Bad reviews? Ripley consoles herself with cash


September 26, 1991|By Randi Henderson

New York -- If this is all a dream Alexandra Ripley doesn't want to wake up -- at least not for six months or so.

The focus of national -- make that international -- attention yesterday as her book "Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind" hit the bookstores, Ms. Ripley was hoarse by midafternoon from giving interviews.

"This is not my natural habitat," said the author of three previous Southern historic romances and three other novels, none of which has received a smidgen of the attention that "Scarlett" is commanding.

"It's like going to Oz without the benefit of the tornado," she sighed, sitting in a hotel room bedecked with roses, sipping a Coke to soothe her weary throat.

Looking casually chic in a purple blouse and white skirt, reddish hair framing her face, the tallish Ms. Ripley pleaded with a photographer to aim away from her hips. And warned the world in general not to rain on her parade.

"It's all so much fun," she said. "So don't tell me anything negative."

Ah, yes, there is a downside to this sudden fame and fortune (more about the fortune part later). Because the reviews of "Scarlett" are already starting to come in and at least a few are not exactly kind. "Damnable," declared the Washington Post. "Awful," opined USA Today.

Ms. Ripley, 57, will think about that a few tomorrows down the road.

"In about six months I'll be ready to find out that some people disapproved," she said, preferring to limit her focus yesterday to a piece in the Atlanta Constitution by one-time Margaret Mitchell colleague Celestine Sibley who called "Scarlett" "a lively book, prodigiously researched, meticulously written and a riveting read."

"God bless you, Celestine," Ms. Ripley murmured to the faxed copy of the review she had just received. "I'm not going to read any other reviews. This is as close to the horse's mouth as we're going to get."

Her publisher was not exactly letting a few unpleasant reviews ruin his day either. Laurence J. Kirshbaum, president of Warner Books, was too busy looking at order forms.

"After a first printing of 750,000 and a second printing of 150,000, we have today ordered a third printing of 100,000," he told a gathering of foreign journalists yesterday morning. He was unperturbed about the possible dampening effect of negative reviews, he said later.

"The book's sale is going to be determined by the consumer and not the reviewer," he said confidently. "When you have a book with lots of publicity, with a legend at stake, you're bound to get some critics. But with 900,000 copies in the bookstores already, reviews are just not that important."

Ms. Ripley couldn't keep a smile off her face when she considered what the numbers mean for her.

She'll make about $600,000 from the American rights, another $450,000 from foreign sales and 15 percent (less agent fees) of whatever movie deal is eventually negotiated. That should be in the works within the next couple of weeks, according to an array of agents at yesterday's press conference.

"Isn't money fun?" Ms. Ripley chortled. "Especially when you have it. But a million's not that much these days. Now you have to be a billionaire to live in New York." Still, it will make for quite a pleasant life in her rural home near Charlottesville, Va., where she lives with her second husband John Graham, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Virginia. And, she admitted, with this kind of income, she's breathing rarified air that she never thought would be within her reach.

A Charleston, S.C. native and Vassar graduate, she worked for ** Life magazine, Air France and as a publisher's publicist before deciding 20 years ago to do what she really wanted to do -- write novels.

"I'm one of the few people around writing serious Southern historical romance," Ms. Ripley said, and her reputation was enough to bring her to the attention of agents for the Mitchell estate. With the copyright to "Gone With the Wind" due to expire in 2011, Mitchell's heirs -- two nephews -- decided that authorizing a sequel now was a much better idea than leaving the material up for grabs in 20 years.

Once asked, "I never considered not doing it," Ms. Ripley said. "I just couldn't resist it."

She added, "The book was going to be done. If I didn't do it, someone else would. And I thought that no one else could do it as well as I could. I have that much arrogance -- or should I call it rational appraisal of the situation?"

Arrogance notwithstanding, the writing process brought with it "moments of absolute terror," Ms. Ripley confessed. As she read and reread GWTW she realized "I couldn't write that well," but she kept plugging away, spending a year and a half on research and about the same amount of time writing.

Editorial disputes held the project up for a year as the first editor demanded a book "more in the style of contemporary best-sellers," Ms. Ripley said. But she managed to get a more sympathetic editor on the job.

"I dug in my heels," she said. "I said something literary like, 'No way am I going to do this.' I screamed and hollered and acted like an author."

And since her contract was with the Mitchell estate, not Warner Books, the publisher, she prevailed. As Ms. Ripley explained it: "When I started bellowing, 'It's not close to the spirit of Margaret Mitchell,' they listened."

Owen Laster, the agent for the Mitchell estate, said at yesterday's press conference that at least one more sequel is probable. (Scarlett is only about 37 at the end of this book.) But Alexandra Ripley promises one thing -- someone other than herself will write it.

'It's time to get back to my own work," she said, sketching her idea for a novel about turn-of-the-century tobacco barons in North Carolina.

"It's going to be great because I've had so much gentility in my books," she enthused. "These people made huge fortunes in a short period of time, were opulent, vulgar and unscrupulous. So that should be fun."

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