Literary novelist takes on the Corleone family Mark Winegardner is dead tired. The past two years of his life have been spent holed up in monastic artist colonies like Yaddo for months at a time, writing around the clock. Down the stretch, during the last eight weeks of writing, he literally slept every other night, a man on fire determined to make the most of an opportunity most writers would kill for: to write the sequel to The Godfather.
For years, Random House editor Jonathan Karp had urged Mario Puzo to revisit the Corleone family: What happened to crooner Johnny Fon-tane? Irish consigliere Tom Hagen? Michael and Kay? Puzo wasn’t interested, but he had no objection to his family continuing the saga after his death. Three years ago, Karp, Puzo’s oldest son Anthony and literary agent Neil Olson discretely contacted dozens of writers, some household names, soliciting proposals for the first sequel, The Godfather Returns. Short of cloning, they could not have found a better successor than Winegardner. Like Puzo when he wrote his 1969 runaway bestseller, Winegardner is a highly regarded literary novelist (Crooked River Burning, Veracruz Blues) in his early 40s who hasn’t delved previously into the Sicilian underworld. He is also at the top of his game, eager for a broader audience and fully cognizant of the pressure and perils of following in oversized footsteps.
“When I saw the request for proposals, I asked Jon to level with me. I said, Look, before I invest a lot of time into this, tell me the truth: at the end of the day, you’re just going to pick some super-famous crime novelist, aren’t you?” Winegardner says from his home in Tallahassee, where he heads the creative writing program at Florida State University. “And he said, Nope. I can’t promise you we’ll choose you, but I can promise you we will choose a writer a lot like you.” Many of the proposals played it safe by suggesting prequels about the life of the godfather, Vito Corleone, affording the author a relatively blank canvas. Wine-gardner, however, accepted the greater challenge: to devise a story that accommodates not only the original novel but also the two popular film sequels.
“That was the crazy part. I didn’t have to do that; I just decided to do that,” he says.
“I could have theoretically ignored everything in the movies that didn’t come from the book. Instead, I kind of maneuver around them. I decided early on that I would neither mention the stuff that happens in the movies but not the book, nor would I contradict it. It took me a long time to work out.” Winegardner found his setting and main inspiration in the late 1950s, when Don Michael Corleone is struggling for a way out of organized crime. “I knew for sure that I could do this when I realized that Michael Corleone’s greatest yearning, to be legitimate, was an aspect of the story that had never been resolved. It is somehow resolved by the time Godfather III starts; he’s succeeded in a mixed way that he’s resigned to, but it is absolutely unresolved in Godfather II. I thought, holy cow, we need to see how he succeeds or fails. When did he get to the half-baked success that, at the beginning of Godfather III, it seems he has had for decades?” Winegardner picks up numerous secondary characters from the cutting room floor, including Michael Corleone’s contentious brother Fredo, Sonny’s widow and family (Sonny’s son Frankie here becomes a Notre Dame star linebacker nicknamed “The Hit-man”) and yes, the lovable Johnny Fontane. (For readers who feel a bit lost, The Godfather Returns includes a chronology of the two novels and the films, as well as an extensive list of characters.) Puzo would have approved of the way Winegardner seamlessly weaves his plot into the Godfather story to produce a singularly enjoyable mid-quel that’s lighter on its feet than the original. Winegardner freely acknowledges that the hundreds of post-Godfather novels, films and TV shows, from Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas to “The Sopranos,” enabled him to infuse The Godfather Returns with both humor and realistic sex that weren’t possible in 1969.
“The Godfather is a masterpiece of storytelling, but it is a little bit of a humorless book,” he says. “I know about the Mafia, both from talking with some minor guys and reading more than a hundred books about it, and these are not humorless men. I had the benefit of all the Mafia lore and was better able to go for a certain realism. Puzo just didn’t have access to that at the New York Public Library.” Winegardner isn’t concerned that he’ll lose his own fans by continuing Puzo’s tale. “This is my own work,” he insists. “I was circling around this subject matter my entire career. If they had hired a novelist who had written a lot about the Mafia already, they would have somebody who had already spent some of his capital on this. I had a clean plate. Heap it on, I’m ready to go.” He certainly wouldn’t refuse an offer to write another sequel. “I think people thought it was easier to not have to weave in around the movies, but I feel like hey, wait a minute, I just did the hardest part I weaved around one of the greatest movies of all time and came out the other side,” he says. “If anyone is going to advance the ball down the field from here, it’s going to be me.”