Monday, November 05, 2007

Rhett Butler Loves Again, Steve Martin Looks Back: Book Buzz

By Edward Nawotka

Nov. 5 (Bloomberg) -- The much loved cad of ``Gone with the Wind'' is being resurrected tomorrow, when Donald McCaig's novel ``Rhett Butler's People'' lands in bookstores. The novel imagines Rhett's South Carolina childhood, a failed stint at West Point, fortune-hunting in San Francisco and New Orleans and, of course, his love life in and out of Scarlett O'Hara's bed.

This is the second authorized sequel to Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel. The first was Alexandra Ripley's rather tawdry 1991 ``Scarlett,'' which critics derided as hackwork; readers didn't give a damn and bought 6 million copies from Warner Books.

In the wake of that enthusiasm, St. Martin's Press paid the Mitchell estate a generous $4.5 million in 1994 for the rights to publish Rhett's story -- which is finally appearing now, with an optimistic first printing of 2 million copies.

The intervening 13 years have been a saga in themselves. The original writer -- Emma Tennant, the well-regarded British author of, among other titles, ``Pemberley,'' a sequel to Jane Austen's ``Pride and Prejudice'' -- was bounced from the project after delivering a manuscript deemed too British. Pat Conroy, a South Carolinian, agreed to take over, calling the sequel the book he was born to write, but he and the estate could never agree on terms, according to St. Martin's Press president and publisher Sally Richardson.

In 2000, McCaig -- then best known as the author of books about dogs -- got the nod after an editor traveling through the South stumbled on his 1999 Civil War novel, ``Jacob's Ladder.''

Not a Sequel

Richardson denies that ``Rhett Butler's People'' is a sequel. ``It's a companion that explores the same material from a different angle,'' she says. ``The Mitchell estate wanted a book with more gravitas, one that is worthy of the original, which is what McCaig has written. And he doesn't overdo it.''

Presumably the Mitchell estate has vetted the book. In the past it has been very protective. Witness its 2001 lawsuit against Alice Randall and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, for copyright infringement over ``The Wind Done Gone,'' Randall's thinly veiled version of ``Gone with the Wind'' told from the point of view of a slave named Cynara.

The suit was settled when Houghton Mifflin agreed to sell the book under the label ``unauthorized parody'' and to make a donation, at the Mitchell estate's behest, to Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Martin's Memoir

Steve Martin offers his own backstory in the surprisingly tender ``Born Standing Up,'' which Scribner will publish on Nov. 20. The memoir moves from his childhood in Waco, Texas, through his early gigs at Knott's Berry Farm and his first television appearances, to his final standup engagements in the late 1970s.

Martin, who prided himself on being a comic who didn't rely on punch lines, has established his literary bona fides in essays for the New Yorker magazine, two novellas (``Shopgirl'' and ``The Pleasure of My Company''), plays (``Picasso at the Lapin Agile'') and, last month, his first children's book, ``The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z,'' for which he teamed up with cartoonist Roz Chast.

Independent bookstores in particular are championing Martin's memoir. The 1,200 member stores of the American Booksellers Association Book Sense program have selected it as their top pick to promote in December -- a break that should help Scribner run through its first printing of 500,000 copies.

McCourt's Return

Another holiday item is Frank McCourt's ``Angela and the Baby Jesus,'' which comes out tomorrow. It tells the tale of a 6-year-old Irish girl -- McCourt's mother, the title character of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 memoir ``Angela's Ashes'' -- who takes the holy infant from a church manger and brings it home, convinced it needs warmth and looking after. Simon & Schuster is publishing a total of 300,000 copies in two versions. One, for children, is illustrated with cheerful, optimistic watercolors. The other, for adults, is printed in a smaller format, with drawings in a more ominous palette that evokes the grim setting of ``Angela's Ashes.''

Sunday, November 04, 2007

$50,000 Whiting Awards Go to Wyoming Climber, Vermont Farmer

By Edward Nawotka

Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Wyoming climbing guide Jack Turner, Vermont novelist and goat farmer Brad Kessler and tattooed New York memoirist Peter Trachtenberg are among the 10 winners of the 2007 Whiting Writers' Awards, announced yesterday at a ceremony at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

The seven others are Boston College professor Carlo Rotella, Brooklyn playwright Sheila Callaghan, Georgia poet Paul Guest, Iranian-born novelist and travel writer Dalia Sofer, Dallas short-story writer Ben Fountain, Staten Island poet Cate Marvin and Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Established in 1985, the Whiting Awards are given annually by New York's Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation to help writers early in their careers, when they are not yet widely known, ``devote themselves fully to writing.'' Each winner receives $50,000.

Approximately 100 candidates are nominated by an anonymous group of literary professionals appointed by the Foundation. Past winners have included Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham. In all, the program has awarded more than $5 million to 230 different writers.

Some of this year's winners have already been honored by prize committees, including Kessler, whose novel ``Birds in Fall'' won the 2007 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Fountain, whose short-story collection ``Brief Encounters with Che Guevara'' won the $10,000 2006 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction.

(Edward Nawotka writes on books and publishing for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)