Gone with the Sequels
What happens when the fans of a hugely popular novel and every book publisher in the world demand a sequel that the author doesn’t want to write? The author’s family waits 50 years, then hires someone to follow up Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
NEVER GO HUNGRY AGAIN
Gone With the Wind, published in 1936, is one of the most successful and enduring books of all time. It won author Margaret Mitchell a Pulitzer Prize, has sold more than 30 million copies (and it’s still in print), and was adapted into a film in 1939 that became one of the most commercially successful movies ever. While the novel ends ambiguously (Rhett Butler up and leaves poor Scarlett O’Hara, and she doesn’t quite know what to do next), Mitchell felt her 1,037-page novel told a complete story, and despite major interest from her publisher and the public, she had no interest in writing a follow-up. Mitchell died in 1949 at age 49, having never published another novel.
MADE IN CAROLINA
In 1987, shortly after the novel’s 50th anniversary, Mitchell’s estate announced that it was commissioning a sequel to Gone With the Wind. Why? The book’s copyright was about to expire. Once the novel fell into the public domain, anyone could write a sequel, and the Mitchell estate would lose control of the characters. Not only that, they feared a slew of bad, unauthorized sequels flooding the market that could devalue the original work.
The family and its attorneys interviewed 12 writers before selecting Alexandra Ripley, a Southern author best known for romantic historical novels set in the South (like Gone With the Wind), such as Charleston, On Leaving Charleston, and New Orleans Legacy. Mitchell’s family gave Ripley free reign to write whatever kind of follow-up she wanted…provided she follow an extensive set of guidelines (primarily “no raw sex”) and have the first two chapters completed by April 1988. “My hand just won’t write ‘fiddle-dee-dee,’” Ripley said about the style guidelines. “But I figure I’ll have to give them at least three and throw in ‘God’s nightgown!’ ‘Great balls of fire!’ and ‘As God is my witness!’”
That April, the estate sent the first 39 pages of the still-untitled novel to every major New York publisher and gave them all 10 days to make an offer. The highest bidder: Warner Books, which agreed to pay $4.94 million, edging out a $4.8 million offer from Dell Books. Ripley was given 18 months to finish the book. (It took Mitchell 10 years to write Gone With the Wind.)
Expectations were high, and Ripley had no delusions about the task at hand. “This one will never be mine,” she told the Associated Press. “I am trying to prepare myself for a universal hatred of what I’m going to do. Margaret Mitchell may write better than I do. But she’s dead.”
In September 1991—almost two years after Ripley’s original deadline—the 823-page Scarlett hit bookstores. The plot: Scarlett goes to Charleston to look for Rhett and confront his family, and then settles down in her family’s ancestral homeland in Ireland.
Scarlett was a pop-culture phenomenon. It was the best-selling book of 1991, selling more than six million copies—more than triple the number of the runner-up, Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears. It spent 28 weeks on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list. CBS quickly announced plans to adapt it into a TV miniseries.
The only problem: Just as Ripley had predicted, book critics and literary purists hated it. Critic Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it “stunningly uneventful.” Jack Miles of the Los Angeles Times lamented that Scarlett was an indicator of the triumph of lazy commerce over literary art. “Frankly, my dear,” quipped John Goodspeed of the Baltimore Sun, “it stinks.”
The public didn’t care what the critics thought. They welcomed the idea of continuing the story of Mitchell’s beloved characters. The Scarlett miniseries, starring Joanne Whalley as Scarlett O’Hara and Timothy Dalton as Rhett Butler, aired over four nights in November 1994 to big ratings and later won two Emmy Awards. To this day, the book is still a steady seller, with a few thousand copies still bought each year (though not as many as Gone With the Wind).
Ripley was able to weather the storm and returned to writing her own novels. “There are two reasons why I’m doing this book,” Ripley told Contemporary Authors in 1987. “I can’t resist it, and as soon as this is done I will be able to write anything I want to,” meaning she would never have to worry about paying the bills again. She was right; she never had to sell out again. She wrote two novels after Scarlett—both published by Warner Books—From Fields of Gold (1994) and A Love Divine (1997). Both became best-sellers.
THE ENGLISH, PATIENT
The Mitchell estate (essentially three lawyers who acted on behalf of Mitchell’s two surviving nephews) liked the success that Scarlett brought, but they reportedly didn’t care for the novel itself. So in 1995 they commissioned English novelist Emma Tennant to write another sequel to Gone With the Wind. Tennant was best known for writing what was actually a well-received sequel to an immensely popular book by a well-loved author—Pemberley (1993), a follow-up to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. They gave Tennant the same guidelines they’d given to Ripley, requiring her to imitate Mitchell’s voice and stick to the original novel’s characters. She also wasn’t allowed to write in any “acts of incest, miscegenation, or sex between two people of the same sex.” St. Martin’s Press bought the rights to publish Tennant’s book, paying the Mitchell estate $4.5 million.
The estate had the full right of refusal of any finished manuscript…and that’s exactly what they did. Tennant submitted a 575-page novel called Tara, and while she had followed the Mitchell estate’s guidelines, they didn’t like the book. The estate had wanted a reboot, to wash away the bad feelings left by Scarlett, but Tennant’s book picked up right where Scarlett left off. The estate told Tennant they would not be publishing Tara (official reason: because it read “too British”) and then filed an injunction to prevent it from ever seeing the light of day. And it never has.
But Mitchell’s people were still on the hook with St. Martin’s Press for the $4.5 million advance. In 1996 they approached another high-profile author: Southern novelist Pat Conroy, who had penned The Prince of Tides and who had just finished writing an introduction for a 60th-anniversary reprint of Gone With the Wind.
Conroy was interested, of course, but he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his artistic freedom the way Ripley and Tennant had. Nor did he want to spend months slaving over a manuscript only to have it rejected for not being “true” enough to the source material. Conroy made the estate nervous when he mocked the “guidelines” to a reporter. He joked that he’d open the book with a scene of Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes in bed together with Rhett saying, “Ashley, have I ever told you that my grandmother was black?”
Publicly, a lawyer for the estate praised Conroy as “an artist” and promised not to restrain him in any way. Privately, however, Conroy claims that the attorneys refused to let him follow through with some of his plot points…which included killing off Scarlett O’Hara. Ultimately, contract negotiations fell apart and Conroy moved on.
AN ELF ON THE SHELF
By 2000 St. Martin’s was getting fairly anxious over the fact that it had spent more than $4 million and five years on a book that never materialized. The executives working on the project, publisher Sally Richardson and editor Hope Dellon, began researching potential sequel authors on their own, without the knowledge of the Mitchell estate. One day, while browsing in a New York bookstore, Dellon found a solid candidate: She picked up Jacob’s Ladder, a historical novel set during the Civil War (sound familiar?) by a writer named Donald McCaig.
Dellon tracked down McCaig and asked if he’d be interested in writing a sequel to Gone With the Wind. She expected him to immediately jump at the offer, but he didn’t—because he had never read Gone With the Wind. (But then he did, and he signed on.)
WAR CHANGES EVERYTHING
McCaig’s concept for his sequel: to not make it a sequel at all. Instead, he decided to set the novel in the Civil War and depict the events of Gone With the Wind from Rhett Butler’s point of view. Why? He felt that the book would lack emotional resonance without that backdrop. A simple sequel, said McCaig, would be dull and lack tension (which might have been the problem with Scarlett). “You take the Civil War out of it and have the epic love story, and everything else is kind of ‘Oh dear,’” McCaig told the New York Times.
PEOPLE WHO READ PEOPLE
McCaig spent six years working on the novel, doing research in libraries and document archives throughout the South. He even took a boat out into Charleston Harbor to help him understand how Rhett Butler could have navigated through fierce naval blockades. McCaig turned in chapters to St. Martin’s as he finished them, which were then individually reviewed by the Mitchell estate’s lawyers—a mutually agreed-upon arrangement to prevent them from rejecting (or hating) the full manuscript after the fact, as had happened with Scarlett and Tara.
In 2007 Rhett Butler’s People was finally published, although to less fanfare than had greeted Scarlett, but to slightly better reviews. It nearly sold out its first print run of a million copies, again less than Scarlett numbers, but enough that the Mitchell estate and St. Martin’s Press asked McCaig to write another entry in the Gone With the Wind saga. It’s a prequel that will follow the life of Gone With the Wind’s Mammy, or “Ruth,” as she’ll be called in McCaig’s Ruth’s Journey.
WENT WITH THE WIND
But try as the Mitchell estate did to keep tight control over who wrote about the further adventures of the fictional characters that Margaret Mitchell first concocted more than 80 years earlier, they couldn’t fully suppress unauthorized sequels. In 2001 a North Carolina teacher named Kate Pinotti self-published her first novel, The Winds of Tara, her own idea of what happened to the characters of Gone With the Wind after that book wrapped up. The book directly follows Gone With the Wind (ignoring the other sequels and offshoots), with Scarlett leaving Atlanta and returning home to Tara, her family’s Georgia plantation.
Self-published books are rarely cash cows or attention-getters, but the ever-vigilant Mitchell estate got wind of Winds and sent a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that Pinotti stop printing and distributing the book (even though it had a print run of just a few hundred copies). A legal battle ensued, with Pinotti claiming that her book was a parody, which is considered “fair use” under U.S. copyright laws. Mitchell’s estate argued infringement and won an injunction banning the publication of The Winds of Tara in the United States.
But that’s just the United States. Australian publisher Fontaine Press followed the case, did some research, and discovered that the Australian copyright to Gone With the Wind had expired in 1999. That meant that Fontaine could legally publish a sequel in that country…which they did, releasing The Winds of Tara in 2008. Reviews were mixed, but if you ever manage to find a copy of the original banned self-published 2001 edition, hold on to it—it routinely sells for more than $300 online.
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