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Meet the Author
Mark Winegardner was already an acclaimed novelist in his own right (The Veracruz Blues, Crooked River Burning) before he was selected as part of an exhaustive search conducted by the great Mario Puzo's publisher to carry the formidable literary torch that is the Godfather saga.
Mark Winegardner was born and raised in Bryan, Ohio, near Exit 2, a town of 8,000 which supplies the world with its Dum-Dum suckers and Etch-a-Sketches. His parents owned an RV dealership there, and every summer he traveled with his family across the USA in various travel trailers and motorhomes. By the time he was 15, he had been in all 48 contiguous states. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Miami University and went on to receive a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing from George Mason University. He published his first book at age 26, while still in graduate school. He has taught at Miami, George Mason, George Washington, and John Carroll Universities, and is now a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. For several years he served as the director of the creative writing program as well. Winegardner has won grants, fellowships and residencies from the Ohio Arts Council, the Lilly Endowment, the Ragdale Foundation, the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Corporation of Yaddo. His books have been chosen as among the best of the year by the New York Times Book Review, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, the New York Public Library, and USA Today. His work has appeared in GQ, Playboy, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, DoubleTake, Family Circle, The Sporting News, Witness, Story Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Ladies Home Journal, Parents and The New York Times Magazine. Several of his stories have been chosen as Distinguished Stories of the Year in The Best American Short Stories.
Good To Know
The Story Behind the Sequel
by Jonathan Karp
Throughout the decade I was Mario Puzo's editor, I would periodically beg him to write a sequel to The Godfather. "Bring back the Corleones!" I would plead. "Whatever happened to Johnny Fontane? Can't you do something with Tom Hagen? Don't you think Michael has some unfinished business?"
Mario was always polite in the face of my wheedling and his response was always the same: No.
I understood why Mario never wanted to continue the story. He was a gambler at heart, and resurrecting The Godfather would have been a bad percentage move for him. It was bound to pale in comparison to the original. How do you improve on a legend?
But one day on the phone, Mario did give me his blessing to revisit the Corleones. He told me his family could do whatever they wanted with the rights to The Godfather after he died. (His exact phrase was "after I croak," which I remember precisely because it was the first time an author had ever discussed his posthumous career with me in such direct terms.)
Mario left behind two novels, Omerta and his partially completed tale of the Borgias, The Family, so it was awhile before I approached his estate about the prospect of reviving The Godfather. After conversations with Mario's eldest son, Anthony Puzo, and his literary agent, Neil Olson, we agreed on a strategy:
We would discreetly search for a writer at roughly the same stage of his or her career as Mario was when he wrote The Godfather -- mid-forties, with two acclaimed literary novels to his credit, and a yearning to write a larger, more ambitious novel for a broader readership than his previous books had reached. We didn't want a by-the-numbers hired gun. We wanted an original voice, someone who would bring artistry and vision to the Corleone saga, just as director Francis Ford Coppola had so done brilliantly in his film adaptations.
I outlined what we were looking for in a one-page query, which I sent confidentially via email to about a dozen respected literary agents. Within 24 hours of sending my confidential email, I received a phone call from New Yorker staff writer Nick Paumgarten. He'd heard all about our search and wanted to write about it. At first, I was reluctant to cooperate, due to my concern that every would-be goomba in the country would send me a manuscript. Upon further consideration, I realized that there probably weren't a lot of goombas reading The New Yorker, and that a story might be a good way to get out the word and attract a broader range of authors.
The day the story was published, The Godfather Returns became headline news. I was deluged with calls from almost every major media organization in the United States, as well as many abroad, from CNN to the BBC in New Zealand. The New York Times Magazine published a cautionary essay about the dangers of sequels. I appeared on a Detroit radio morning zoo show with a Vito Corleone impersonator who warned me that my career might come to an untimely end if I didn't hire him to write the book.
We had set a deadline for the delivery of outlines from potential writers. We stuck to our guidelines -- only published authors of acclaimed fiction would be considered. By the day of the deadline, we had been swamped with submissions from well-regarded authors (plus countless more from unpublished ones). As I sorted through the outlines, I was taped by a TV cameraman and interviewed by NBC News correspondent Jamie Gangel, who was covering our search, and who ultimately revealed the winner live on The Today Show.
I quickly narrowed down the field to about a dozen serious contenders. Some were dismissed on account of inadvisable plot lines. (Michael Corleone falls in love with a Native American activist. Or, the Corleone women take over the family business. Or, Sonny Corleone didn't really die.) Others were rejected because the writers didn't seem to have the right feel for the material. One literary critic described Mario Puzo's style as "somewhere between pulp and Proust." That's part of the reason for his success -- he was an original writer who loved to entertain his readers. He could turn a phrase, and there was a sly ironic undertone to almost everything he wrote, but Mario's greatest talent was for telling a story that stayed with you because the details were so captivating. Our ideal writer would have similar gifts.
From the dozen contenders, we arrived at four finalists. We would have been happy to publish any of them. After consultation with Tony Puzo and Neil Olson, we unanimously agreed that the best candidate was Mark Winegardner. Like Mario, he was an author of two acclaimed literary novels, The Veracruz Blues and Crooked River Burning, and to our delight, both of which had organized crime plot theads. I read Crooked River Burning and loved it, not only for its ambition (it's the story of the rise and fall of a great American city over a period of decades), but also because the author shows such compassion for his characters. Mario Puzo's greatest literary inspiration was Dostoevsky, who taught him to see the humanity within the villainous. Winegardner has an equally big heart when writing about his characters. That can be very interesting when you're going to have to kill a lot of them. He was our first choice to write The Godfather Returns and we were elated when he accepted. Our selection was international news. When Mark visited Sicily for some background research, it was a front page story there.
Neither Mark nor I have ever worked on a more highly-anticipated book. We know the risks of following in the tradition of a pop classic. I'm not worried. Having edited the novel, I'm certain of its quality and its power. The Corleones have become an American myth, and like all great myths, each retelling brings new meaning and new rewards.
Jonathan Karp is Vice President and Editorial Director of Random House.