Kudzu cartoonist draws on family story for inspiration
With the publication of his new novel, The Bridge, Doug Marlette joins the ranks of writers who also happen to be accomplished cartoonists including such luminaries as John Updike, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who also draws the popular comic strip Kudzu, Marlette has written a touching and funny first novel about a Southern family torn by conflicts but ultimately bound by love. In a fictional take on his own life story, The Bridge focuses on a newspaper cartoonist who returns to his roots and discovers startling secrets about the family matriarch, Mama Lucy.
"When I draw cartoons, I always say my goal is to stay awake through the drawing," says Marlette, who approached the challenge of writing a novel with the same goal in mind. "I wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to tell the story and see if I could keep myself interested."
To make the process easier, Marlette used a fascinating family story as the basis of his novel. A military brat who was raised largely in North Carolina, he came of age during the 1960s and started to question his "reactionary" family values. When he began drawing political cartoons, "these populist, left-wing ideas started bubbling up that went against the grain of where I was from. I was out of step with my family."
After drawing acclaimed editorial cartoons for the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and New York Newsday, Marlette eventually returned to North Carolina to settle with his wife and son in Hillsborough, a small town in the Raleigh-Durham area.
Shortly after the move, Marlette learned that his grandmother had been born in the town, and he began to uncover surprising details about her early life. The bossy grandmother he tangled with during his youth turned out to have populist leanings of her own. A mill worker and union member, she had been bayoneted by the National Guard during a labor uprising in 1934.
"I was stunned," Marlette recalls of his discovery. "Part of what stunned me was to find that there were radicals among my own people. It's almost as if genetic memory had been expressing itself in my art."
Determined to incorporate his grandmother's story in a novel, Marlette managed to find time to write by getting up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning. "You just find hours here and there," he says. "Sometimes I would try to double up on cartoons so I could get clear for the weekend and have a couple of days to write on Saturday and Sunday."
The real "Mama Lucy," (Marlette's grandmother, Grace Pickard Marlette) had died by the time the book was written, but the first-time author says he is "braced" for the reaction of other family members to this autobiographical story.
One big fan of The Bridge is writer Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini), whom Marlette calls his "best friend." Conroy read an advance copy of the novel and described it, with just a hint of hyperbole, as "the finest first novel to come out of North Carolina since Look Homeward, Angel."
Conroy's sister Kathy also read the novel, and Marlette laughs uproariously at her reaction. One of the funniest characters in the book is a flamboyantly gay writer, Ruffin Strudwick, who for a time is alienated from his dictatorial father. Marlette insists that Strudwick is strictly fictional, a composite based on many people. But when Kathy Conroy read The Bridge, she was certain that her brother Pat had been the model for the character. "She called Pat and said she loved the character based on him. And then she asked, 'Did you mind that he made you gay?' "
Marlette says there is strong interest from Hollywood in adapting the novel to film, but he's not ready to buy movie tickets just yet. "I wrote a screenplay with Conroy years ago and I learned that you can't count on anything until you sit down in the theater and the room goes dark."