Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr.

Gone With the Wind was one of the very first adult books that I read. And it's a doozy: over 800 pages (or over 1200, depending on which edition you have!) I remember one night, a couple of years before I read it, my mother let me stay up late and watch the movie with her on TV. I think it was the first time it had been on TV in many years, and the color was restored or something. For decades, every time I read the book I was guaranteed to sob through the last 100 pages (although sadly, not the last time I read it.)

I have heard over the years that the backstory was a good one. I'd seen some E! True Hollywood Story-type shows about the casting of the movie and how the women in the film were so upset when the original director was fired that they continued to sneak out to ask his advice on scenes for most of the rest of the filming. I vaguely remembered a made-for-TV movie starring Shannen Doherty as Margaret Mitchell. But that was all I knew.

Every wanna-be author should read this book. It's about the reality of how life can be if your book miraculously becomes a bestseller. We all wonder about one-hit-wonders but Margaret Mitchell was very clear about how managing GWTW was more than a full-time job (she had a full-time secretary and her husband worked nights and weekends, eventually quitting his day job to devote himself to GWTW.) There were three big reasons for this that hopefully would not happen today. Firstly, she didn't have an agent. (Get an agent!) Secondly, the U.S. was not a signatory to the Berne Convention which meant that protecting her copyright internationally was a massive pain in the neck (and in her bad movie contract, she was 100% responsible for that even though her publisher, MacMillan, held the copyright). Thirdly, on advice of her editor she retained foreign rights, which are always complicated to deal with and downright awful without an agent.

Throughout everything, Ms. Mitchell was steadfast, forthright, and stuck to her word, whether that meant sticking by a bad contract or never making any exceptions to her "no more signed books" rule. She and her husband agreed on that point, to her detriment, as their movie contract wasn't good at all and their publisher did repeatedly ask them to take a cut on royalties (often for legitimate reasons but in my opinion their answer ought to have been "no" more often.) And just when things were slowing down and Ms. Mitchell started jotting down ideas and occasionally mentioning to friends and family that she might write another book, she was tragically killed after being hit by a drunk driver.

But if you're only going to put one book out in the world, what a book! Mega bestseller breaking all previous records, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and also a phenomenal movie. The sequels have been too bad (I tried to read Scarlett twice, back when it first came out, both times I just could not take it anymore when Scarlett decided to stop wearing her corset.) But luckily they haven't tarnished the original.

The book was fascinating, with details about Hattie McDaniels's gracious note to Ms. Mitchell, turning down attending the movie premier in Atlanta's segregated theater, to the book's popularity in Europe and Asia (and I love all the foreign edition covers that were included), to the complicated rights situations, I found it riveting. It's probably only natural that the woman who discovered the book, Lois Cole, was never publicly given credit for that, instead her boss Harold Latham took all the credit. Similarly, the movie deal was brokered by a woman, the deal was handled on the studio side mostly by a woman, and the foreign rights agent was a woman, yet they were never mentioned as having anything to do with GWTW's success at the time. Any author wanting to know what being a bestselling author is really like, must read this book, for its honest depiction of the annoyances and aggravations. Any GWTW fans also should read it to find out the amazing story behind the book and movie, which certainly was more than worthy of its own book.

I bought this book at Park Road Books, my local independent bookstore.

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