Guess who’s coming to PBS? It’s Martha, the unassuming, loquacious and forthright mutt whose ingestion of alphabet soup turns her into, as one reviewer noted, the “Mr. Ed of the canine world.” Bark recently connected with Susan Meddaugh, Martha’s creator, and Carol Greenwald, WGBH Senior Executive Producer, to learn more about this milestone event.
Bark: Who is Martha? How did you develop this remarkable dog—was there a “bulb going off” moment? Did you immediately run your studio and start sketching?
Susan Meddaugh: Martha was our first dog. She was a stray, a real combo package of breeds. She had been on the street for a while when a friend of ours found her. Actually she found our friend, who was working in her front yard. Martha sat down beside her and refused to move, thereby cleverly forcing her to help her. After all her attempts to find Martha’s home failed (and since she had several cats and no room for a dog), our friend called us.
Martha was so skinny we could see her ribs, plus she had the whole flea population of eastern Massachusetts on her back. We were soon to discover that she wasn’t housebroken, and had a habit of eating the furniture. We wondered whether it had been a good idea to take her home. We named her after our friend Martha, who had been the one to call us, and was therefore responsible for our new addition to the family, however it might work out.
Fortunately, after a while, the essential Martha began to emerge. She was smart, interesting, expressive, opinionated and very drawable. I was writing and illustrating children’s books, and it was obvious that Martha needed a book of her own.
Which leads me to my son, Niko. I had the right occupation, the right child, the right dog and the perfect moment. I had already put Martha in some of my children’s books, usually just slipping her into the background. She had also found her first co-starring role with Helen in The Witches’ Supermarket. But she wasn’t yet talking. My son, seven years old at the time, was sitting at the table eating alphabet soup. Of course, Martha was right next to him, almost in his lap. It was his creative question—“Mom, if Martha-dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?”—that put all the pieces together. The personality of the dog, plus Niko’s question, immediately suggested a visual image of the soup letters going into Martha’s mouth and up to her brain. Of course, this required a novel approach to the way the brain is connected to the digestive system.
I did not rush to my studio and immediately sketch out the story. This idea was just the beginning of a story, which would go through a couple of versions before it fell into place. The main question after the initial idea was, what would Martha do or say if she had the gift of gab?
B: How much of this was informed by Martha herself?
SM: Obviously, the personality of Martha is completely inspired by the real dog, and the attitude was already there. Martha would let me know what to do with the story. So what would she do, being Martha? She would be opinionated, outspoken—she would speak for the dog, letting people know what dogs are really thinking. But being a dog, she wouldn’t necessarily know when not to say what was on her mind. In Martha’s world, she is still a dog. The only thing unusual about her is her ability to speak. She’s not a person, and she will always see the world through the eyes of a dog.
B: Have you ever heard of children feeding alphabet soup to their dogs, hoping that their dogs would talk too?
SM: I have heard of that happening, but I’ve heard it from adults who mostly are happy that their children are so taken with a story that they would try that. As for the kids, I think it’s just a wonderful possibility, sort of like the children who ask me, “Did Martha really talk?” I can tell they don’t really believe she spoke, but still, they hold on to the sliver of hope that just maybe she did. Also, it’s quite clear in the books and in the TV series that Skits cannot speak, even after many bowls of alphabet soup. So they are forewarned that even the family’s other dog isn’t bilingual, and that so far, there’s only one Martha.