Alice Randall

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 2, 2002, in Nashville, Tenn.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a respected author whose book, The Wind Done Gone, provides a special perspective on one of America’s best-known novels: Alice Randall. Great to have you here.

Alice Randall: Great to be with you, Ken.

Paulson: This sounds like a dangerous book, The Wind Done Gone. I understand it’s been at the heart of a First Amendment battle. It’s a book that people have reacted to very, very strongly. Can you talk a little bit about its relationship with Gone With the Wind?

Randall: Well, one critic said that it was as if my book is like Prissy slapped Scarlett back. I’ve always liked that description. But I’d also like to say it’s — my grandfather always told a story about a time that he hit a man with a crowbar for cursing in front of his wife and disrespecting her, and as a different way, I think, in a literary sense, this is like my striking at Miss Mitchell with a literary crowbar for disrespecting all black women who were living in 1937.

Paulson: And there is a perception from some that this may be some kind of a sequel. In fact, it is a twist on the story — a parody of Gone With the Wind.

Randall: I completely reject the idea that the book is a sequel. A sequel would tend to exploit and to continue something. My desire was to explode and to stop something. My book is an antidote to what I perceive as the poison of the Gone With the Wind text.

Paulson: And it’s a story told through Scarlett’s half-sister.

Randall: It’s a story told from — in the voice of Cynara. It’s a first-person diary, the book, of a black woman born in slavery who lives into freedom. And she tells her story of life on a plantation that is something akin to Tara.

Paulson: When did you first read Gone With the Wind?

Randall: I first read it when I was about 12 or 13, at an impressionable age.

Paulson: And your reaction to it then?

Randall: It really hurt me. It shocked me. I was terrified by the idea of the Ku Klux Klan being presented as a positive social organization. The relentless use of the word “nigger” injured me. But more it was the portrayal of black women as being unattractive and stupid. It was the stupidity of Mammy and Prissy as portrayed by Miss Mitchell that really injured me.

Paulson: I’m curious. You were growing up in Washington, D.C., … at the time?

Paulson: At that point. I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I had moved to Washington, D.C., and I believe my mother gave me the book.

Paulson: I was going to say, “How does that” — you know, “a 12-year-old end up reading that book?” And do you think she gave it to you because she thought it was a good book?

Randall: You know, I do not know why she gave it to me. My mother herself was of mixed-race ancestry. Her father was white; her mother was black. And she had very conflicted ideas about race. I really don’t know what her motivation was. I do know that I consider it to be one of the bad things my mother ever did to me. And I wrote my book so that my own daughter, who is now 14 years old, would not come of age with Gone With the Wind on a shelf unanswered, unrebuked, unscorned, as she makes her way through the world.

Paulson: Well, I want to talk about both the book and the legal battle that emerged from that, but first just a bit of background about you. You’ve got a fascinating history in that, as you point out, you were born in Detroit and grew up in Washington. And a degree from Harvard, and you end up in Nashville —

Randall: To be a country songwriter!

Paulson: — writing country songs. And you know, that defies every possible stereotype — to be born in Motown and write country songs. What was the first hint that you had an affinity for country music?

Randall: Well, you know, I say that where I grew up in Detroit, which is the poor black section of Detroit, partially, was Detroit, Alabama. Because everybody was a new immigrant — or refugees from Alabama. So, the connection is sort of closer than you would immediately think. And I think that the fact that I grew up in a songwriting city and a songwriting town related to why I was interested in moving to a songwriting city and a songwriting town. I saw the possibilities of that. I also think I was troubled by the image of country music. My mother moved to Washington, D.C., and we moved into a very different world, and I had a stepfather who had attended Harvard Graduate School, and we had a country house in Virginia. And there I heard all this country music. And it began to both trouble me and intrigue me, and I began to be interested in country music because it’s really unrecognized the black influences on it. The influence, you know — who invented the banjo? A black person. Who influenced Hank Williams was Tee-Tot. So, I have an ongoing interest in popular culture and its relation to African-Americans. And I think that shows up in my interest in both Gone With the Wind and country music.

Paulson: That’s very interesting. And Nashville is full of songwriters, full of people who think they can write country songs, and an immensely talented community. And yet you’re a relative novice when you move to Nashville and fairly quickly score a number-one country record.

Randall: Well, it took me three years, almost to the week, to get my very first song recorded. And I think it took me longer than that off and on to get my number one. But, you know, I’m very proud of the songs I’ve had recorded. I love country music. And I think it’s one of those examples of an ironic alliance between blacks and whites in America.

Paulson: Do you recall your reaction the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?

Randall: I do; I was overjoyed. And it is funny that, even to this day, I was thinking that I get so excited when I hear one of my songs on the radio. And I’ve gotten to the point, I don’t like reading all these articles about the case or even that many articles about the book, but I still love — there is nothing like turning on the radio somewhere, you know, down in Florida, and hearing people sing along to your music.

Paulson: That’s great. Well, you moved from a successful career as a songwriter to a career as a novelist, and this is your first novel. And very few writers have had the first novel get this much attention, which is probably both a blessing and a curse. This book drew the attention of the Mitchell Trust, which is related to the Mitchell estate, and these are the folks who control the rights to Gone With the Wind. Do you remember the first inkling that you might have some legal trouble headed your way?

Randall: Well, it wasn’t an inkling. It was a reality. I remember it very well. It was about a year ago almost to this day — maybe a year and a few weeks ago. And I was taking a shower, and someone in my house told me to come out, that there was an important call, call on the phone, and it was my editor telling me that they had just been served with some sort of papers.

Paulson: And what was the objection of the Mitchell Trust to your book?

Randall: I don’t completely know, because I don’t completely understand their objections, because they make so little sense to me, and they also make me so upset. But basically they were saying that, you know, they own the rights to Gone With the Wind. And my book was some kind of infringement or sequel and that they own the rights to a sequel. I, of course, completely disagree with this and feel that and know that my book is a critique, a rebuke and a scorn, a meaningful parody, and that, you know, common sense will tell you that people don’t give you — you don’t ask permission when you want to criticize somebody.

Paulson: And actually in your book, you’ve gone to some pains not to replicate the characters. There’s no mention of Rhett. There’s no mention of Scarlett, per se.

Randall: Oh, exactly; I feel that my book is a very complex and extremely honest parody and critique. That one of the things about my book that my publishers hate that I love is that my book is really difficult to read, and I tell that to people. I made it purposely difficult to read, purposely a challenge, because one of the things that offended me about the other book is, it used slavery as a backdrop to provide entertainment. And, so, I’ve never intended my book to be fun to read or easy to read. I intended it to be illuminating, but illumination that — for which you would have to work hard to even see the relation to Gone With the Wind. It’s something you have to struggle for. You know, the character that is the critique of Scarlett is called Other. Now, that comes from the word of — work of structuralist critics. It also comes that “Other” is a subset of the word mother, suggesting that that character is only important as she relates to Mammy. It has a lot of different meanings, but none of them are obvious.

Paulson: It’s interesting to me that you’ve changed the contours of the book in many ways, and you’ve changed the characters and massaged their personalities and added new information about them. You know, and that, obviously, is very, is a very conscious decision driven by the need to write a fresh book with a fresh perspective. But did it also occur to you that by not using names like Rhett and Scarlett it might keep you out of legal hot water?

Randall: That wasn’t my intention. My intention was write the best, most meaningful book I could. The reason I called Other “Other” as opposed to “Scarlett” is, one, she is a different character. But more importantly, in 1,000 pages, Miss Mitchell did not give Mammy a name. I was not going to give that character a name. That was a political choice. It was not a legal choice. That was a literary choice. And ultimately, I strongly — my characters are (in) relation to their characters, but they are not the same characters. This is not new information about those characters. These are anti-characters of those characters. For example, I do not believe Rhett Butler, in the other book, would ever have married a black woman. I think he might have had an affair with a black woman. But there is no evidence that he would have married a black woman. My R. does. Melanie in the other book is sweet, sweet, sweet, the epitome of the Southern gentlewoman. In my book, Mealy Mouth is a multiple sadistic lesbian murderess. Most important emphasis: She is a murderess. That is a commentary on how sweet can you be if every piece of clothing you wear is bought by slavery. Those are not the same characters. It is a character commenting upon another character. Now, my original — my central character doesn’t appear in the other book — Cynara. She couldn’t appear because she is an intelligent black woman.

Paulson: Now, this book — I think you did a pretty fair job of saying what the Mitchell Trusts allege about your novel. And their point, basically, is: “We have a right to control every character created by Margaret Mitchell, and no one should be allowed — without paying fees or getting clearance for using these — no one should be allowed to use these characters in a way that — ” Oh, I guess the argument is that it detracts from the market for their book as well. And, so, they go to court. And in fact, they go to U.S. District Court and ask for a preliminary injunction to actually prevent your book from being distributed.

Randall: To stop the presses.

Paulson: Stop the presses, something called “prior restraint” in this country, preventing ideas from being disseminated. Did it surprise you that they went to that extent to attack your book?

Randall: It absolutely shocked me, but it more shocked me that it could be done. And on April 20 of last year, my book was enjoined temporarily from publication.

Paulson: You know, when you think about it, this is a book that was in development from the time you were 12.

Randall: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: A point of view you wanted to share, and you finally get to that point where you can share it, and, and a judge says, “No, you can’t.”

Randall: Exactly. And it was something I felt really needed to be done to restore the dignity of black women, particularly of older black women. When this book was published in 1937, that was the year Joe Louis won his big prize fight. And that was a great victory for black men. That was also the year Gone With the Wind was published. And what could illiterate black men, like Joe Louis, like my grandfather, do to defend their women against a book? Against false testimony? They could do nothing. And, so, it had taken me till 2000 to do something about it. And then somebody is saying, “You have to be silent, and we’re going to use these copyright laws to, you know, to lie about you and silence you.”

Paulson: One very positive outcome of this was the rallying behind you of some tremendous figures in the literary world — scholars, authors. Did that surprise you?

Randall: It touched me, and it made me very happy. I don’t — it was incredibly meaningful to me. Toni Morrison spent her Easter day writing to the courts on behalf of my book. Pat Conroy volunteered his services to a newspaper and then testified. Jed Rubenfeld from Yale Law School gave a lot of work. I feel — when I think about it, very indebted to all the people who spent, you know, gave freely of their own time to work for the publication of the book.

Paulson: Were there mornings when you would wake up and think, you know, “This book will never see the light of day”?

Randall: I truly did fear that, after the first judge did give them the injunction. Because I didn’t think that was something that could happen in America. And I then didn’t know — I felt all bets were off as to how bad it could get. And it just — and when I read a statement that referred to Miss Mitchell’s beloved characters and I wondered, “Beloved by who?” and realized that points of view can be so different.

Paulson: That statement was in the court’s opinion.

Randall: Mm-hmm, in the original court’s opinion. That was a very hard time for me. And I did not know — you know, most of those around me said that this cannot stand in America. And, and I felt strengthened by that possibility. But it was shocking to me that it could go even this far. And it was shocking to me to note what seemed to be a beginning of a growing trend, the stifling of intellectual dialogue by hollering “copyright infringement.”

Paulson: We want to talk about that, the battle between copyright and free speech sometimes in this country, but first we need to go to what we hope will be the happy ending for you, which is that the case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit —

Randall: Yes.

Paulson: — who came back in a — actually a very quick action, came back and said, you know, very, very, very clearly that your book is parody, that it is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that the judge, in granting the preliminary injunction, had erred. That had to be very gratifying.

Randall: It was gratifying to have my book in bookstores, and it was gratifying to have it recognized, that this was a serious intellectual endeavor intended at an altogether different audience. It was gratifying. And I want to make it clear that it is my understanding — I am not a lawyer; I’m a writer — but that I believe that under the copyright law as it exists that my book is legal and that it was not a choice between the First Amendment and the copyright law. That my book is protected by both of those things. But what is so clear is how important free speech is. Because one of the things I realized is, some people really need my book because they didn’t know that Miss Mitchell’s characters are not beloved by everybody and that if we don’t have people freely thinking and freely writing, freely publishing, and freely reading, that you tend to believe that your views are everyone’s views. That’s exactly what goes wrong in a society when we don’t have a multiple of published voices.

Paulson: And, so, your voice is being heard now.

Randall: Yes.

Paulson: Your book is being widely distributed, a lot of very positive reviews, some mixed reviews.

Randall: Some negative reviews. It’s been really interesting that — I’m actually sort of proud of all of them, including — I had a very bad one in The New York Times that was kind of snipey and short. And I considered that to be an interesting tribute to the fact that my intended audience was black women. And I feel that I really wrote my book in a form — in a kind of hip-hop literary critical way — hip-hop lit-crit manner. And I actually consider it to be a badge of honor that the book was misunderstood and under-read by certain outside critics, that my hip-hop has not been co-opted. It is definitely written in the place where African-American interest in coded language and African-American interest in parody cross. And though there have been so many white readers across this country who have read their way into the code — and I do not think you have to be black to understand my book — it has interested me that, like the original cakewalk dance, which blacks created as a critique of the white minuet and many white plantation owners understood to be a poor imitation, that it does not surprise me when I, too, enter into my own dance de gateau, my own cakewalk, that some people might consider it to be a poor imitation and not understand it to be that critique. And I actually find that exciting.

Paulson: You know, you’d mentioned that the book damaged you.

Randall: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: Did you watch the film?

Randall: I did. And I may have things to critique about that at a later date and in another genre. The book — the film is not nearly as racist as the book. And people who think they’re remembering Gone With the Wind by remembering the film are not remembering the novel Gone With the Wind. The film took out the word “nigger.” The film took out the Ku Klux Klan. The film also took out two of Scarlett’s children. They did censorship of their own.

Paulson: I want to explore a little bit more the whole issue of copyright. Because, clearly, copyright is important to you. It protects your songs. It protects your book. And the idea in the Constitution was that you would actually encourage creativity by saying, “Once you create something, you have property rights, and no one can take that from you.” It’s a boon to artists and actually encourages freedom of speech. On the other hand, we obviously cherish freedom of speech and the ability to write what we want when we want to. How do you see those dynamics coming together, especially given your current circumstances?

Randall: One, I believe in copyright. I believe in the idea of intellectual property. I also know that there is such a thing as transformative use, that there is — as I said, when I read that book, Gone With the Wind, it scarred my brain. What I made of that scar is my very own. That is a meaningful statement to me. To give you an example, though, there is a parody of my parody that I read on the Web. It has been removed. But it was a very interesting and painful — it was set in the world of transvestites, prostitutes, and they were in S&M. It was a very complex — I don’t like pornography. It was a very complex, pornographic parody of my work, including Prissy and Mealy Mouth and Miss Priss going back and forth beating each other and all kinds of complexities of this sort. Did I like that work? No. Did it use the word — did it use some of my characters? I think so. Did it transform them into something I could not even have imagined? Absolutely. Did it belong to me? No. It had gone so far beyond and into something new. Whether or not I approved of the new thing, that new thing belonged to that person who created it.

Paulson: Have the Mitchell Trusts filed suit against the Web site yet?

Randall: I’m not sure that they’re aware of that. But, you know, Pat Conroy brought up the point that when he was working on a sequel, which is different, that they had made two conditions: that there should be no miscegenation and no homosexuality. Well, my book has both miscegenation and homosexuality in it, and it brings up the possibility that what they’re really trying to protect is a body of ideas and preferences, not a creation.

Paulson: Have you created a tremendous burden for yourself in that this is your first novel? It has been now taken through the courts. It has been much discussed, much written about. It’s been attacked in The New York Times, pretty much the total experience for a new novelist.

Randall: Lauded in the L.A. Times.

Paulson: There you go. I knew there were many positive reviews. And now I would guess you’re going to write another novel.

Randall: I’m writing another novel, and it’s going to be even more wonderful and also a form of hip-hop literary criticism, but this time I’m turning to a subject — if Gone With the Wind was a book that damaged me the most, I had a reading experience that deeply restored me, and my new book will be written in relation to a redemptive experience of reading.

Paulson: And this will not be a parody.

Randall: It will not be a parody.

Paulson: For those who have some confusion about it, the new packaging on The Wind Done Gone now says “The unauthorized parody.” Has that been part of — actually part of the book since the beginning?

Randall: It was something we offered to the court initially when we were first brought before the court, and it was something that we offered. We have never wanted any confusion. As one of my lawyers aptly said, … we do not want anyone to confuse this small book with the black women on its cover [with] this large book; and the hardback of Gone With the Wind has a Confederate flag on its spine. We have — we put a black woman on the cover of our book. I think you knew what you’re getting. And we, we think The Wind Done Gone is clearly a title that provokes an understanding that this is parody and critique and, — but we are happy to put that horrible-looking red sign on it in case there is anyone who does not understand.

Paulson: Right. It also says, “A provocative literary parody.” It’s sort of like, “This is parody. Understand that.” I’m confident that your next novel will also be, in its way, a celebration of free expression. And we hope to have a chance to talk to you about that when that is complete. I have one final question for you. Because I know that, that this has been a wrenching experience for you — not the television show, I hope — but the writing and publication of the book. And not a — and an unusual experience for a first novel. If you could undo it all — not write the book and not go through the kind of litigation you’ve gone through — would you?

Randall: Absolutely not. I had to stand up for my grandmother. I have to stand up for my daughter’s great-grandmother. I have to stand up for my husband’s grandmother. There is no question. I think I’ve paid an immense price, but I would pay that price again to stand up for their dignity, to stand up for my daughter, and if there is one thing I would not do again, I hope I would not be as afraid as I was at times, as intimidated. When you have people that have millions of dollars suing you and you only have not very much at all, it’s very scary. The only thing I regret was ever being afraid. I regret the tears I let them make me cry. But I am very proud of myself that even when I was afraid and even when I had tears in my eyes, I stood up for my book. I stood up for my right to speak up and have my say and give my opinion. People have paid too much — black and white, men and women — in this country for my right to have an opinion and to voice it, and to voice it with words on paper, for me to back down.

Paulson: Thank you. Thank you for being here and joining us on “Speaking Freely.” Our guest today has been Alice Randall. Thank you for joining us.

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