Puzo's novel brought him wealth and fame, and formed the basis for writer-director Francis Ford Coppola's trilogy of "Godfather" movies. The first two movies won Best Picture Oscars in 1972 and 1974, while "Godfather" aficionados have mixed -- but generally warm -- feelings about "The Godfather Part III."
"The Godfather" opened doors for Puzo in Hollywood. He was given story or screenplay credits on such pictures as "Superman," "Superman II" and "The Cotton Club."
Winegardner's take on the story covers two decades in the life of the Corleone family in the 1950s and '60s -- bringing back familiar characters such as Michael Corleone, Kay Adams Corleone, Tom Hagen and singer Johnny Fontane. It introduces a new main character, Nick Geraci, a former boxer who has put himself through law school and becomes entangled in a personal power struggle with Michael Corleone.
When Random House announced, a few years after Puzo's death in 1999, that it would seek out an author to write a sequel to "The Godfather," cynicism was one of the more common reactions among fans and literary critics.
In an interview with United Press International, Winegardner said that during the two years he spent working on the book he never felt as though the "Godfather" constituency was looking over his shoulder -- but he knew the audience for his book would be exacting. He said he had prior experience with meeting heightened reader expectations when he was writing earlier novels such as "The Veracruz Blues" and "Crooked River Burning."
"In 'The Veracruz Blues' Ernest Hemingway is a character," he said. "I certainly felt, as I wrote that, a responsibility to be true to the historical fact of Ernest Hemingway. 'Crooked River Burning' was written through a framework of historical fact. I felt the responsibility of being true rather than merely factual to the historical record."
But Winegardner said he never got the sense that writing "The Godfather Returns" was a fool's errand.
"There wasn't some sense of, 'Oh, I've got his burden I'm carrying around,'" he said. "I would say it was just the opposite. Writing a novel is so difficult that any ancillary difficulties are not worth your attention."
To be sure, Winegardner said some of his friends wondered what he had gotten himself into.
"They were probably saying it more often behind my back, but there were certainly writer friends who said, 'You're nuts. What are you putting yourself up for?'" he said. "A huge majority of my writer friends saw immediately that it was a good idea, that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Winegardner had already written eight novels before "The Godfather Returns" and had received his share of positive reviews and respectable sales. However, he had not yet had a breakout hit -- and that combination of seasoning and relative unfamiliarity to the wider readership, he figures, made him an ideal candidate to write the sequel to Puzo's own breakout hit.
"If this had been given to a writer as his first or second book, he would always be 'that Godfather guy,'" said Winegardner. "On the other hand, if they'd given this to an extremely famous writer it would look entirely cynical."
Winegardner concedes one of his motivations for taking the gig was to reach a wider readership.
"What's really hard is the presumption that even if you do a magnificent job almost no one will give a damn," he said. "In this book I was secure in the knowledge that if I did a good job there was definitely an audience for a story about these characters."
That audience is likely to be more receptive to Winegardner's work following the glowing review he got from Sarah Vowell in The New York Times.
"I don't know about you, but 'Godfather'-wise, I was good," wrote Vowell. "It's embarrassing how protective I felt toward a bunch of made-up crooks, though that has more to do with Francis Ford Coppola's films than Puzo's purple prose. 'The Godfather' is not only a perfect movie; it has become one of America's sacred texts; it should be running on a loop at the National Archives between the Declaration of Independence and a first edition of 'Leaves of Grass.'"
Having set up a potentially impossible standard for Winegardner to meet, Vowell went on to pronounce his book a winner.
"It turns out, however, that 'The Godfather Returns' is not only a real book by a real writer," she said. "It's also a real pleasure, a fine, swirling epic -- bitter, touching, funny and true."
Winegardner said he set out to make the book a "literary page-turner" -- one that appeals to casual readers as well as those who prefer substance beneath the story.
"If you want to read this like an airplane read, like a popcorn novel, God bless you," he said. "I tried to give it all the velocity that that story needs. By the same token, there are enough embedded literary elements to keep an army of analysts busy for a year-and-a-half."
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