Sunday, November 14, 2004

Resurrecting The Godfather

By Chauncey Mabe
Books Editor

November 14, 2004

Mark Winegardner, the man who holds the fate of the Godfather franchise in his hands, lives in a leafy, affluent suburb not far from downtown Tallahassee, where he's head of the creative writing program at Florida State University. On a crisp Sunday afternoon, he opens the front door of his house dressed in an equally crisp coat and tie. He looks more like a mob lawyer than a novelist.

"I'm trying to vary my wardrobe so Steve has something slightly different to shoot," Winegardner says, nodding toward the photographer, here to take pictures of the author on the fourth freelance assignment of the past two weeks.

In the backyard, Winegardner strikes what are for him familiar poses -- thoughtful in the gazebo, smiling by the outdoor pool table, brooding in front of the tiny writing cottage -- with the patience and professionalism of a media star.

Winegardner knew he would be facing scrutiny two years ago when he won a competition to find a successor to Mario Puzo, creator of The Godfather, who died in 1999. Indeed, this kind of attention is one of the main reasons he was willing to set aside his own work to take up the saga of the Corleone family.

The result, The Godfather Returns, goes on sale Tuesday.

"I didn't need the money," Winegardner says. "I could have quit teaching already if I'd wanted to. My last novel, Crooked River Burning, did that for me. What The Godfather Returns will give me is a higher profile. It will shed a positive light on my other books. I won't have to worry about getting my next three or four published."

The Godfather Returns will do that, and more. Random House shipped a first printing of 350,000, which all but ensures best-seller status. Additional print runs are a virtual certainty. Puzo's original, The Godfather, has sold some 21 million copies since 1969. It's hard to imagine readers will be able to resist the Godfather brand.

Nor should they, according to Publishers' Weekly: "This is a phenomenally entertaining, psychologically rich saga that spans the entire Godfather years imagined in novel and film by Mario Puzo." Newsweek was more dismissive: "Tinkering with a cultural totem, Winegardner ties himself and his book in knots."

A little competition

"If I didn't think Random House was interested in getting a good book, I wouldn't have done it," Winegardner says. "They could have done the cynical thing and gone after a famous crime writer and not had to worry about what was between the covers."

While not a household name, Winegardner was an established writer with an enviable critical reputation when he opened his e-mail one day to find an invitation from Random House editorial director Jonathan Karp, who was seeking candidates to pen a sequel to The Godfather. Karp was Puzo's editor for the last decade of the writer's life.

"I used to call Mario and beg, plead, wheedle -- anything to get him to return to the Corleone saga," Karp says. "And he was very firm, very polite. He always said no."

Eventually, however, Puzo offered to let Karp do anything he wanted with The Godfather after the author's death. Puzo wouldn't be around to care, and he wanted to continue providing for his family from beyond the grave.

"I was walking in Central Park one day when I wondered what the Corleone family was up to," Karp says. "I went back to the office and called up Mario's agent, Neil Olson, and told him I'd like to bring the Corleones back and I think there's a creative way to do it."

As Karp points out, it would have been a simple matter to keep publishing Godfather books under Puzo's name despite the inconvenience of the author's death -- consider the posthumous careers of V.C. Andrews and Robert Ludlum -- but he wanted to find "a writer to bring as much originality and vision to the Corleone saga as [Francis Ford] Coppola did in his classic movies."

Karp and Olson put out a "discreet" inquiry to a select group of agents, but of course within 24 hours the story had been leaked to The New Yorker. Soon Karp was fielding interview requests from Time, the BBC and morning shock-jock radio shows. One publication, Karp recalls, called the competition "Italian-American Idol."

A flood of unsolicited proposals followed, but Karp focused on 12 writers he had selected from the beginning. Karp's idea was to find a writer who was roughly the same age and at the same career stage that Puzo was when he started The Godfather: early 40s, with two critically acclaimed but obscure novels behind him. Winegardner fit the bill perfectly. Crooked River Burning was already one of Karp's "favorite" books, and his first novel, the baseball story Veracruz Blues, is highly regarded.

"But Mark won the contest fair and square on the strength of his proposal," Karp says. "There were a lot of qualified people who could have done a good job. It was a tough decision."

Like Puzo -- whose first two novels, The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, enjoyed respectful reviews and low sales -- Winegardner had never written crime fiction before turning to the Godfather saga.

"We did not want a by-the-numbers crime novel," Karp says. "We wanted an ambitious popular novel, and for that you need a big talent like Mark. He's also got huge cojones, which you need to tackle an iconic American myth like The Godfather."

An eye for details

"When they first contacted me, it didn't leap off my computer screen as something I should drop everything and do," Winegardner says. "But after I did the reading and wrote the proposal I saw how I could write a good novel. By the time they picked me, I was hot to do it."

Karp knew he had chosen a winner when he received the first 100 pages from Winegardner. "When I saw the scenes with Kay and Michael together, I shivered," Karp says.

Winegardner eschews the obvious track, which would have been to pick up the story at the end of Coppola's The Godfather III -- all three movies were written by Puzo, and therefore must be considered part of the canon -- and simply bring the Corleone family up to the present.

Instead, Winegardner read The Godfather closely, and watched the movies again and again. He found significant gaps in the story, and he was intrigued by marginal characters he felt could be brought to the forefront.

For example, Winegardner wondered whatever happened to Johnny Fontaine, the Sinatra-inspired character; and what was the backstory with Tom Hagen, the family's brilliant and loyal Irish-American consigliere; and where did Sonny's orphaned family disappear to; and what exactly was the nature of Fredo's betrayal of his brother Michael?

Looking closely, Winegardner also found implausibilities that gave him entree into the story. For example, what doctor would have been stupid enough to perform an abortion on the wife of Michael Corleone? Frequently hailed by critics for his ability to write from the female point of view, Winegardner jumped on that one.

By the same token, Fredo's betrayal rang false to Winegardner, as did Michael's decision to have his brother whacked. In a subculture so obsessed with family, it seemed unlikely he would murder his brother no matter what Fredo had done.

"I never understood exactly the nature of Fredo's betrayal," Winegardner says. "A lot of it doesn't make sense. In The Godfather II, the story is carried by the astonishing acting and by the power of the mythology. Details are lost in the popcorn. Part II is a great movie, but what could Fredo have known that couldn't have been uncovered by some two-bit private eye, let alone a powerful rival family?"

In addition to mastering and extending the familiar characters, Winegardner has also created some equally powerful new ones, led by Nick Geraci, an up-and-coming thug in the Corleone family who proves Michael's smartest and most formidable rival.

The real Mafia

Apart from the writing itself -- getting on top of Puzo's magisterial omniscient voice and making it his own -- Winegardner's biggest challenge was weaving in real information about how the Mafia works without violating the enormously effective operatic mythology Puzo created.

As Winegardner points out, Puzo always said that everything he knew about the Mafia he learned at the New York Public Library, which meant primarily newspapers. The only book about the inner workings of the Mafia at the time was The Valachi Papers, an unreliable account by a low-level gangster who had turned government witness. Only five years before, Winegardner says, J. Edgar Hoover was still insisting there was no such thing as the Mafia.

Largely because of interest spurred by The Godfather, there are now thousands of nonfiction books about the Mafia. As a result, anyone who "watches four episodes of The Sopranos" probably knows more about how the mob works than Puzo did, Winegardner says.

The shelves behind Winegardner's desk are filled with books he used for research: Nick Tosche's biography of Dean Martin, Dino; Donnie Brasco, an undercover memoir by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley; New York crime writer Nicholas Pileggi's two mob biographies, Casino and Wiseguy, among many others. These represent only a fraction of the books he read.

"To me the saga of the Corleone family exists in a mythologized parallel universe," Winegardner says. "As great as the original is, it left out lots of real Mafia history, like the Appalachian raid, the Mafia attempts at assassinating Castro. You never see anyone initiated into the Corleone family, and you never read about a Mafiosi being a `good earner.' That's the kind of thing I wanted to do.'"

Filling in the gaps Puzo left in the '50s and early '60s also appealed to Winegardner because that's the period when the Mafia was at the height of its power and influence. Crusading federal agents and U.S. attorneys, using wiretaps and the power of the RICO statutes, began weakening the Mafia in the late 1970s.

"The great thing about the novel and the first two movies is the depiction of the heyday of the Mafia," Winegardner says. "By the 1980s, the mob was in decline. A lot of the most interesting things in Mafia history happened back in those mid-century years. That's what I wanted to get my hands on."

A Godfather V?

As Winegardner gears up for the media blitz sure to accompany the publication of The Godfather Returns -- Random House is said to be tutoring him on how to look good on television -- he insists he's the same writer he always was. He doesn't expect this foray into pop fiction to diminish his critical reputation.

"I never wanted to be the kind of writer, and I know writers like this, who think popularity is unseemly," Winegardner says. "I've never thought it a virtue to be inaccessible. Writing is hard work and I hope people read my books."

He's even interested in writing another Godfather book, should Random House want one. But he thinks it's a good idea, even from a commercial point of view, for him to write something else for a while.

"My agenda as a novelist hasn't changed," Winegardner says. "My audience has changed, but not my agenda. I want to continue working as a novelist. It's what I do.

"I hope The Godfather Returns is not seen as merely an entertainment. But I'll tell you, the first run alone will sell more than all my other books put together."

Resurrecting The Godfather: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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