IN 1947, WHEN 13-YEAR-OLD ALEXANDRA RIPLEY FIRST READ GONE with the Wind, it was Melanie Wilkes who captured her heart. “It took me years to realize that people really like Scarlett better,” says Ripley, who grew up in Charleston, S.C. “Melanie was everything I had been taught I wanted to be. She was a lady, and I was taught that if you weren’t a lady—and Scarlett wasn’t—you weren’t going to have a happy ending.”
Ripley has proved that assumption wrong. Last week Scarlett, her long-awaited sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, was published to much promotional hoopla and some harsh reviews. (“I didn’t write it for the reviewers,” says Ripley, unfazed. “It was for all the readers who love Gone with the Wind.”) In it, Scarlett—still no lady—gets her happy ending. For 823 pages Margaret Mitchell’s tempestuous heroine schemes and bats her eyelashes; she travels to Ireland, has her fourth child and is courted by an evil earl until, finally, she makes Rhett Butler give a damn. “I had to play games and stretch the story out,” says Ripley, 57, “but I figured the world at large would trample me to death if Rhett and Scarlett didn’t get back together.”
That kind of concern made the writing process particularly daunting. The author of three previous southern historical novels (Charleston, On Leaving Charleston and New Orleans Legacy), Ripley was chosen to write the GWTW sequel by Margaret Mitchell’s heirs “because she was from the South and would have a special appreciation for the original story line,” says T. Hal Clarke, a Mitchell family lawyer. (Knowing a sequel was inevitable, the family wanted it done by someone they trusted before the book’s copyright expires in 2011.) Ripley was delighted to be asked to follow up the beloved Civil War epic. She was also terrified. “I was writing the first sentence when I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ ” she says. “Readers will want Gone with the Wind all over again, and I can’t give them that.’ ” (Mitchell, who died in 1949, had always refused to produce a sequel.)
Ripley’s feelings about her inherited heroine gave her trouble as well. “Scarlett is functionally illiterate and as selfish as a pig,” she says. “It was hard getting inside her head because the furniture there is so different from my own. But I imagined what it felt like to think you’ve lost everyone you love. Then I could write about her with real feeling instead of clenched teeth.”
Yet Ripley did understand the social milieu that molded Scarlett. She too was brought up, with the help of a black nurse, to be a belle. “Little girls did not interrupt, speak unless spoken to, or get dirty,” says Ripley, an only child whose father had an insurance business and whose mother worked in hospital administration. Her parents encouraged her to knit and play piano, but when she asked for books for Christmas, she often got dolls instead—”because reading wouldn’t catch you a husband.”
There was much in her traditional southern upbringing that she valued. “I still tend to elevate what I call manners into some sort of quasi religion,” Ripley says. “It has nothing to do with finger bowls and everything to do with trying not to trample on other people.” Yet she rebelled, quietly, by heading to Vassar—Yankee territory—after graduating from Charleston’s exclusive Ashley Hall. A year later her parents informed her that they could afford either her college expenses or a debutante party. With some regret (“I am one of the few living experts on how to sit properly in a hoop skirt,” she says), she made her decision. “I said, ‘Oh all right, I won’t come out,’ ” she says. “I think my mother has never quite forgiven me.”
After college Alexandra worked as a travel agent, married stockbroker Leonard Ripley in 1958, lived in New York City and Florence and had two daughters—Elizabeth, 32, a travel agent, and Merrill, 30, a teacher. After five years of marriage, she and Ripley divorced, and she obtained work as a manuscript reader in Manhattan. Always interested in writing, she found some of the books so bad that she thought she could do better. Her first attempts flopped, but Charleston (1981) won her a devoted following that increased with her next two books.
When the offer to follow up Gone with the Wind came in 1986, Ripley’s second husband, John Graham, a University of Virginia rhetoric professor she had married in 1981, urged her to accept. The project, for which Ripley earned 15 percent of the $5 million paid by Warner Books to the Mitchell estate, changed their lives. Because Ripley is a stickler for historical accuracy, she traveled: to Margaret Mitchell’s grandparents’ estate outside Atlanta, the model for Tara; to Charleston and Savannah; and, with her husband, to Ireland. “I like to have my characters react to the drama of history, and the period after the Civil War in America was dull,” Ripley says. “In Ireland, Scarlett’s ancestral home, they had the beginnings of a civil war.”
Ripley’s contract gave her full control over the book’s plot (though there were clashes with the book’s editors over the first draft). It also mandated secrecy. At her home outside Charlottesville, Va., Ripley—who often wrote through the night, fueled by cigarettes and M&M’s—drafted her daughters to type the chapters.
The need for secrecy ended last week, but Ripley’s job is not finished. There are interviews to be given, books to be signed and all those GWTW fans to answer to. Ripley did her best to write in the spirit of the original—the new Scarlett says “fiddle-dee-dee” 15 times—but readers can be finicky. There is, after all, a proposed club in Atlanta called I Won’t Read the Sequel.
This late in the game, though, Ripley isn’t about to be intimidated. “The whole idea of meeting Margaret Mitchell mano a mano was reckless,” she says. But, she adds with a smile, “I’d do it all over again.”
LINDA KRAMER in Charlottesville