The Rhett Stuff: Virginia Writer Took on Tara

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; Page C01

HIGHLAND COUNTY, Va. -- Donald McCaig has to make sure that the fences are mended so his sheep don't stray, that his border collies are tucked away in a kennel, that his Pyrenees guard dogs are being looked after and that the leftover venison from supper has been disposed of before he can take leave of his beloved farm here for a 30-day tour to promote "Rhett Butler's People," the new sort-of-a-sequel to "Gone With the Wind."

Oh, and there's one more chore: The driver's-side window in his 1989 Mercury station wagon -- his good car -- is broken. "If I can't get it fixed in Staunton," says McCaig, 67, "I'll just cover it with plastic and duct tape and that will be that."

Donald McCaig's new novel
Donald McCaig's new novel "Rhett Butler's People" draws on the 1936 classic "Gone With the Wind." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Then McCaig will travel to Washington, Atlanta, New York and other cities to speak to readers and sign copies of his book, which took six years to write and went on sale this week. He will appear at the Alexandria Lyceum tomorrow night.

Yes, you're right: There has already been one official sequel to Margaret Mitchell's phenomenal 1936 novel. Alexandra Ripley's "Scarlett," sanctioned by Mitchell's estate in Atlanta, was published in 1991. And an unofficial version: Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone" came out in 2001. Both books sold well but received harsh criticism.

The original novel, a colossal saga set in the Civil War-torn South, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and was made into the spectacular, all-time classic movie two years later. The book continues to sell well, so Mitchell's estate agreed to let St. Martin's Press -- which paid $4.5 million for the right to publish a sequel -- take another swipe at it.

For a while, it looked like uber-Southerner Pat Conroy, who wrote a loving intro to an anniversary edition of Mitchell's novel, was going to try his hand. "Pat Conroy got an awful lot of ink for just considering it," McCaig says.

But when that didn't happen, St. Martin's approached McCaig. He has written a couple of historical novels, "Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War" and "Canaan: A Novel of the Reunited States After the War." The Virginia Quarterly Review called "Jacob's Ladder" the best Civil War novel ever written.

He has also written several books about sheepdogs, including the novels "Nop's Trials" and "Nop's Hope." McCaig says he's been able to "eke out a living" from the sales of all these volumes.

You know when you approach McCaig that you're in the company of a real character. He's got an earthy sense of humor and a laugh that sounds like a vintage tractor on a cold morning. He's a barrel-chested man with wispy white hair, a bushy white mustache and cumulus-cloud eyebrows. On this evening, he is wearing a yellow shirt, blue jeans, a white cowboy hat and green suspenders. A reddish dog whistle dangles around his neck. He looks like a color wheel.

"Recently I had a colonoscopy," he says. "I was in the little hospital gown and nothing else and somebody said, 'What's that?' I still had the whistle on."

Charlottesville writer Donovan Webster, author of "Aftermath: The Remnants of War," has known McCaig for years. "Donald has original takes on everything," Webster says. "Plus he makes a hell of a gumbo, with andouille."

Born in Butte, Mont., McCaig was lured to Manhattan as a young man. He worked for an advertising firm, including campaigns for Georg Jensen jewelry and After Six formalwear. Eventually, in the mid-1960s, McCaig decided he didn't want to be a copywriter, he wanted to be a real writer. He and his wife, Anne -- bitten by the back-to-the-land bug -- built a camper on the back of a pickup truck and headed south.

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