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Author Gets Offer He Can't Refuse: Writing a New Godfather Novel

It has been 35 years since The Godfather was published and five years since the death of Mario Puzo, who wrote the international best seller. But now one of the most celebrated Mafia clans in American fiction is back in a new novel, titled The Godfather Returns. Author Mark Winegardner was picked by Random House publishers and the Puzo estate to write the book, which takes place during years not covered in the original novel or the Godfather movies.

Picking up where Mario Puzo left off might seem like a daunting task. The Godfather has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide since it was published in 1969. It inspired a film that became a classic in its own right, and two movie sequels. And, with their passion, swagger and cunning, the Corleone family depicted in the novel and on the movie screen helped shape popular images of the Sicilian-American crime syndicate.

But while Mark Winegardner says writing a new novel around those familiar characters might seem like a challenge, it was also a privilege. "There were aspects of these characters I felt the films didn't get into, the novel didn't get into," he explains. "I wanted to deepen those colors and take the story farther."

One story line that had yet to be resolved for Mr. Winegardner was Michael Corleone's conflict over whether he wanted to be part of the Mafia. As played by Al Pacino in the movie, Vito Corleone's son makes his first appearance as a young war hero, courting his future bride and trying to steer clear of the family business. But by the end of the original story, Michael Corleone has become the new godfather.

The Godfather Returns begins in 1955, as Michael is ending a brutal power struggle with other New York mob families. Now he wants to move the Corleones west to Lake Tahoe and into legitimate business. But he has a new enemy in another member of the Corleone syndicate, a one-time boxer-turned-lawyer named Nick Geraci. "He doesn't understand why you'd even want to [start a legitimate business]…the Mafia's going great," Mr. Winegardner explains. "What we never see in the Mafia saga is some resolution to this thing that Michael's yearning for, that's driving him, the desire to take the family legitimate. And I wanted to see that resolved, and it is."

Although Mario Puzo collaborated on the Godfather screenplays, he reportedly declined to write a book sequel about the Corleone family. But Jonathan Karp, who served as Mr. Puzo's editor at Random House, was not ready to see the story end. "I love the book…I love the characters," Mr. Karp says. "I wanted more. I wanted to revisit this world."

So Mr. Karp and the Puzo estate held a nationwide competition, inviting aspiring Godfather authors to submit outlines of their proposed plots. Mr. Winegardner won, earning the right to take on a job that ultimately took over his life. "It's been kind of all-encompassing," he explains. "I spent about two years working on the book from beginning to end. I was a month away at artists' colonies, a month back. The last eight weeks I was writing the book, I was literally sleeping every other night. But to live in and among these people was a joy."

Mark Winegardner originally met those characters when he read The Godfather for the first time at the age of 12. Writing The Godfather Returns gave him a chance to take them in new directions and clear up old mysteries. He launches family advisor Tom Hagen on a political career, for example. And he portrays Michael's brother Fredo Corleone as bisexual. "The seeds of that are in The Godfather," Mr. Winegardner notes. "At one point Vito says something very vicious about Fredo, and Hagen wonders what it's about. The novel ends, and Puzo never says what secret Vito has about Fredo."

Mr. Winegardner also includes characters resembling real-life figures such as F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover and the family of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. "I wanted the novel to get into all the great elements from Mafia history in the 1950s and early 60s," he says, "and I took it there as well."

Reviews been mixed for The Godfather Returns. Some critics have suggested that the original novel should have been left alone. But Publisher's Weekly bestowed a starred review on Mark Winegardner's story, claiming "the book isn't perfect…just nearly so." Mr. Winegardner says he is pleased with the response so far. Asked about further sequels or new movies, the author admits he is not quite done with the Corleone family.