Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Book That Taught Me Not to Judge A Book By Its Cover

During my time as a book reviewer I learned that in order to actually sleep, eat, interact with my family or operate in any vertical way I did in fact have to judge books by their covers. It was brutal. It was unfair. But it was survival. Otherwise, I was sure I would be eaten alive. There was simply not enough time in the day to pay attention to anything that didn’t already appeal to me, look like me, or scream at me loudly enough.

And so, one glance at the distraught overdressed heroine thrusting her cheek away from what was either a plantation fire or a bloody sunset confirmed what I already suspected. I would never read Gone With the Wind. I was torn between dismissing this high strung Southern belle and overly-relating to her. Another melodramatic soap opera, I moaned, but the opportunity to interview the man who wrote its sequel arose and duty called, so I picked up my 959 page copy of the book. And found it impossible to put back down. I read it while I was working. I read it when I should have been sleeping. And it’s the only book I’ve read while driving, balanced precariously from cover to cover across my steering wheel.

Within the span of a week I was a fanatical convert. I inhaled “Rhett Butler’s People” and interviewed its gruff sheepherding author, Donald McCaig, moving on to read biographies about Margaret Mitchell as long as her own lifetime opus. They were all fascinating.

And so, when right around this time, I met former environmental lawyer and journalist Ellen Brown at a swanky literary conference party and she asked if I thought a book about the writing and subsequent success of Gone With the Wind was a salient project I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. But why would this perfectly put together, completely adorable, well-spoken lawyer with unwrinkled clothes value my opinion? We chatted for a while, but then I wandered over to pick at the Hors D'ouvers, trying to control my urge to stuff some rare roast beef into my purse. Later, I learned that Ellen went home and started writing her book that night.

And published it, to great acclaim, two years later. Joining forces with all things GWTW collector and enthusiast, John Wiley, "Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey" came out this February and has made it big not only in dozens of bookstores around the country, but also in USA Today, the CBS Early Show and NPR.

In January, I interviewed Ellen for an article about her own writing process. Our conversation was to me, as fascinating as any of the books they were about. The archeological literary discoveries, the wild coincidences, the hard work of writing around the clock and the labors of love that went into the research and writing of Ellen’s book led me through a house of mirrors I never wanted to leave.

But even better, Ellen was kind, generous and humble. She told me ghost stories and hair stories, asking me continuously about myself and my own projects. She offered me suggestions, encouragement and advice that scratched all the right itches. It thrilled me to no end to see that she had quoted a line from my interview with McCaig in her book. I had made it into an index! This in itself was exciting, but recognizing that this smart, tough-cookie and I had more to talk about than we could squeeze into the coffee shop was even better.

And, since today is the 75th year anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, I thought I’d take a moment to remember the importance of not only not judging books by their covers, but their authors as well.

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