Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Peter Brown on the Death of Rhett Butler

Workshop leader Peter Brown is our guest today. Way back a whole month ago, I ran into him at The Writer's Center with a fat and torn copy of Gone with the Wind. Naturally, I asked him just what he thought he was doing with that book. And he told me. And what he told me made a lightbulb go off in my brain: Hmm. Maybe he'd like to share these thoughts with First Person Plural's readers.

So here he is. Briefly, his bio: He’s the author of the award-winning novel RUTHIE BLACK, and the story collection ASSORTED CHARACTERS. He has just launched a blog entitled THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER at His workshop, “Ten Reliable Rules for Writers,” will start in September (not posted online yet).

THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER’s never been written before, so I couldn’t resist. He’s my idea of a perfectly conceived character, who’s desirable and handsome, but he’s at odds with people and society. So I said, in my Winter workshop, "Characters Are Everything."

From the beginning, however, the estate of Margaret Mitchell made THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER almost impossible to publish. Their lawyers had taken everybody who had written about GONE WITH THE WIND to court, for copyright infringement. For that reason, Attorney Dan Stephen advised me to forget publishing my novella commercially. Nevertheless, just as Rhett himself outsmarted everybody in town (except Scarlett!), the internet enabled me to outwit the lawyers of the Mitchell estate. I published THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER as a blog on the internet instead of in printed form, which solved the legal problem (copyright only applies to works for sale). My blog was created for free and readers can enjoy it for free. You can read THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER online, but it’s not for sale!

Oddly, the story that was hard to publish was pretty easy to write (easier than this article!). I had an overflowing spring of ideas. As a "parody," or critique of Margaret Mitchell's book, my story was based upon hers, so I never had to dream up sources of conflict. The characters I hated in GONE WITH THE WIND seemed to taunt me. I relished dragging Ashley Wilkes right over to Rhett, so they could have it out. I put Scarlett on the hot seat. I gave Suellen, Scarlett's older sister, her day in the sun. I asked Belle Watling, Rhett's beloved prostitute, everything she knew. It’s indisputable that GONE WITH THE WIND is told from Scarlett's point of view, and biased in her favor. THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER turns the tables on her!

I wrote for fame, not for money. Right away, people began urging me, even nagging me to write it. GONE WITH THE WIND groupies are so starved for stories (because of the Mitchell estate lawyers), that they were eager for me to finish. With such fame and glory awaiting me, who needed money? It made me believe my story would succeed, despite the copyright barriers. Writing fiction isn’t usually easy, because I expect the writing process to be a discovery for me, not a restatement of clich├ęs. I ask myself: Would I care to read it, if someone else had written it? Is every sentence interesting? In the past, I had merely hoped people would take interest in my stories. This time, I was sure.

New readers by the HUNDREDS! Each week, THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER blog gets a crowd of new visitors. The "comment" function on the blog facilitates identifying and communicating with my readers. Those who stay anonymous are appreciated too.

Writing THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER was also a form of revenge. Early on, I had gotten fed up with GONE WITH THE WIND, after enduring eighteen years of incessant hype. Growing up in Atlanta in the 1960s was like being Scarlett O'Hara's next door neighbor. Antebellum beauty pageants occurred every Summer. Leow’s built a palatial, single-screen, colonial style theater named “Tara,” for the 25th year anniversary of the movie. Popular restaurants were named "Pittypat's Porch" and "Johnny Reb's,” and neither French nor Mexican food could be found. Headquarters of Channel 2, the most popular TV station, was a colonial mansion called "White Columns." Huge likenesses of Confederate Generals were currently being etched into Stone Mountain, the nearby geological wonder. The official seal of the city featured a phoenix and said, “the South shall rise again.” Only Rhett Butler stood by me as comrade-in-skepticism. Just as he criticized the Confederacy, Rhett would have also ridiculed Atlanta’s nostalgia mania as a pastime for losers, even if it meant panning GONE WITH THE WIND itself!

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