Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Interview with Ellen Brown and John Wiley, Authors of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind

Editors' Note: Here is the promised interview with Ellen Brown and John Wiley, authors of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood. Ellen is freelancer writer and owner of an antiquarian bookselling business. John is the publisher and editor of the Scarlett Letter, a quarterly newsletter for GWTW fans. A longtime GWTW collector, he also holds one of the largest collections of GWTW memorabilia in the private hands. It was a great pleasure for us to talk with Ellen and John about their book, Margaret Mitchell, and the making of GWTW, and we think you'll find their insights very interesting as well. Enjoy! 

1. To kick things off, how did you first become fans of Gone with the Wind? And what continues to fascinate you about Gone with the Wind today?

John: I first saw the movie at age 10, then I read the book and loved it even more. I began collecting memorabilia (especially that related to the book) and eventually began The Scarlett Letter, my quarterly GWTW newsletter. I remain fascinated by how popular the book and movie have been around the world for 75 years. The story of Scarlett and Rhett is a universal one.

Ellen: I first saw the film version when it aired on television in 1976. I was six years old and fell in love with the visual beauty of the movie.

I didn’t read the book until I met John. I was skeptical the book was worth reading, but he convinced me to give it a try. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I was amazed by how incredibly rich it is. I liked it even better than the movie and have no hesitation calling it literature.

2. Tell us a little about your book. What was your inspiration for starting this project?

John: Our book is a biography of Margaret Mitchell's novel, not of Miss Mitchell herself. As such, it tells the story surrounding Gone with the Wind up to the present day. We were inspired to tell the life story of Gone with the Wind when we realized that while parts of the story had been told, the complete history of the book had never been recounted in detail.

Ellen: I wrote a magazine article about John several years ago. During our interviews, he kept mentioning these wonderful stories about Margaret Mitchell’s experiences writing and managing GWTW. When I asked him where I could read about this part of her life, he told me nobody had ever written much about the history of the book or Mitchell’s efforts to manage the literary rights. We decided to team up and tell that story.
3. We're a team of co-bloggers, so we're naturally inclined to ask this next question. What was the process of co-authoring a book like? How did you to decide what you wanted to cover, and who would research and write what?

John: I had done a great deal of research over the years just out of my interest in Gone with the Wind. After Ellen and I did a week or two of new research, we decided how to split up the writing. After working up drafts, we exchanged chapters and made comments on each other's work. We then traded again and repeated the process. Eventually, we sat down in person (although we talked and e-mailed dozens of times a day!) and went over almost the entire manuscript line by line, so it was a real joint effort. Several people have commented that the book reads “seamlessly,” and we are proud of that!

Ellen: John has spent the last several decades researching Gone with the Wind, so I had some serious catching up to do. I spent several months reviewing the Macmillan and Mitchell papers to get up to speed.

In terms of writing, John has a full time job so of necessity the bulk of the initial drafting fell to me. However, he was a constant presence and we regularly exchanged drafts. We spent many days around my kitchen table reading the draft chapters aloud word by word to make sure we had the voice right. 

4. What do think the most significant challenge was that Margaret Mitchell faced in terms of managing her GWTW empire?

John: At first, I think it was dealing with the overwhelming publicity and the feeling that many in the public had that they almost “owned” her. Later, the copyright issues (piracies and protection) became her biggest challenge.

Ellen: I would say managing the overseas publishers. She spoke no foreign languages and yet had to fight a constant round of attacks in countries all over the world. She rolled her sleeves up and figured it out. In the long run, these challenges became her greatest successes.

5. What role to you think Margaret Mitchell and her legal battles played in influencing later reforms to U.S. copyright laws?

John: Margaret Mitchell's unending battles brought to the forefront the difficulties faced by U.S. authors who were not protected by international copyright law. When Congress became aware of all the issues she dealt with (her brother, Stephens Mitchell, testified before a Congressional panel) helped push the United States to join the Berne Convention.

Ellen: Mitchell’s experiences paved the way for American authors to have successful careers overseas. Congress saw what she went through and fixed an unworkable legal system. Although she didn’t live to see it happen, she was very proud of the work she had done to publicize the inadequacies of US copyright law.

6. One of the most interesting revelations in your book how strained the relationship was between the Marshes and Macmillan at various points in time. Overall, what's your assessment of how Macmillan handled its duties as GWTW publisher? Do you think they treated the Marshes fairly?

John: While Macmillan (usually Harold Latham) seemed to have misled Margaret Mitchell on several occasions (the movie rights, the British rights, etc.), overall, I think the company did a great job in promoting Gone with the Wind. Alec Blanton, the Macmillan advertising executive, was a master of promotion. In the end, Macmillan was probably the best possible publisher for Miss Mitchell.

Ellen: It is hard to speak in terms of Macmillan as an entity since there were so many people involved. Overall, I think the firm did well by the Marshes – especially, of course, Lois Cole – but the couple had very valid grounds for complaint against certain actions taken by George Brett and Harold Latham. I don’t imagine though that she would have been treated any better by another publisher.

7. Your book offers so many new insights to the history of GWTW. What were you personally most surprised to learn from your research?

John: I was most struck by the sheer volume of work involved in protecting the foreign copyright. And when you realize that she and John Marsh (and Margaret Baugh) did this all from their small apartment in Atlanta (not the large international city it is today) and while the entire world was at war, it is simply amazing what they accomplished.

Ellen: I was surprised and amazed by Mitchell’s business smarts. I had had the impression from some other sources that she put herself in the hands of the men in her life and retired to a dark room with a compress over her eyes. To the contrary, she was smart as a whip and an extremely hard worker.

8. If Margaret Mitchell was alive today, what do you think her assessment would be of how the Stephens Mitchell Trusts have managed the business of GWTW?

John: She would be extremely pleased. I think the fact that her will was broadly written was intentional on her part. She made her wishes known to her husband and brother, but she knew better than to tie the hands of her executors by forbidding certain actions in her will. Had she still been alive in 1975 when her brother first began exploring an authorized sequel, I think she would have reluctantly agreed it was the right move to make. At that time, the copyright was going to expire in a few years, and she would have taken whatever steps necessary to protect her story.

Ellen: Terrific question. She would undoubtedly be proud of how her estate managed to renegotiate the movie contract and has protected the copyright all over the world. I think she might have a little bit of heartburn over the authorized sequels, but she was a practical woman and would have understood the estate’s reasons for pursuing the sequels.

9. This year heralds the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind. How would you describe GWTW's impact on pop culture today?

John: Gone with the Wind is woven into the very fabric of American pop culture. Writers and everyday people make constant references to characters and lines from the story – and these references are immediately recognizable by people the world over. The novel and film, taken together, remain the most popular entertainment phenomenon of the 20th century.

Ellen: A recent newspaper article claimed that Gone with the Wind was fading in popularity and had not found an audience among today’s young people. I could not disagree more! If Twitter and Facebook are any indication, young people today enjoy Gone with the Wind and are as engaged with the characters as those of us with a few years under our belt. I don’t see the fascination fading any time soon.

10. What do you think the future holds for GWTW? Will we see another authorized sequel? How much longer do you expect GWTW to retain its copyright protection?

John: Currently, the copyright on the novel expires in 2031. That could change if Congress extends the copyright again. Either way, the GWTW Literary Rights office will continue to exert some control over the characters because of the copyright on the two authorized sequels (Scarlett and Rhett Butler's People)

Will there be another sequel? That's certainly possible, but I tend to think not. As for the future of Gone with the Wind, I think people all over the world will continue to read the novel and watch the film as long as we face hardships in life ... and as long as there is a “tomorrow” and a new beginning to look forward to!

Ellen: The copyright expires in 2031, but I would not be surprised to see it extended again. As for another sequel, hmm, I predict that the estate will not authorize one any time soon.
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