Like many first novelists, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette (formerly with the Charlotte Observer) pulled liberally from his own life when writing his new book The Bridge. The novel, a family story exploring the tragic local dimensions of the General Textile Strike that swept the South in 1934, features a very Marlette-like protagonist and is set in a small town not unlike Marlette's own Hillsborough.
Throughout the book, which has received mixed reviews, Marlette refers to actual people and events. The key character Mama Lucy, for example, is based on Marlette's grandmother, who was bayoneted by a National Guardsman in Burlington during the strike. A whimsical minor character called the Dildo King, owner of Garden of Eden Enterprises, an adult video and sex toy business, seems rooted in Phil Harvey and his sex-products company Adam & Eve, which happens to be one of the real town's largest employers.
You need to know two things about Hillsborough. First, it has only 5,500 residents. Second, a disproportionate number of those residents are nationally known authors. One of them is Alan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and The Practical Heart, who lives on the same street as Marlette. Gurganus saw himself in one of Marlette's characters and took great offense. His reaction set off a chain of events that divided this formerly friendly community and prompted some of its literary sophisticates to behave more like Mayberry provincials.
As Gurganus read an advance copy of the book early this summer, a peripheral character named Ruffin Strudwick hit a bit too close to home. Strudwick is a gay writer whose (nudge nudge) Civil War epic made him famous. Strudwick is also something of a jerk. According to friends, Gurganus was deeply hurt by the character.
"Alan read those passages and felt ridiculed," says syndicated columnist and Hillsborough resident Hal Crowther. "It's nothing a satirist wouldn't do," he says of the caricature, "but not what a friend would do."
Crowther and other locals say Gurganus showed them selected passages from The Bridge and pointed out what he thought were obvious jabs in his direction. In one passage, the lusty wife of the Dildo King makes a joking reference to Strudwick's boyfriends "launching gerbils up their assholes."
"When Alan presented this to us we said, "Oh my God,'" says Crowther. "We thought, 'Doug, you shouldn't have.'" Crowther says his wife, best-selling novelist Lee Smith, called Marlette and asked him to "tone down a few things" in the final version.
Marlette declined to do so and is quick to defend his work. "It's a mix. I can think of at least six people Ruffin's character is based on. People like Hal are being selective in what they take as fanciful and what they take as literal."
Marlette points to a passage about Ruffin's relationship with his father that was taken from the life of his friend Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides.
"My sister called me and asked what I thought about Doug making me gay," laughs Conroy. "She was convinced that Ruffin was meant to be me."
"Why would anybody think Ruffin was Alan?" asks Tim McLaurin, another well-known novelist who lives in Hillsborough. "Alan Gurganus is a sweet, nice, cordial man. The guy in the book is an asshole. I don't see why Alan saw himself in that character."
Aside from confirming that he asked for his name to be removed from The Bridge's acknowledgements and stating "I believe in the First Amendment," Alan Gurganus declined to comment for this story. When asked if he had encouraged anyone to do anything that would hurt Marlette's book, Gurganus became angry.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said, before hanging up.
But someone or several someones did do things to hurt Marlette's book.
One episode involves the Bull's Head Bookshop at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Soon after excerpts of The Bridge were passed around Hillsborough, manager Erica Eisdorfer pulled her support for an in-store reading arranged by HarperCollins, Marlette's publisher. Internal email obtained by Creative Loafing tells a story of a shocked publisher's representative being told over the phone by the bookstore manager, Eisdorfer, that The Bridge was "a homophobic piece of trash that HarperCollins should be embarrassed to be publishing."
When asked if she knew of any difficulties Marlette had encountered in arranging signings for his novel, Eisdorfer at first replied, "Really? I wasn't aware that he'd encountered problems." In response to a question about why the reading had been dropped, she replied, "I just can't remember. I just can't recall right now."
Hours later, Eisdorfer called back, apologized for her previous comments and said she wanted to try again. In fact, a number of people involved in this contretemps called us back repeatedly to refine their answers and attempt to influence how they would be portrayed.
Confronted with the evidence of her phone conversation with HarperCollins, Eisdorfer confirmed her communication with HarperCollins calling the book homophobic trash. She also admitted she was initially very enthusiastic about hosting a Marlette event but changed her mind after reading "part" of the book.
"I is true that I find some things in The Bridge particularly distasteful," she says. "But I didn't cancel anything. We never had a date for a reading."
Marlette counters that an event at the Bull's Head had been firm and says Eisdorfer's sudden change of mind is the only thing that prevented it from happening.
Rumors that Marlette's new book was homophobic soon spread across the state to Asheville, where Malaprops Bookstore backed away from a signing until two employees could read the novel for themselves. The store decided it was clearly not homophobic and is now "delighted" to be hosting an event.
The day the book was published, anonymous reviews slamming it for, you guessed it, homophobia appeared on Amazon.com. Marlette is convinced the reviews, which Amazon quickly removed, were based solely on the excerpts that had been passed around Hillsborough and were posted maliciously. Hal Crowther, who initially dismissed the idea of a coordinated campaign against the book by people in Hillsborough, now says he knows which local resident posted the anonymous reviews. But he won't say who.
Eisdorfer has since backed down from the homophobia charge. She now claims Marlette's writing is too "murky" to tell for sure. Eisdorfer also now says she dropped her support of Marlette's reading simply because his work wasn't up to par.
"I realized the writing just doesn't quite cut it," she says. "I didn't want to waste the Bull's Head's time and money. And I didn't want to embarrass Doug."
"Erica is involved in Alan's career," says Marlette. "She reads his manuscripts before they see print. She also reviews books for WUNC radio and just gave his new book a glowing review. That's the woman who decided I wouldn't have a reading at the Bull's Head -- one of Alan's close friends."
Eisdorfer confirms she reads Gurganus' manuscripts and says she's "lucky to count myself as one of Alan's friends." Does she see a conflict in doing public radio reviews of a book written by a close friend?
"Conflict? No, it's not a conflict," she replies. "I'm an able enough reader to separate myself from my friends."
Marlette disagrees. He remains appalled at the incidents of the last few months. As a final example of the kind of thing he says he's been dealing with, he cites a poem filled with images of excruciating death which was mailed anonymously to his post office box from New York City. The poem horrified Marlette's wife, Melinda. She considers it a death threat.
"I'll just say it has been a painful, sad and frightening time for me and my family," she says.
Obviously exasperated with the whole affair, she makes one last statement.
"I just hope that once folks are able to read Doug's book with an open heart, they'll be able to discover an important, beautiful story that exposes the truest spirit -- and the forgotten history -- of our community."
As of Monday, Marlette's book was Number 3,702 on the amazon.com sales rankings and Gurganus' book was Number 8,403.*