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.
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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.
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In the fall of 2004, Mark Winegardner took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Tex Maule's The Linebacker and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, though the act of receiving those books was as influential as the books themselves.
In the small Ohio town where I grew up, the children's section of the library was on the first floor. The adult section was upstairs. To go up there alone, you had to be in high school. For years, I'd browse through what books I was allowed to browse through, all the time listening to the adult footsteps above my head, all the time wanting to read what I was forbidden to read. One day, when I was 11, I noticed a stack of grown-up books on a cart in the middle of the children's level. The covers weren't so brightly colored as kids' books, which made me sure the real pleasures were inside. The books themselves were thick and heavy-looking. They didn't look good for me; they just looked good.
That cart of books was adulthood. I was afraid even to touch it.
As I stared, a woman with sensible shoes and cat-eye glasses dangling from a chain came up to that cart and began wheeling it toward the open door of a side room. Hypnotized, I followed. The windowless room was about the size of a two-car garage. It was piled floor to ceiling with untold thousands of books.
"Young man?" she said. "May I help you find something?"
"A book," I blurted.
"You've come to the right place," she said, "haven't you?" She introduced herself. Mrs. Frappier, county librarian. "A title would help."
"Do you have The Linebacker?" Tex Maule, a writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote a series of what would now be called Young Adult books, featuring the recurring cast of a mythical NFL team, beginning with The Rookie, and continuing with The Quarterback, The Halfback, and pretty much every other position. The first two titles were downstairs. Somewhere along the line, the local bluenoses must have thought the books got racier; the rest of the series was catalogued upstairs.
Mrs. Frappier disappeared around a corner, and emerged seconds later with both The Linebacker and this other book, The Grapes of Wrath. "Here's another one I thought you'd like."
The books in the windowless room, she explained, went to the branch libraries in our county. If I promised to bring the books back in two weeks, I could borrow them. She took my name but not my card. She trusted me. Our little secret.
She took me on as a project, feeding me both what I asked for (more Maule, dumb-jock as-told-to books, and literary novels I'd heard had dirty parts in them, one of which was, in fact, Mario Puzo's The Godfather), and what she thought I'd like -- obvious stuff like The Catcher in the Rye and Huck Finn, but also things I'd have never found on my own, in a place like Bryan, Ohio: Wuthering Heights and Vonnegut and Carson McCullers and Johnny Got His Gun and Faulkner's short stories, especially "Two Soldiers." I loved "Two Soldiers" so much that when I brought it back I asked if she had time to listen to me read it.
Before I even finished, she began to cry.
"Should I stop?" I said.
"Definitely not." She wiped her eyes. "All this dust," she said. "It gets to a person."
"Yeah, " I said. AI bet it would." I looked at her. Her hair looked blue, though that could have come from the room's buzzing fluorescent lights.
"Well?" she said. "Are you going to keep me hanging?"
"You know how it ends already," I said. "Don't you?"
"I do," she said. "But some stories just get better every time."
It finally hit me: this woman, cloaked in the costume of a county librarian, was a disguised kick-ass rebel, subverting from within a system that kept good books from the hands of those who might read them.
I opened the story again, and kept reading.
And kept reading.
In a year or so, I was admitted upstairs. In the callous way children have, I did not say goodbye or even thank you, except in the way that Mrs. Frappier might have appreciated best: I kept reading.
A quarter-century and thousands of books later, including a few I wrote myself, I still haven't stopped.
People like Mrs. Frappier rarely appear in the acknowledgments of books. But books rarely appear without the formative influence of people like Mrs. Frappier.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- The Great American Novel.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- Unless this is.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates -- Sleeper pick for The Great American Novel.
Losing Battles by Eudora Welty -- Another sleeper pick.
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner -- The greatest novel ever written by an American.
The Human Stain by Philip Roth -- Unless this is. No writer in all of world literature has had a career like Roth's: important and lauded in his 20s and yet writing his best books after the age of 60. His recent run of books are more determinedly about this country, and greater, than the work of any American novelist who's ever lived. No matter how hard any of us are working, there's the sense that Roth is working harder. No matter how good any of us is, there's the sense that Roth is better. My hero.
Beloved by Toni Morrison -- Sleeper pick for the greatest novel ever written by an American. Joyce Carol Oates's What I Lived For and Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March are other good sleeper picks.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- You know, this is probably both the Great American Novel and the greatest novel ever written by an American, if we're allowed to adopt Nabokov, and I say we're allowed. I'm at ten on this top ten list, but I really hate lists. So forgive me if I mention just a few more books:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- The greatest novel ever written by anyone.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- Unless this is.
The Stories of John Cheever -- The greatest American short story writer. Unless Flannery O'Connor is. Or Miss Eudora Welty. Or Raymond Carver. Unless by "American" one means "North American, in which case it's Alice Munro, who has expanded what's possible in the short story more than anyone, ever. What can a person say about someone who writes 300-page novels in the form of 20-page stories, except "I'm not worthy" and "thank you"?
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Right Stuff -- I love the big canvas of this relentlessly entertaining movie, the best ever made about American codes of manhood (at least among movies without Steve McQueen in them). Every time that Jeep driver at the end points at Sam Shepherd emerging from that fireball, charred but unbent, and says, "Is that a man?" and then Levon Helm grins and says, "You bet it is," I burst into manly tears.
This Is Spinal Tap -- "There's a fine line between stupid and clever." This movie is smart about being stupid and about being clever, and it packs an emotional wallop, too, that I never see coming, even though I've seen it several dozen times. The funniest and most quotable movie ever, unless you count...
Dumb and Dumber -- Which is even funnier and somehow gets funnier yet every time I see it. Chris Rock said a great thing about Jim Carrey in this movie, which is that there are a hundred actors in Hollywood who could play the roles Carrey did in, say, The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but no one else could but Carrey could have played his part in Dumb and Dumber. The script is a masterpiece. As for the most quotable movie ever, though, it's hard to find anything better than...
The Godfather -- The first R-rated movie I ever saw (my dad took me when I was 11 years old because my mother thought it would be too violent for her; I remain grateful to them both). The great American anti-heroic myth, perfectly attuned to a country reeling from Vietnam and Watergate. As far as I can see, our country continues to reel. And Luca Brasi still sleeps with the fishes. Johnny Fontane still cries like a woman. "Leave the gun, take the cannoli" is still really sensible advice. And Kay is still being naïve.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm with Steve Earle, who probably wasn't the first to say that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. But he was the first I ever heard say it. I like a broad, eclectic range of the good stuff. Particular heroes whose work I almost never get tired of, and who I almost always want to hear: Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Parliament Funkadelic, John Coltrane, Emmylou Harris, Dean Martin, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Ben Webster, Miles Davis, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Jimmy Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ramones, Wilco, Leonard Cohen, Julie London, Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Charlie Rich, Chet Baker, and Lambchop. I'm leaving off hundreds of others.
There is in fact a particular kind I listen to when I'm writing: loud. Very, very loud (with first-rate headphones), so that it washes over me and therefore, oddly enough, doesn't distract me. Beyond that, there are two other kinds of music useful to me while I write. Techno/electronica, particularly the Chemical Brothers, the Crystal Method, Dan the Automator, and Fatboy Slim, are all great to write to, at least for me: the aural equivalent of coffee. I almost always write to music. I also very often write to the kind of music that my characters could/would be listening to.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
"If I Had a Book Club" would be a good title for the sequel to "If I Had a Hammer." Anyway... I teach in the best creative writing program in the country, at Florida State University. And the English Department where we're housed is no slouch either. In our department alone, twenty people have published books in the past year. Twenty! We rock. Lots of good books and good people, but it's a lot to keep up with, too. It would be fun to have a book club where once a month we read a colleague's new book. This month, David Kirby's killer book of poems The Ha-Ha. Then the month after that, Bruce Boehrer's Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World's Most Talkative Bird. Then Julianna Baggott's YA novel The Anybodies (written under the pen name N. E. Bode). Then Robert Olen Butler's short story collection Had a Good Time.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Cool reference books that people balk at buying for themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary (complete w/magnifying glass) is always nice. I also love giving autographed books; at most readings/signings, I'm the guy buying one for himself and two more for friends or family.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Let's see: I was born in 1961, so I'd say it took me about 43 years to get here. An unforgivably glib answer maybe, but the only answer I can think of that sounds honest. I have been writing seriously and nearly every day since my junior year in college, which, shockingly (to me) was about a quarter-century ago. When I was 26, I managed to publish my first book the first place I sent it, and the second book came easily, too. But they were both nonfiction, both written as side projects while I was working on short stories and novels. I did all right with the stories, but I always thought of myself as a novelist, which is really hard to do and perhaps even insane during the years before one actually publishes a novel. There were many, many such years.
I have file drawers bulging with false starts and with two whole novels (both written after I'd already published three books) that lots of people pretended to like (liars -- those books sucked) and which no one published (thank God, though at the time I was pretty blue about the whole process: blue, but undeterred). So my first novel, The Veracruz Blues, is really my third. The big leap forward artistically that that book represented for me happened because of the failure of all those failed novels and semi-novels. I channeled the fury I had over my failures and tried to write a book so good it couldn't be denied (which is what I try to do every time out). Success is confusing at best, but a good writer can always make failure into something worthwhile. Think about it: most truly great novels are both chronicles of some kind of failure and failures themselves. Novelists are the kind of people who (to paraphrase Beckett) learn how to fail better.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Here's a list of good (and, to my mind underappreciated), stellar early-career fiction writers (listed alphabetically), most of whom are only 2-3 books along and nearly all of whom are under 40, every one of whom deserves a large and appreciative readership:
Julianna Baggott, Dean Bakopolous, Paul Beatty, Matt Bondurant, Judy Budnitz, Lan Samantha Chang, Dan Chaon, Brock Clarke, Anthony Doerr, Tom Franklin, Nell Freudenberger, Silas House, Adam Johnson, Bret Anthony Johnston, Mat Johnson, Heidi Julavits, N. M. Kelby, Walter Kirn, Don Lee, Mike Magnuson, Claire Messud, Thisbe Nissen, Robert O'Connor, Tom Piazza, Elwood Reid, Frederick Reiken, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Brady Udall, Brad Watson.
The best and most dazzling unpublished novel I know is by Thom Mannarino. He's been too shy to send it out even once: a shame. It's a charmer.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Read and write.
This, too, may sound glib, but here again, it's the only honest answer. If you're not writing every single solitary day, then you have no business complaining about your lack of success as a writer. You've put other things first. There's nothing wrong with that -- unless you want to be a writer. If you're not working your tail off to learn to read like a writer, you also have little reason to complain. If you're not building a bridge between your reading and your writing, you have no realistic chance of being a writer worth the time, money, and energy your readers will have to give you. If you're not reading, say, a hundred good books for every one you want to write, forget it. You're not in the game.
And forget being original. Originality will assert itself, eventually, but as you're learning and looking to be discovered, you can't worry about such things. Your only job is to write good books. You can't be original until you've digested the tradition. Here's where jazz musicians are ahead of the game relative to writers: they understand that it's arrogant even to try to be innovative until you've wood-shedded long enough to know your instrument and your art and its history well enough that you might presume to know what "innovative" really means. But none of that means you should stop playing.
And definitely forget all the predatory advice about marketing and selling your books that's cynically sold to early-career writers. Being a writer isn't about what comes back to you in your mailbox. It's about writing good books. Do the things you need to do to do that, and the world will (slowly, slowly, slowly) beat a (not always well-trod) path to your door.
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