By Jill Vejnoska
(Note: Donald McCaig will appear at the Literary Center at the Margaret Mitchell House at 7 p.m. Friday to discuss “Ruth’s Journey,” his just-released, authorized prequel to “Gone With the Wind.” It’s not the first time McCaig’s shown up at the onetime apartment house where Mitchell churned out her award-winning saga of Scarlett, Rhett et al. In 2007, his first authorized novel, “Rhett Butler’s People,” was celebrated there with much hoopla, including “Rhett Velvet Cupcakes.” Here’s a story that appeared in the AJC at the time.)
Rhett’s back, hoping that we still care
The first time Rhett Butler showed up in Georgia, he was nearly challenged to a duel for badmouthing the South’s chances in the looming Civil War and had to dodge crockery hurled by a lovesick belle.
Now for the really dramatic entrance.
On Saturday, Butler returns to town, some 70 years after he walked out of Scarlett O’Hara’s life in “Gone With the Wind, ” his parting “I don’t give a damn” swirling in the air along with the many loose ends author Margaret Mitchell purposely left dangling.
When Donald McCaig’s new novel, “Rhett Butler’s People, ” is officially unveiled at a party on Peachtree Street, readers will discover what the charming rogue from Charleston was thinking during those key moments at Tara, Twelve Oaks and places previously unknown. More a retelling of “Wind” from Rhett’s perspective than a traditional sequel, the book begins long before Scarlett ever uttered her first “fiddle-dee-dee” and goes on for nearly 100 more pages beyond where Mitchell ended things with “Tomorrow is another day.”
There are no guarantees of success for “Rhett Butler’s People, ” the second companion novel authorized by the Atlanta-based committee charged with protecting Mitchell’s fictional masterpiece.
Much has changed since 1991, when the first authorized sequel — “Scarlett, ” by Alexandra Ripley — was splashed across the cover of Life magazine.
Now, Life magazine no longer exists, Rhett Butler and his book have a MySpace page, and even some dedicated “Gone With the Wind” followers wonder how widespread the interest will be.
“It’s a different world, ” said John Wiley Jr., publisher and editor of “The Scarlett Letter” quarterly. “People’s attention spans are so short now and there’s so many information sources to choose from. They may not even know about [the book] because they only watch the home and garden channel.”
McCaig, a heretofore well-respected but relatively unknown Civil War novelist, faced his own formidable challenge in writing “Rhett”: to simultaneously do justice to his and Mitchell’s separate stories made out of highly similar parts. Many “Wind” fans won’t be satisfied unless they hear plenty — and plenty more — about Rhett and Scarlett, Tara, even Belle Watling, the hooker with a heart of Confederate gold.
On the other hand, if “Rhett Butler’s People” can’t stand on its own, what’s the point?
“The public itself wanted another sequel, ” said Paul Anderson Jr., part of the three-lawyer committee that advises the Mitchell estate on protecting and exercising the original book’s copyright. “But this is not like ‘Rocky.’ We’re not coming back every time we think we can make another book.”
In fact, “Scarlett” was a huge financial hit and a loud critical miss. Publisher St. Martin’s Press paid $4.5 million for the rights to “Rhett Butler’s People, ” which has nothing to do with “Scarlett” but has to try to live up to the huge expectations created by “Gone With the Wind.”
“It’s a masterpiece, ” St. Martin’s president and publisher Sally Richardson said about Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel. “It has intrigue and sacrifice, love and family, death and courage. It’s like the American drama.”
When it comes to behind-the-scenes drama, though, “Rhett Butler’s People” can definitely hold its own:
An author fired after she completed a 500-plus page manuscript. Negotiations over depictions of homosexuality and use of the “n-word.” And a somewhat reclusive ex-ad man turned Virginia sheep farmer who’d never read “Gone With the Wind” before agreeing to follow in Mitchell’s fictional footsteps.
In the 13 years it’s taken to get from a preliminary conversation in London to an initial print run of 1.5 million copies, there have been enough twists and turns in the “Rhett” saga for someone to write a third book.
“It took a long time because not just anybody can write a sequel to ‘Gone With the Wind, ‘ ” Anderson said with a droll chuckle.
A string of writers
Indeed, Sequel No. 2 has had as many authors as Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler had husbands.
First up was British writer Emma Tennant, whose well-received sequels to “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice” made her seem like an ideal choice to succeed where Ripley had not.
“I don’t think the committee could be more pleased with the way ‘Scarlett’ worked out, ” Anderson said, citing all the attention and money that came from a book that sold over 6 million copies and spawned a high-profile CBS miniseries.
Still, the critical scorn stung enough to affect the search for the next author.
“We were looking for someone who could produce a high-quality product that would be enduring, ” he said.
Tennant’s “Tara” turned out not to possess the right quality.
“She’s an artist and literary, [but] she doesn’t have an American bone in her body and ‘Gone With the Wind’ is the quintessential American story, ” said Richardson of St. Martin’s, Tennant’s publisher when the book was rejected in 1996. “We all read it and said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”
Next up, sort of, was Pat Conroy. The native Atlantan, who wrote “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides, ” was approached. “Pat says it is the book he was born to write, ” Richardson recalled.
But after lengthy negotiations, involving everything from Conroy’s obligations to a different publisher to his claims that the Mitchell estate wouldn’t let him kill off Scarlett or write about miscegenation or homosexuality, Conroy gave up his birthright.
Things never got to the contract stage with Conroy, Anderson said, nor did the committee deem certain topics off-limits.
“He’s an artist, and it’s hard to tell an artist what to write and what not to write, ” he said.
The same held true with McCaig, whose occasional use of the “n-word” in his manuscript initially gave the lawyers pause.
“In the end, it was decided that a historical novel that did not use the n-word in the context it would have been used in during that period of history would have been completely unrealistic, ” Anderson said.
Romance has its place
McCaig, 67, quit writing copy on Madison Avenue 36 years ago to move to a livestock farm in ruggedly mountainous western Virginia. The author, who was not available to comment for this story, had never read “Gone With the Wind” when a St. Martin’s editor picked up one of his books in a store, but he knew enough to want to write about Rhett Butler.
“He said, ‘I don’t just want to do another take on Scarlett. That’s not who I am, what I’m interested in, ‘ ” Richardson said. “He was interested in the world then, the United States then, the commerce then, the war then. And that’s all in there.”
Indeed, McCaig has written a book that is both a page-turner and a tightrope walk.
Just as he had to re-create certain key scenes or plot twists very nearly as Mitchell had imagined them, he also couldn’t strain credulity by reproducing signature moments to which Rhett had no connection.
And while McCaig (and therefore Rhett) spends more time immersed in various aspects of the war than Mitchell did, well, he still had to give a big damn about romance.
“He’s a historian more than a big fiction writer for women, ” Richardson said. “The biggest contribution we made was to keep saying, ‘Donald, remember, probably more than half the audience here is going to be women.’ ”
Apparently, nobody had to remind him that it all began here in Margaret Mitchell’s hometown.
For all its roaming of the Old South, “Rhett Butler’s People” never feels more alive and authentic than in passages devoted to Atlanta’s postwar efforts to rise from the ashes. The descriptions of a hustling, bustling city eager to reinvent itself go a long way toward explaining Atlanta’s modern-day personality.
There never was any question about launching the book here, Richardson said. Along with “Rhett Velvet Cupcakes, ” Saturday’s party at the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum will feature McCaig autographing his book three days before it officially goes on sale, along with the inestimable aura that comes from being where “Gone With the Wind” was written.
“The fact that it was still there, and people are still so fervent about it . . . there’s a lot of reverence for the history, ” said Richardson, who recalls being “very moved” when she visited several years ago.
“It’s been a long haul, and to kick it off there just seemed right. It’s the scene of the scene.”