Monte Schulz, son of late 'Peanuts' cartoonist, making name for himself as novelist

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His full name is Charles Monroe Schulz Jr., which identifies him indelibly as the son of the world?s most famous cartoonist.

But the name he goes by is Monte, and he?s making his own name as a novelist.

After spending the past dozen years writing three related books at his home in Nevada City, Monte Schulz, 57, is on a West Coast promotional tour for the first book of the trio to be published, ?This Side of Jordan.?

He started in Southern California, then went up to Portland and Seattle, and doubles back to Northern California this week for appearances at Copperfield?s in Santa Rosa and Book Passage in Corte Madera.

?It?s weird doing this,? Schulz said by phone from Nevada City during a break between book shop dates. ?It makes me nervous, at every single stop. I just realized I?m not a very public person.?

Attendance has been good so far, by book signing standards, with 50 people showing up recently in Santa Barbara.

Asked if people come out to see the son of the man who created ?Peanuts,? Schulz replied, ?That?s a good question. I don?t really know what people expect. I should ask them the next time I do a signing. I don?t think anyone really cares. I think if I did a comic strip, I?d get a lot more attention.?

Whatever people expect, what they get is a serious, somewhat scholarly novelist. ?This Side of Jordan? and the two remaining volumes in the series are based on extensive reading and research, including some Schulz family history.

Set in the rural Midwest during the summer of 1929, ?Jordan? follows the travels of an unlikely threesome ? Alvin, a farm boy recovering from tuberculosis; Rascal, a clever and well-educated dwarf; and Chester, a ruthless thief.

On the surface, the connection between family history and the background of the book is not obvious, since Charles M. Schulz Sr.?s life, including his boyhood as the son of a barber in St. Paul, Minn., is well-documented.

?Dad?s cousins lived on farms in Wisconsin,? Schulz said. ?There are very subtle things that Alvin mentions here and there in the book that actually relate directly from stories I heard from Dad.?

In the book, Alvin, the farm-boy hero of the novel, often mentions his cousin, Frenchy.

?Cousin Frenchy is a real person, but he would?ve been Uncle Frenchy for Dad,? Schulz said.

Schulz grew up in Sonoma County, on his father?s Coffee Grounds estate near Sebastopol, and considers himself a country boy.

?I grew up in the rural part of the county, so in some ways, I?m describing the world I knew,? he said.

After receiving a bachelor?s degree in English from Sonoma State University, Schulz left Sonoma County in 1978 to get his master?s degree in American studies at UC Santa Barbara, where he still teaches a writing class once a year.

Schulz wrote his first novel, ?Down by the River,? while still living full-time in Santa Barbara. It was published by Viking Press in 1990. He bought his second home, in Nevada City, in 1992.

?Although I own property in the western part of Sonoma County, out by Forestville, I?ve never really come back to the county,? Schulz said. ?It has changed. When I was young, the train still ran through Main Street in Sebastopol. And since Dad died, Sonoma County is not really home any more.?

Schulz credits his father with inspiring his interest in serious literature.

?In my early 20s, I discovered I liked writing, first song lyrics, then poetry and finally fiction. That?s when Dad gave me all these books to read,? Schulz said. ?He loved books. I think I have his copy of Truman Capote?s ?Other Voices, Other Rooms,? which is an influential book for me.?

The cartoonist died in 2000, but his influence on his son?s reading continues.

?Since Dad died, I?ve been reading his books,? Schulz said. ?I?ve read all the James Jones books he had, his copies of ?From Here to Eternity? and ?The Thin Red Line.?

His father?s influences are apparent elsewhere in Schulz?s life. Monte enjoyed playing hockey, as his Dad did. And like his father, who adopted a daughter and had four children with his first wife, Monte is a family man, married with 8-year-old twins. (Of Monte Schulz?s siblings, only his younger brother Craig still lives in Sonoma County.)

Even Monte Schulz?s choice of publisher for ?This Side of Jordan? and the two succeeding volumes was indirectly influenced by his father.

Fantagraphic Books in Seattle, publisher of ?The Complete Peanuts? series of comic strip collections, is also publishing Monte Schulz?s novels. Schulz wrote an introduction for one of the volumes.

But Schulz and Gary Groth, head of Fantagraphics, actually became acquainted because of the controversial 2007 book, ?Schulz & Peanuts: A Biography,? by David Michaelis. The biography depicted the cartoonist as an insecure, distant and sometimes depressed man who had an extramarital affair near the end of his first marriage.

Monte Schulz posted criticisms on the Web, citing inaccuracies in the Michaelis book. That eventually led to Groth publishing an essay by Schulz on the biography in The Comics Journal, Fantagraphics? magazine of news and criticism relating to comic strips, comic books and graphic novels. Fantagraphics also has published its own comics and graphic novels.

?So two years ago, a friend sent me an e-mail about how Fantagraphics was publishing a prose novel, its first one. So the next time I talked to Gary Groth, I asked him about it,? Schulz said.

After reading ?This Side of Jordan,? Groth immediately agreed to publish it. And Fantagraphics will publish Schulz?s other two finished books, also set in the Jazz Age but featuring different characters.

The next one, set in East Texas, is still untitled, and the third is ?The Big Town,? due out in 2011. All three will be collected and republished as ?Crossing Eden? in 2012, Schulz said.

?It isn?t really a trilogy. It?s a really big tapestry of a lot of ideas and things,? Schulz said. ?That?s why it took me 12 years to write.?

With that project finally finished, Schulz is moving on to new writing projects.

?Now I?m finishing a crime novel, set in San Francisco and Santa Rosa in 1960-61, and Fantagraphics will publish it in the spring of 2011,? he said. ?I like writing.?

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</em>

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