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''Scarlett'' opens the door to scrutiny by critics

”Scarlett” opens the door to scrutiny by critics — Author Alexandria Ripley knows that having a runaway best-seller can be a mixed blessing

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I was so terrified some Yankee was going to do it,” Alexandra Ripley has joked about her decision to write Scarlett. As far as commercial success goes, the 57-year-old author’s gamble has undeniably paid off. From another point of view, however, Scarlett’s saga has been almost as difficult a burden for Ripley as it was for Margaret Mitchell, who was virtually paralyzed by the fame her book brought her after its 1936 publication. Indeed, like Mitchell, Ripley has officially declined to write any more about Scarlett O’Hara.

Even before the Sept. 25 publication of Scarlett, Ripley’s literary position was embattled. Advance word on her book was poor, and once published, the novel’s swift commercial success was accompanied by the scorn of critics who denounced the author for, among other sins, ”cannibalizing” Mitchell’s classic. Public enthusiasm for the novel has also taken its toll on Ripley. Following a three-week book tour, the author developed carpal tunnel syndrome, a pinching of the nerve in the wrist, as a result of signing as many as 10,000 copies of her book. At the same time she also acquired an aversion to the press and decided to stop giving interviews. Of course, Ripley’s predicament is not without its consolations. Although she reportedly received a relatively modest $160,000 advance for writing Scarlett, she gets 15 percent of all merchandising and movie deals made from the novel. The rights to the TV miniseries alone recently sold for a record $9 million.

Whatever her literary abilities, Ripley’s background seemed to suit her for the task of writing a sequel to GWTW. According to Robert Gottlieb of William Morris, which represents both Ripley and the Mitchell estate, she was picked for the job because her history resembled Mitchell’s. ”She comes from Southern aristocracy,” Gottlieb points out, exaggerating slightly. ”So she automatically understands the pain that Southerners experienced as a result of the Civil War.” The daughter of an insurance salesman, Ripley grew up in Charleston, S.C., and attended Vassar College on a scholarship from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She pursued various careers before writing her first historical romance, Charleston, in 1981. Her subsequent books have also focused on the history of the South, where she now lives with her second husband, John Graham, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Virginia. Graham and Ripley occupy a modest rural house outside Charlottesville, equipped with a satellite dish, a fax machine, and a soon-to-be-renovated front porch, courtesy of her windfall from Scarlett.

Despite her sequel’s success, Ripley has no qualms about closing the book on Scarlett. She recently signed a seven-figure contract with Warner Books to produce two historical novels. In the meantime, her defection has opened the field for another William Morris client, Cathy Cash Spellman, who, according to Gottlieb, is the hot contender to write the next GWTW sequel. Though Spellman is a Northerner who currently resides in Westport, Conn., Gottlieb believes her past work (romances such as So Many Partings, Paint the Wind, and An Excess of Love) proves she is more than capable of continuing GWTW‘s Southern saga. No contract has been signed, but Spellman, who reports that she has read GWTW ”several times,” is already plotting Scarlett’s fate. ”Gone With the Wind is such a broad canvas,” she says. ”Every writer who has ever read the novel has imagined what happened next.”