying an electric chair on his back. The cartoons never ran.
"His expectations of his fellow human beings are not high," says Ed Williams, the longtime editorial page editor at the Observer. "He thinks that most people are quite happy to live unexamined lives. He just thinks that is wildly hilarious. So he's not a guy who will go far out of his way to avoid offending people, but I don't think that's because he dislikes people. That's because he has an uncanny ability to see things clearly. I don't think it's any accident that his first edition of cartoons was called 'The Emperor's New Clothes.'"
Marlette has had cartoons spiked at every stop. In an episode he fictionalized in "The Bridge," Newsday published a Marlette drawing critical of the pope and then, after a flurry of complaints, apologized to its readers. In real life, Marlette swallowed his pride and moved on; in "The Bridge," Cantrell beats his publisher with a yachting trophy and is arrested.
"A cartoon cannot say 'on the other hand,' and it cannot be defended with logic," Marlette wrote in 1991's collection "In Your Face." "It is a frontal assault, a slam dunk, a cluster bomb. Journalism is about fairness, objectivity, factuality; cartoons use unfairness, subjectivity, and the distortion of facts to get at truths that are greater than the sum of the facts."
Marlette, who is 52, has long felt he had to adapt the story his grandmother first told him in the early 1980s. Like Cantrell in the novel, he had come to understand so much more about himself through her tale. He realized that he was not a non sequitur, that in fact he had been spawned by a rabble-rousing, populist family of political agitators.
Over time, Marlette considered adapting the story as a musical, just as he had with "Kudzu." He also considered memoir, before deciding the form would limit him too much. About five years ago, Marlette started writing the novel. To juice up the contemporary side of the book -- "The Bridge" is told in flashback -- Marlette created a place he called Eno, effectively Hillsborough. He took the most colorful aspects of people he knew and slapped them onto characters. Then, as ovelists do, he made stuff up. That meant the Strudwick character acquired headstones stolen from a slave cemetery for his grounds and an "angular face flush with alcohol and the giddy delight of the born party host and social director." Marlette also created Russ Draper, an Episcopal minister who refers to Strudwick as "queer as a football bat."
This did not amuse Brooks Graebner, minister at the Episcopal church Marlette's family attended in Hillsborough. Though he declined an interview for this story, Graebner asked publisher HarperCollins to remove his name from the novel's acknowledgments. HarperCollins agreed, as its staff decided to stay out of the dispute. Graebner also wrote Marlette and asked him to soften the character. "I'm made very uncomfortable by having the character based in any way on my life and ministry referring to a homosexual person being 'as queer as a football bat,' " Graebner wrote. "I regard such sentiments as a violation of the baptismal covenant of my church. ..." The cartoonist didn't respond. His family started going to a Methodist church.
As the controversy gathered steam over the summer, Marlette tried to hold his tongue. Oh, he would send frustrated e-mail messages to friends and drop off-the-record hints when pressed by reporters. But he did not seek out the attention, at least from the press.
Marlette decided his ultimate revenge would be success. He enlisted his closest friend, the South Carolina novelist Pat Conroy, to write a blurb for the book jacket -- "The finest first novel to come out of North Carolina since the publication of Thomas Wolfe's 'Look Homeward Angel'" -- and even featured the same cover artist who had done Conroy's most famous book, "The Prince of Tides."
Marlette's novel received generally positive reviews across the South, including in The News & Observer. It didn't approach New York Times best-seller status, though Marlette's local publicist, Katharine Walton, noted it earned placement on several lists considered important in the publishing world, those compiled by Independent and Southeastern Booksellers. "The Bridge" sold out its first printing. There has been talk of a movie deal.
The local alternative press, though, hasn't mentioned any of that. It focused on the spat. Independent Weekly writer Melinda Ruley wrote that Marlette had "punctured Hillsborough's communion with itself and mortified its illustrious population." Spectator writer Todd Mormon, first in print and then in an Internet posting to the lt.music.chapel-hill newsgroup, savaged Crowther and Bull's Head Bookstore manager Erica Eisdorfer, who canceled a Marlette reading. (Eisdorfer declined to comment for this story.)
Conroy, who speaks to Marlette virtually every day, told his friend the hometown reaction to "The Bridge" confirmed what he has been saying for years. That Hillsborough's image -- a place where published authors generously help younger writers; where poets, essayists and novelists gather for parties and softball games -- is nothing short of propaganda. He has taken to calling it "the Lee Smith myth."
"I've now seen a novel come out of Hillsborough," Conroy says. "It's called 'The Bridge' and it proved that the worst place to publish a novel in the United States is Hillsborough, North Carolina, where they call your publisher and try to get it not published."
Us vs. them?
The writers, when asked at first, would dismiss the controversy as a tempest in a teapot, a tale perpetuated mainly by the media. "The writers don't talk about it," said Kaye Gibbons, who lives in Raleigh but is friendly with the crowd. "We've got things to do."
Not exactly. When the subject of "The Bridge" came up at a dinner party, according to Tim McLaurin, Hal Crowther lit into Marlette. Crowther, a columnist for the Independent Weekly who hadn't read the book, only the passages in question, couldn't understand how somebody could savage a friend like that. He also was angry that his wife, Lee Smith, had been accused of telling her friends not to support "The Bridge," a charge she denies.
McLaurin has always liked Smith and Crowther, but he didn't think Marlette wrote anything particularly savage. So he said so. Like Marlette, McLaurin was starting to think of the war of words as a battle over something more than the book.
"I love Lee Smith dearly, but Lee came from a very privileged background in a lot of ways," says McLaurin, who has written in detail about his own journey from the tobacco fields to the world of literature. "The book itself is about social struggle, and here's Doug, the grandson of this woman who was actually bayonetted for standing up for her beliefs, suddenly confronted by people who are of a very artsy-fartsy community, very aware that we are literary, we are of the arts, who know literature and can identify the difference between a Monet and Velvet Elvis, and 'We're going to quell this disturbance right quick because it's hurting someone we care so much about.' And when Doug didn't immediately back down and say, 'I'm sorry,' and he got up his redneck hackles, I think that's where it all sort of began."
As Marlette has battled the response to "The Bridge," he has pushed that theory, that his book has exposed a class split among the writers. He thought about who had spoken up on his behalf. Kaye Gibbons, who has used her own poor, rural childhood as inspiration for her work. Conroy. McLaurin. Then he looked at the other side.
"Have you noted that all who oppose me and my book among the local literati and their hangers-on come from the golf courses and private schools of privilege?" Marlette wrote in an e-mail message in December.
"I note that those writers who support me and my book come from the wrong side of the tracks like me. Could it be that my book is a challenge to the economic elite, the educated elite of today, the bourgeois bohemians, trodders on the headstones of slaves and lintheads, as represented by Ruffin Strudwick, descendant of the mill superintendent, and that these people who oppose my book are simply bayoneting lintheads again?"
That theory, circulated through town, struck the Gurganus crowd as absurd. Wasn't it Marlette who, upon his arrival in town, had bought the $1 million Burnside property? Didn't he and his wife, Melinda, throw parties, at which then-UNC basketball coach Dean Smith could mingle with the New Yorker's Calvin Trillin?
"If you have a certain kind of paranoia with respect to class, I can see how it would appear like one vast conspiracy," says the poet Alan Shapiro, a longtime Gurganus friend. "But like most conspiracy theories, they're based on a suspicion that precedes the very actions that they supposedly justify. He carried that suspicion into this situation. In a way, it seems like he's sort of engineering this sequence of events to make it look like everybody's out to get him."
Getting over it
By year's end, Marlette had grown tired of the controversy. That's what he said. Then, like virtually everybody else, he would start to talk about it again. But now there had been an important breakthrough in the lines of communication.
It started this way: On a Sunday before Christmas, during an appearance at the town library, Marlette was asked if there were, as in the book, stolen slave gravestones in the yards of Hillsborough residents. Well, Marlette said, he had heard that perhaps Crowther and Smith had one.
A friend in the audience reported this to Crowther. As both sides recount it, the next day Crowther called Marlette and threatened to sue. Doug and Melinda Marlette both got on the phone. For the first 20 minutes, they argued. Then Crowther listened. About the reading canceled by Gurganus' friend at UNC. About Marlette's local publicist being driven to tears by several writers who told her not to work with Marlette. About planted, negative reader reviews posted on Amazon.com that the online retailer eventually agreed to remove.
Crowther explained his own position. He didn't agree with how Marlette had jabbed Gurganus and then had criticized Smith, but he had not been part of any kind of conspiratorial campaign.
"All I knew was Allan's side because they didn't say anything to anyone," Crowther says. "Whether or not it's believable, they have this passionate story they want to tell and they wanted to tell me about this orchestrated attack on their lives and their book. I don't think this is cynical. I do think it's sincere. I don't think it's rational, but I do think it's sincere."
By now, to himself at least, Marlette started to think there was more behind the Strudwick character than he originally had thought. As a great believer in instinct and the subconscious, maybe he had somehow meant to drop a bomb in the neighborhood. At the least, he had misjudged Gurganus. "The Allan that I knew -- mischievous, hilarious, witty -- would have loved this character," Marlette would say. "The one that showed up to read the book, I didn't know."
He wasn't sure where everything would lead. Talking to Crowther had been a start, but only toward a truce, not a renewed friendship. And he still hadn't spoken to so many of the other players.
Just after New Year's, Marlette sat down to write Crowther a letter. He started by admitting that he had made a mistake in not communicating his side of things. So now he would. He detailed what he and Melinda had experienced because of a book that he called "a valentine to this town, this state and this region and to my people, the invisible, impoverished cotton mill workers whose toil put clothes on the backs of the privileged like you and me."
Marlette listed the locals who had called him to complain. A photographer who told him he was poisoning the town. Booksellers who told him they had been warned his book was homophobic.
"I am writing this letter to set the record straight," Marlette states at the end. "I appreciate your coming forth to express your point of view. 'The Bridge' is about reconciliation and redemption. But not at the expense of rewriting history or glossing over the truth. As for us, we're not interested in apologies if that was indeed what you were offering. Just clarity."