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'Rhett is kind of a mysterious character'

AUTHOR: Jill Vejnoska
SOURCE: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 11/03/07

Donald McCaig hasn't exactly gotten inside of Margaret Mitchell's head.

Vice versa.

"While I was working, I think she was looking down at me and chuckling, 'Ah-ha-ha, so you decided to wrestle with my book, did you?!' " McCaig said this week.

Ah-ha-ha, he's not just whistling Dixie about the monumentality of that undertaking.

In 1991, historical romance writer Alexandra Ripley's "Scarlett" garnered scathing reviews suggesting she didn't know nuthin' about birthing an authorized sequel to "Gone With the Wind." McCaig, 67, was a well-respected, if somewhat unknown, Civil War novelist when the Mitchell estate and publisher St. Martin's Press picked him to write "Rhett Butler's People," the new "companion" novel to "Wind" that will be officially unveiled tonight at Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell House and Museum.

It took "a tremendous amount of arrogance" to decide to retell Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from the roguish Butler's perspective, McCaig cheerfully volunteered. Even spinning a crackerjack good tale wouldn't make a snuffbox's worth of difference if, say, he mixed up his Tarleton twins, or something equally egregious.

"The parallels are Sherlock Holmes and the Bible —- people know this book," McCaig, chuckling, observed of "Wind." "You can bend it a little, but you can't say that a character who was in the Army at the time was actually somewhere else."

With the book's release set for Tuesday, only a few "Rhett" reviews are in so far: USA Today deemed it "pretty good," saying McCaig had "a real feel for men characters," but problems writing believable women; People magazine dubbed "McCaig's Rhett . . . even more dashing than Mitchell's" in giving the book 3 1/2 stars (out of 4).

McCaig has done almost no interviews in advance of today's pre-party news conference here. That's in keeping with his working philosophy throughout: Speak softly and carry a really big outline.

The one-time New York adman-turned-Virginia sheep farmer/writer (Virginia Quarterly called his "Jacob's Ladder" "the best Civil War novel ever written") had never read "Gone With the Wind" before getting the job. When he finally did —- once —- it was enough to impress him with what Mitchell had done. And, luckily, what she hadn't done.

"Rhett is kind of a mysterious character, and he tends to vanish from the book for long periods," McCaig said. "There were things we knew about him, and not a whole lot more. I thought there'd be room in there to construct a story."

Armed with a lengthy chapter-by-chapter outline prepared by his wife, Anne, McCaig got to work. At a lunch at the Piedmont Driving Club, he'd sketched out the general idea for "Rhett Butler's People" for the Mitchell estate lawyers; after that, he mostly clammed up.

Partly, parsimony's in his writer's blood. His handling of the famous "I don't give a damn" scene, for instance, comprises two spare paragraphs and nary a line of dialogue. Mitchell gave Rhett a 130-word monologue just as a warm-up.

"It's effective language, but I tend to think she never used one word where two would do," McCaig said. "It worked. But my instinct is toward economy, so the easiest scenes to write were the ones using my [new] characters."

Partly, too, he wanted to keep his creative powder dry.

"I feel that it's pretty easy to talk away a book you're going to have to write," said McCaig, wryly identifying "the ability to sit for long periods" as the chief skill needed to be an author. "That's that much energy that is gone."

But a book he's already written? Fiddledeedee, that's a whole 'nother story.

For starters, McCaig was delighted to finally get to kill off the saintly Melanie Wilkes. Now don't get your pantaloons in a knot. It simply was the point at which Mitchell's tale ended and he could take his own crack at Mount You-Know-Who.

"Scarlett O'Hara is, in my opinion, the greatest female character in American literature," said McCaig, who took nearly 100 pages from where "Wind" left off to give readers his own particular shade of Scarlett. "That just felt like pure freedom to me. Was my Scarlett purely Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett? No. Is she a believable take on Scarlett? I hope so."

And while he's a big fan of Mitchell's writing, especially her dramatic scenes —- "Some of the best scenes in the book are the postwar stuff, when Scarlett's at Tara eating the wallpaper" —- he gently suggested his "wrestling partner" missed the believability mark herself in a few spots.

"All this dithering about Ashley was nonsense," McCaig snorted. "By the time Scarlett finally decides she might not want him, she's already been married three times for Chrissake! Have you ever met any woman, outside of an institution, who'd still be pining for him?"

Anything else?

"I don't believe that Melanie didn't know what was going on there. I've never met a woman that stupid —- 'Oh, my best friend is lusting after my husband for years. Gee, I didn't see that. . . .' "

OK, maybe not such gentle suggesting. But it was nothing he couldn't address by . . . oops, can't give away everything no, can we? Suffice it to say that Montana native McCaig's feel for the way the Civil War defined the South then and now adds a deeper level of meaning to his book.

Meanwhile, he expressed satisfaction with having been able to end his book with "a different electricity" existing between Scarlett and Rhett. "In a funny kind of way, I would say it's the electricity of mature love."

Mature? Rhett and Scarlett?

Ah-ha-ha, indeed.

> COMING SUNDAY: Read a review of "Rhett Butler's People." Online at and in print in Arts & Books.


Worldwide premiere party for "Rhett Butler's People" featuring author Donald McCaig. Cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, live music and performances, and book signing. 6-9 p.m. today. $60. Margaret Mitchell House, 990 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 770-578-3502, 404-249-7015;

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