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Professor will write Corleone sequel

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- A Tallahassee author has gotten an offer he can't refuse: A chance to write a sequel to The Godfather, the 1969 bestseller that sold 20-million copies and made the Mafia a central part of American mythology.

Florida State University writing professor Mark Winegardner, 41, beat out three dozen other authors who sent Random House Publishing new plots featuring the infamous Corleone mob family.

Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, died four years ago. Fans thought that would mean the end of the saga of the Corleones. But the Puzo estate and Random House decided it was time for a sequel, and went looking for a novelist up to the task.

Now, the pressure's on for Winegardner, who was asked to develop a plot in just three weeks. Random House announced his selection on the Today show Friday.

So what's next for the Corleones? Winegardner isn't telling.

He promises only to be "entirely respectful of the characters and the place they hold in the American imagination."

On a fan Web site for The Godfather movies, fans are calling the new effort Godfather IV. ("I'm looking forward to some real cool death scenes," one fan writes.)

But Winegardner insists his effort will take up where the book, not the movies, left off. Random House is calling it The Godfather Returns.

Winegardner is no literary lightweight. He is director of FSU's creative writing program and the author of several acclaimed novels, including The Veracruz Blues, which Random House says "uses baseball as a lens through which to contemplate America," and Crooked River Burning, which is set in Cleveland and has a plot thread featuring the mob.

Winegardner said he read The Godfather when he was 10 or 12. When his agent called to tell him about Random House's search for an author to write the sequel, he reread the novel with new eyes.

"The last few days, I worked on it practically 24 hours a day, obsessing over it. I really did feel I had a clear vision of where the book would go," Winegardner said.

Winegardner says Puzo's book had an interesting effect on popular culture: Back then, Westerns dominated television. Puzo brought mobsters to the people, spawning dozens of Mafia movies and, today, the popular Sopranos cable TV series.

Puzo, who was a mid career novelist like Winegardner, got rich off The Godfather novel and as a screenwriter for the wildly popular movies with director Francis Ford Coppola. Winegardner isn't naming a dollar figure for his deal with Random House.

"Naturally, it stands to sell better than my other work," he said. "There's a built-in audience of 20-million people who read The Godfather. But I hope it will lead people to my other work."

Winegardner plans to take a sabbatical from his FSU teaching job. The Godfather Returns is tentatively scheduled to come out in the fall of 2004. But, notes Random House in a press release Friday, "you don't want to rush the Mafia."

Winegardner says he feels the pressure, but adds: "I've been writing almost every day of my life for the past 20 years."

"To have myself writing a book where people are waiting for it, whether people are sharpening their knives for it or drooling for it, it's great. A lot of writers are working away, saying, who will ever read this? Who will ever publish this?"

"Either the book comes out and people like it, or the book comes out and people don't like it. And I say: 'That's okay, sorry you feel that way,' And I'll write another book. There's no down side."

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