The Bridge was named best book of 2002 by the Southeastern Bookseller's Association
“One of the best novels to come out of the south in recent years.” --Rhett Jackson, The Happy Bookseller, former President, American Booksellers Association
Marlette is one of the best new writers I’ve read in a long time; his book is written in the slow sumptuous Southern storytelling tradition. He weaves together the stories of the Cantrell family matriarch, Mama Lucy, and her grandson Pick, among others, to tell of three generations in a mill town. The tale of their fates, their misunderstandings, and their attempts to make the best of what they’ve been given (or given up) is absolutely compelling.”
I sunk my teeth into the Bridge and in return was enraptured with its magic. . . I wanted the Bridge to go on and on. . . patching together a quilt of life that is, in the end, so bright and beautiful that it is overwhelming. . . . In some tough scenes that the novelist unfolds with a true artist’s touch, the reader is touched time and again. . . .Art not only exists on canvas and paper, it soars across the pages of this book . . .” --Wayne Greenhaw, Montgomery Advertiser
First-rate. An impressive debut and powerful read. . . Marlette brings the story to light with wit and poignance, his writing graceful and surefooted, his passion for the workers’ cause deep and profound. I could have kept reading for another 100 pages. . . no way to match his story within a story for emotional resonance and genuine human drama.” --Polly Paddock, The Charlotte Observer
“Marlette masterfully evokes the fierce familial bonds that either devastate or liberate the human spirit.” – Booklist
. . . a fine and very personal first novel . . . impressive . . . Marlette’s witty richly textured writing style (is) reminiscent of Conroy’s in all the best ways and fully Marlette’s own. -- Ellyn Bache Raleigh News and Observer
"A heartland winner. . . The fiction debut of a gifted and perceptive artist." -–Publishers Weekly
"The Bridge [is] a great story–exuberant, proud, myth-challenging–and Marlette has a great, Dickensian time with the telling...A hugely ambitious novel." -–Washington Post Book World
"Doug Marlette's natural talent for delightful humor glimmers in The Bridge. But he also leaves you holding your heart with both hands." -–Rick Bragg
"Marlette's fiction is as searing and brilliant as his visual art. The Bridge is an exceptional, eloquent book . . . leaves a reader breathless at the end." -–St. Petersburg Times
The finest first novel to come out of North Carolina since the publication of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel." -–Pat Conroy
"Doug Marlette takes us deep into the heart of America, and deeper into the American heart. . . His past and present not only lives and breathes, it lingers and it haunts your soul." -–Joe Klein
"The Bridge is about massive, indomitable human spirit and a powerful longing for freedom. Marlette writes with extraordinary grace, humor and with such bursts of force that I was left in perfect wonder at the novel's close." -–Kaye Gibbons
Interview: a Reader's Guide to "The Bridge"
At the beginning of the book you include a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke's The Dragon-Princess. Why did you choose this passage? How does this relate to the story?
I came across the Rilke quote after I had finished the novel. The notion of the Dragon-Princess seemed to express perfectly what was at work in my story of transformation. The dragon in Pick's life, his grandmother, is for him tamed by learning of the young girl she had once been and the forces and events that shaped her life. The quotation gets at that seed of hope and redemption that sometimes lies within our deepest fears. It's always hard to keep in mind the vulnerabilities in our enemies that fuel the defenses that create those dragons in our lives. Rilke seems to express here the profound psychological insight that our wound or trauma, that which we seek to deny or ignore, can actually be a source of our strength and liberation.
Your grandmother was the inspiration for the character of Mama Lucy. What can you tell us about your grandmother?
My grandmother, Grace Pickard, or Mama Gracie as we called her, a fiery and colorful woman, dominated her family and her fearsome personality imprinted itself indelibly upon my young psyche. The fictional portrait of Mama Lucy in the Prologue as snuff-dipping and pistol packing, a 'blue haired Ayatollah,' a 'black belt in passive aggression, 'a master of manipulation,' 'a carnival sideshow of hysterical symptoms' is pretty accurate although I actually had to tone her down for the book, for the sake of plausibility. In fact, she was so outrageous I had to leave out many details because nobody would believe them. Sometimes fiction is more believable than the facts.
Much of your novel is set against the backdrop of a bitter labor dispute, a textile strike during the depression era. Was this an actual event?
Yes, probably the most important, least known event in American history. The General Textile Strike of 1934 was the first time southern workers, like my grandmother, ever stood up en masse against the mill owners who controlled their lives.
It started on Labor Day, the 4th of September, and spread like brushfire through pine needles all across the region, with nearly five hundred thousand cotton mill workers shutting down the looms from Gadsden, Alabama, to Knoxville,Tennessee, from Newnan, Georgia, to Honea Path, South Carolina. Milltown to milltown they toppled like dominoes up through the North Carolina Piedmont to Burlington and Hillsborough, where most of my people lived and worked. Although factories in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and other northern states shut down too it was in the South that the effects were felt most profoundly. The nationwide walkout paralyzed the textile industry, stunning the mill barons, who depended upon a stable, compliant work-force to compete in the stagnant and declining markets of the Great Depression, by keeping labor costs down and profits -- and stockholders' dividends -- up. The response was swift and brutal. The powers-that-be in the communities -- the police, the courts and the press -- all closed ranks behind the millowners who controlled them to turn back the strike. Even ministers in the churches preached hellfire and damnation from the pulpits against the union pickets. Hired thugs and detectives with strike-breaking experience in the coal mining states were brought in to do much of the dirty work, but the workers themselves were deeply divided over the walkout, and the strike pitted neighbor against neighbor, kinfolk against their own, resulting in widespread violence, mayhem, and death. At the request of the millowners the National Guard was called in almost immediately, setting up their automatic rifles and machine guns at the mill gates, ostensibly to preserve the peace, but actually to break the strike, and ultimately breaking the back of the labor movement in the South. The strike was all over in three bloody weeks.
Why is so little known about it?
The Uprising of '34, as it would come to be called, was swept from memory, not only in my family, but in mill villages all across the South, in a kind of collective amnesia, like it was some shameful secret, a painful, traumatic experience of abuse and betrayal that was best left buried and forgotten. Union was a dirty word in the South..'I can't understand why my daddy never talked about it,' said one descendant of strikers in the documentary film The Uprising of '34'. 'They could talk about the war and about friends getting blown to bits, but they couldn't talk about their neighbors bein' killed. They oughta be proud. They stood up when other people wouldn't.'
Although I was raised within a tight-knit family with an affinity for gossip and an instinct for the colorful and dramatic, a family of natural and compulsive storytellers, who passed around yarns over the suppertable like hot biscuits and gravy, this was one story I never heard growing up.
Why did you choose to write a novel rather than telling your family's story as a memoir or historical narrative?
Although there was much in my book that was literally true about my family's involvement in the Uprising of '34 I decided to write a novel instead of a memoir because fiction gave me more freedom, flexibility and elbow room to tell the story I wanted to tell. The more I learned about the General Textile strike of 1934, the more I wanted to write a story that would encompass as much of the incredibly dramatic events that occurred all across the South at that time -- the massacre at Honea Path, South Carolina, the rounding up of strikers in internment camps in Georgia, the dynamite plot in Burlington and the rioting, bayoneting and blacklisting that went on all over the south and the stigmatizing and punishment of strikers in the aftermath -- fiction allowed me to telescope it all into the experience of one family in the towns of Eno and Burlington. It also gave me the opportunity to explore the ways in which the strike divided friends and families. I realized that my family's involvement offered me a rare gift and opportunity, a personal way into the story. Fiction, I believe, can get at truths greater than the sum of the facts.
What was the reaction of your family to The Bridge, since much of your family history is immortalized in this novel?
My family's reaction so far has been magnificent. They seem to grasp the reasons I had to tell the story the way I did, understanding instinctively the writer's necessary use of composite and autobiographical detail, what Thomas Wolfe meant when he said, 'The sculpture should not be mistaken for the clay from which it is formed.' Also, I think they recognized that I was not trying to nail anybody, that these were loving portraits of my family, friends and neighbors, and I think they were surprised to learn that their family had been involved in one of the most important unknown events in American history. There was actually a sense of gratitude and relief, I believe, that the book tried to give meaning to some things that they had experienced as irrational and painful.
In the novel, Pick and Cam have a passion for restoring old houses. Is this a passion that you share?
I certainly have an appreciation and love of old houses, having owned such a house in the 'historic district' of Hillsborough, NC, although I did not have to renovate the house myself (and by the way, unlike Pick Cantrell, nobody has ever accused me of being 'handy') I would have to say I have observed this passion for renovation more than I have participated in it.
One reviewer stated, 'The hero, Pick Cantrell, is a cartoonist, of all things, but we will not linger over the roman a clef question, although it does tease a reader throughout.' This does indeed tease the reader throughout. Why did you choose Pick's profession to be that of your own, a cartoonist?
I made Pick a cartoonist because I had never read a novel with a cartoonist protagonist before and I know something about that quirky profession and because the cartoonist's job is one of illuminating values I wanted to put him in a situation wherein his own values are illuminated. I wanted him to discover the unlikely source of his values and his politics and against-the-grain sensibility and I liked the idea of having him lose his job and then turn his artistic talent to the task of telling his grandmother's story by literally drawing her memories.
By the way, I believe every creative work is autobiographical -- not only novels, plays and comic strips, but the works of philosophers, theologians, scientists and mathematicians – and I do not shrink from drawing on my own experience yet reserve the artist's right to connect the dots, distort, exaggerate, make stuff up or refine the rough edges for dramatic effect.
Do you think your work as a cartoonist has impacted your work as a novelist? How so?
Yes, but not in the ways you might think. Caricature is not a form of Tourettes, a compulsion that one cannot control. It is a tool, but not one I needed or used much in the novel except early on in the New York dinner party scene where I wanted to establish how a cartoonist like Pick Cantrell might see some of the other guests. Good political cartoons are about powerful images, moving symbols, compelling metaphors, distillation, concision, directness, and strong emotion expressed clearly and succinctly. I wanted those same qualities in my book. Those skills, I think, translate well to fiction, which is probably why so many novelists started out as cartoonists. Fiction, like cartoons, is sort of a heightened reality. The discipline of meeting five deadlines a week for editorial cartoons and seven for my comic strip had taught me some things about the creative process. I had learned as a cartoonist over the years only to draw what moves me, to follow the fire, to trust my instincts. And to show, don't tell. I knew to write visually, that word-pictures are what the best novelists create. But one of the things I had to get over as a cartoonist or journalist was just blurting everything out all at once. In cartoons you tell the whole story in one direct hit, you can conceive of it and communicate the whole idea instantly. With a novel you have the luxury of taking your time, letting it out a bit at a time. What you withhold is as important as what you reveal. In my first draft I could hardly wait to get the story out and I had tipped my hand in the prologue. The novel allows you to tease and withhold, let it accrue in increments. You don't have to reveal all that you know immediately. The cartoon conceived, executed in the afternoon and can be seen in newspapers around the country the next day. Daily journalism, editorial cartooning, rewards the sprinter. The novel is for the long-distance runner. It is much more unwieldy. You cannot grasp fully what you have in one take. The process of writing a novel is such an act of faith. Faulkner said it was like driving an automobile across country at night and all you can see is what is in your headlights. He also said the novelist is like a one armed man hammering together a chicken coop in a hurricane. I agree.
There is an intimacy about the act of reading fiction, a bond and intimacy between the reader and writer that is extraordinary. I find that writing satisfies a desire to connect with readers deeply and intimately in a way that drawing cartoons does not. If a good political cartoon is like a slam dunk, writing a novel is like the entire basketball program.
Class distinction plays a large part in The Bridge. Do you see this at play in the South, or anywhere in America today?
Class is the great unspoken issue in the South and in this country. In the Eno of the thirties it is the classic caste system based on money and bloodlines, the haves and.the have nots, the rich vs. the poor, the ruling elite of mill owners vs. the working class mill hands, poor whites and blacks. The Eno of the Nineties is a meritocracy, the divide is between the educated elite and everybody else, the uneducated clueless. The haves in the information age are the bourgeois bohemians, the Resume Gods -- writers, professors, ministers, documentarians, info-moguls, techno geeks, software and website designers and sex entrepreneurs – and the have nots are the cultural illiterates, the unhip, the uncool, the politically incorrect, the tacky, the anti-intellectual, the uninformed, the uneducated, the information-deprived.
When my father, who was raised in the mill village of Hillsborough first saw the house I had bought in the 'historic district' of Hillsborough less than a mile away from where he had been born and raised he said, 'We didn't even know these houses were over here.' The mill village may as well have been the other side of the moon. A few years ago some reels of film turned up in town that was shot by a WPA photographer during the depression, random street scenes of Hillsborough. A screening was arranged at the museum in town and the locals descended to watch the film and exclaim over familiar faces recognized from their childhoods, even black people who had worked for their families, but when the photographer took his camera to the mill gate during the shift change and the millhands swarmed past his lens the audience fell silent. Nobody recognized anybody on the screen. Class. My people, the faceless, invisible cotton mill workers, lintheads as they were called, to the town people, the relatively privileged and upscale, simply did not exist.
At one point in the narrative you state, 'Memory has a way of doing that, of helping us heal ourselves' (page 382). Can you tell us what you mean by this statement? How does it relate to the novel?
Memory is the ultimate self-help, the thread of identity that stitches us together, the means by which we restore ourselves to ourselves, put ourselves together by putting us in touch with who we are and were, and where we came from, by telling ourselves stories of ourselves in order to become ourselves. 'The past is not over and done,' said Faulkner, 'it is not even past.' And 'Yesterday, today and tomorrow are Is: Indivisible: One.' Telling stories, recovering our histories, reconnects us and reminds us of who we are. From classic Greek tragedies to modern day psychoanalysis, the talking cure, from ancient religious rituals and ceremonies to contemporary fairy tales like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, even the impulse to dramatize historical events like Civil War re-enactments, involve story telling and remembering as that which keeps us human, and is both therapeutic and crucial to our survival.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a novel set in New York and Mississippi in the 1990's and in the 1960's civil rights era. The protagonist is a newspaper reporter, Carter Ransom, who as a young white Southerner got swept up in the movement for social justice in the South through his friendship with the son of his family's housekeeper and who along the way fell in love with a beautiful Jewish girl who came south to help register voters, setting him in conflict with his father, his family and his community.
Do you believe in genetic memory?
Yes. I think my return to the town where my family worked in the mills involved some unconscious pre-womb tug to return home to the place where my grandparents met and courted in the mills, and where my grandfather worked as deputy sheriff. As a product of a conservative, Southern Baptist, Marine Corps upbringing, I could never explain the streak of sedition that began showing up early in my cartoons. I suspect now that the fierce populist impulses and instincts that began bubbling out of my artwork as a teenager when I felt like a non sequitur in my gene pool was the call of my ancestors, that their voices and struggles were alive in my bloodstream and finding voice in my drawings, and seeking expression in my artwork, that my troublemaking genes had precedent. But I entered adulthood convinced I was spawned from a family of backward, benighted reactionaries, unaware of my family's incendiary populist past and puzzled as to where my politics came from. I would have known none of this had I not returned home. My art has always been way ahead of me, my conscious mind. Twenty years ago I drew the hero of my comic strip Kudzu wanting to become a writer long before I ever realized that I wanted to write.
When did you realize you had a story to tell and a novel to write?
The family stories about our history in the town and in the uprising began to leak out when I moved back to Hillsborough. And the more I learned about the strike and my family's involvement the more I thought there was something there. But here was the clincher: The historic home I bought in Hillsborough was built in 1833 by Paul Cameron, one of the founding fathers of the state, a leading merchant who laid the railroads, owned numerous plantations and served on the board of trustees of the University. A portrait of Paul Cameron hangs at the University of North Carolina with the inscription underneath, Paul Cameron, Capitalist. When I discovered that his family had also helped finance the mills in Hillsborough and Burlington where my grandmother had worked and was bayoneted, it struck me that the grandson of a linthead had moved into the millowner's house. That's when I knew there was a story to be told. Someone heard me telling this story recently and said, 'Someone should tell Osama Bin Laden that this is what America is all about. America is the kind of place where the grandson of a linthead can move into the millowner's house.'
There is such a contrast in the novel between the Eno of the 1990's and the Eno of the 1930's. Was that intentional?
Yes, I wanted to contrast the contemporary New South Eno, the contemporary setting with so little now to distinguish it from New York or Hollywood, populated by the latest ruling class, the educated elite, baby boom yuppies, bourgeois bohemians -- acquisitive, materialistic, image-obsessed, self-absorbed -- with the depression era Eno of my grandparents time when issues were life and death, the stakes were high, jobs and lives were on the line, what you thought and said mattered, character counted, Honor was more than just a name on an ATM card. I wanted to contrast true rebels like Mama Lucy, Davis and Annie Laura who paid a price for their convictions with the faux rebels of the Nineties like Ruffin Strudwick and even Pick Cantrell, sons of privilege who express their rebellion by wearing red tennis shoes and mouthing politically correct platitudes, who think authenticity can be bought by purchasing historic homes or wearing vintage clothes, who vote and eat and spend correctly but trod on the gravestones of slaves and lintheads. In the past passions were played out on larger canvases, with grand passions, forbidden love and dangerous political commitments, while in the Nineties all has been objectified, trivialized and miniaturized, when love is so debased and sex such a commodity that nothing is sexy, eros is reduced to technos, love to sex toys and martyred heroines to dildo queens.
Did you reconcile with your grandmother?
I was never as estranged as Pick Cantrell, but, yes, I did enjoy spending time with her in her last years and interviewed her extensively, recording our conversations about life in the mills when she was a girl and the bayoneting incident. Many of those stories, verbatim, found their way into The Bridge.