Mark Winegardner is famiglia.
He may live in Florida now, but Cleveland never left him. Not after he spent five years writing a sprawling 561-page novel about the city that begins with Satchel Paige's first home game in an Indians uniform and ends with the Cuyahoga River in flames.
He filled it with cameos by local legends -- Eliot Ness, Alan Freed, Danny Greene, Dorothy Fuldheim, Carl Stokes, Sam Sheppard, the list goes on -- that mingle tangentially with his fictional protagonists. It's a tale forged with mind-bending detail gleaned from exhaustive research. You wonder exactly how Winegardner knew the technical workings of '60s-era portable television cameras. How he knew they always made a reporter's mouth appear slightly out of synch with her words.
"Crooked River Burning" is Winegardner's valentine to Cleveland written after being exposed to all of the city's quirks, flaws and fables during the eight years he lived here while teaching English and writing at John Carroll University.
"I'm not from here, but this is the only place I've ever lived that felt like home," he says. "I didn't expect to fall in love with it. But who expects to fall in love with anything?"
It's mid-October and Winegardner has returned to Cleveland to discuss his freshly forged ties with the world's most famous Mafia family. Clad in a black leather jacket, he swings into a booth in front of a floor-to-ceiling window that frames a huge steel beer vat at Great Lakes Brewing Co. He apologizes for running behind, explaining that he took the scenic route from the airport to Ohio City in the rental car paid for by Random House. It's no big deal. It's exactly what you'd suspect would have him running behind.
He orders a pint of Eliot Ness brew. Legend has it the former Cleveland safety director is responsible for the bullet holes in the wall of the adjoining room, which also houses a 125-year-old mahogany bar. Upstairs, oil baron John D. Rockefeller once kept an office during his days as a young attorney.
These are standard-issue bits of Cleveland trivia -- myths that grow truer with each retelling because we need them to be alive. We believe them. We cling to them and repeat them in the way native Clevelanders always feel compelled to puff up the city's image to outsiders.
"There's something about this city that's been so made fun of by morons who don't know anything about the place that it's understandable people cast a skeptical eye toward the outside," Winegardner says. "I have an immigrant's love for this place."
A little more than a month after this lunch, the 43-year-old writer will share breakfast with millions of American households on NBC's "Today" show, where he will talk about the two years that have taken him from literary novelist and professor in Florida State University's creative-writing department to the author of the most hotly anticipated book of the holiday season, "The Godfather Returns."
It's a bet Random House has backed with a 350,000-copy first printing. The 456-page tome further expands the saga of the Corleone family first introduced in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel "The Godfather." Francis Ford Coppola built on that tale in the film trilogy that has since infiltrated the fabric of American popular culture as much as "The Wizard of Oz" or "Star Wars." Maybe even more, given the iconic status Michael and Vito Corleone have achieved over the years.
"A reviewer said about 'Crooked River Burning' that my real subject has always been American mythology," says Winegardner, who has penned nine books so far in his career. "I've written about baseball, about Mexico, a book about the life of a great American city. I was probably circling around this subject matter for a while, but it hadn't completely occurred to me."
And since Winegardner has finished the book, his life has taken a turn for the strange. For example, more than a month before the book's Nov. 16 release, one of Random House's blue-and-white paperback galley copies of "The Godfather Returns" wound up in the hands of Newsday columnist Liz Smith. She gushed about Winegardner's treatment of the Corleone clan in an Oct. 13 column. As soon as her syndicated words hit print, "The Godfather Returns" began rising through Amazon.com's best-seller list. It charged up hundreds of places in 24 hours.
"When I got off the plane, I called my wife and she told me it was at 57," Winegardner sheepishly admits. "It's not out for a month and it's at 57."
He shares the information with the cautionary joy of someone who's not used to this sort of attention -- someone who's equal parts wary, intrigued and embarrassed to admit he even keeps track of this stuff.
These are the kinds of weird things that keep happening to him. This and an upcoming Entertainment Weekly photo shoot, an 11-city book tour and a spate of national television and radio advertising. So, if you haven't heard yet -- and we're guessing you have somewhere -- Michael Corleone is back. Mark Winegardner brought him to life. And you can bet it's going to get bloody before it's all over.
The myth of Mark Winegardner is framed by Etch A Sketches and Dum-Dum suckers. It's the detail about his hometown of Bryan, Ohio, most frequently trumpeted by newspaper writers and press agents as a way to convey the wholesomeness of his small-town, Middle American upbringing.
The northwestern Ohio town of 8,000 residents is located less than 20 miles from the Indiana border. It's the home of Ohio Art, which made the ever-popular, double-knobbed Etch A Sketch drawing toy (since outsourced to China), and Spangler Candy Co., which produces the tiny wax-paper-wrapped lollipops decorated with cherries and root beer barrels and oranges.
The son of an RV salesman, the offspring of a "long line of Willie Loman salesman people," Winegardner grew up around men who toiled in factories and were guided by a chiseled work ethic. He worked in a factory himself. Then he left for Miami University to pursue a degree in journalism.
"God knows I didn't grow up around anyone who was a novelist," he says with a laugh. Journalism was a tangible goal.
"Doing what I do now would have been as remote to me as dreams of being an astronaut or a rodeo clown or a porn star. You knew there were people out there who had those jobs, but they're like fake jobs. You never think you'll meet anyone who has one."
So, the German-Irish "first-generation, state-school mutt," as Winegardner refers to himself, set off for college with a knack for words first fueled by frequent childhood visits to the Bryan Public Library. He had relished Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule's football books: "The Linebacker," "The Receiver," "The Cornerback." His quest to read his way across the gridiron led him to a book-filled back room of the Williams County Public Library. Inside was an older woman who looked as if she'd been born a librarian. "Eyeglasses on a leash â€” the whole thing," Winegardner recalls.
His Bryan Public Library card wouldn't work here. But the librarian made him a deal. She would let him check out any book he wanted -- anything, no questions asked -- as long as he also read a title that she recommended. He agreed. Besides, boys like to flip through novels written for adults looking for "dirty parts" and this was an open ticket to have stuff to pass around with his friends.
Over the following weeks, the librarian asked him to read "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Catcher in the Rye," "Johnny Got His Gun" and "The Old Man and the Sea." And he did. Then, one day, when he was in his early teens -- after his fascination with Tex Maule's football series had faded -- Winegardner selected a book written by Mario Puzo called "The Godfather."
And, yes, he picked it because he heard it had "dirty parts" in it.
"The Godfather Returns" begins where Puzo's 1969 novel ends, with the string of assassinations that shake New York City's underworld and crown the Corleones the nation's most powerful Mafia family. It's here we meet Winegardner's main addition to the "Godfather" mythology -- Nick Geraci, a former boxer born and bred in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood, who is faced with the task of killing his mentor, Tessio, to prove his allegiance to the Corleone family.
Originally, Winegardner planned to open the novel in the belly of a legendary abandoned casino on Lake Erie's Rattlesnake Island.
"I'd always heard that rumor," Winegardner says. "Rattlesnake Island and all the Lake Erie islands were used during Prohibition for bootlegging. The slang for it was 'The Italian Navy' and they were running booze from Canada across Lake Erie."
But in order to tie the sequel more closely to the end of Puzo's novel, the Rattlesnake Island scene was moved back a few chapters in the book. Still, injecting a strong Cleveland flavor into "The Godfather Returns" was part of Winegardner's plan from his first conversations with Random House.
"I thought it important that I made this book my own," he says. "By starting out on the sturdy ground of Cleveland, it was a way to put my stamp on it early."
So, we see Geraci piloting his plane over Lake Erie through a thunderstorm to attend a boxing match at the Cleveland Armory, and visit him while he's hidden away on Murray Hill. Geraci is even called to the Cleveland Museum of Art by local Mafia head Don Forlenza for a meeting where they debate using a car bomb to settle a score -- a sly nod to the real-life 1977 car bombing that killed Irish racketeer Danny Greene and marked the beginning of the Cleveland Mafia's undoing.
The Cleveland mob's presence in the book also fit with its real-life role in helping build Las Vegas, which is where the Corleone family moved its base of operations at the end of Puzo's book.
"The Cleveland family was utterly instrumental in building up Las Vegas," Winegardner says. "Those were the guys who figured out the skim and it was the New York families who started what you think of as Las Vegas. . . . But very quietly, the Cleveland mob was central in organizing Las Vegas for all six Midwestern families."
Seeing how much fun he's had with it, it's hard to believe Winegardner almost passed on submitting to Random House senior vice president Jonathan Karp the 10-page proposal necessary to be considered for the "Godfather" job. Even though Karp was smartly approaching only literary novelists, Winegardner was still wary of the baggage associated with such a book.
"Then I just had this flash of insight and thought, Why exactly do I think this isn't the kind of book I write?" he recalls.
"As a reader and writer, I constantly fight that snobbish idea that these are the literary novels and these are the genre novels."
Winegardner wanted to cover the years 1955 to 1962 -- the time period immediately following the original novel up until three years after the events in Coppola's "Godfather II" -- with flashbacks that take readers to the World War II-era South Pacific and Michael Corleone's childhood days. His aim was to flesh out the existing "Godfather" saga, explaining events in more detail and further sculpting Puzo's famous characters, while also injecting new wiseguys such as Geraci into the mix.
"I don't think you could extend the 'Star Trek' legacy if you were a Trekkie," Winegardner observes. "You've got to bring your own vision to it. I didn't worry about it. Not that I wasn't respectful, but I wasn't overly reverent."
Karp called Winegardner on his birthday in November 2002 to tell him he had the job. But legal wrangling with Paramount over movie rights tied up the deal for a few months, during which Winegardner was barred from telling anyone he'd been selected to pen the sequel. Then, in February 2003, Winegardner was introduced to millions of Americans by "Today" show morning anchor Matt Lauer as the man who would step into Puzo's shoes.
Pageantry is one thing. Writing a novel is another.
Random House gave Winegardner a June 2004 deadline. It took him five years to complete his previous novel, "Crooked River Burning," which weighed in more than 100 pages heavier. The math was against him, but Winegardner wagered a sabbatical from Florida State University would give him momentum.
"I had this idea that the sabbatical writing years would be sort of like dogs' years," he says. "You would get seven times more done than you'd get done in a regular year. In fact, I may have done just that."
A husband and father, Winegardner was spending nearly all of his time in the writing cottage behind his Florida home or traveling to artists' colonies such as Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. -- the place, by the way, where Winegardner wrote a portion of "Crooked River Burning" and Puzo wrote part of the original "Godfather" novel. Once he blew past his June 15, 2004, deadline with the book still unfinished, he decided sleep was only necessary once every 48 hours.
"From the beginning of June to the middle of August, I literally slept every other night by design," he says. "I wouldn't put myself through anything like that again. But, in a way, that kind of obsessive focus on the book allowed me to hold the whole complicated thing in my head better than I would have if I was spending two hours a day on it for six years."
When Mario Puzo wrote "The Godfather," he said he learned everything he knew about the Mafia at the New York Public Library. There was only one nonfiction book in print at the time that discussed the mob. The rest, he made up.
Winegardner, on the other hand, digested more than 100 books, studied pages of declassified FBI wiretap transcripts and blared Sinatra to transport himself to the midcentury Mafia world Puzo romanticized and mythologized.
"I wanted to make it more realistic or plausible than 'The Godfather,' " he says. "I mean no disrespect to Puzo or Coppola, but they didn't know as much as we know. The average viewer of 'The Sopranos' knows more about the Mafia than Mario Puzo knew when he was writing, because there has been so much more written about it since."
Readers can now inhabit corners of that world that Puzo didn't know. They can enter a hidden room inside Michael Corleone's Las Vegas hotel and sit at the table during a Mafia initiation ceremony where daggers are given to each new member of the family as souvenirs to remind them of their lifelong bond.
Winegardner also appropriately extends the saga far beyond the confines of New York City, reaching to Nevada, where former Corleone consigliere Tom Hagen is running for public office and Michael Corleone has his eye on legitimizing the family business with a move from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe. It delves into Fredo's psyche and shows Sonny's daughter trying to forge her own identity while attending college in Florida.
But in Nick Geraci, Winegardner has given Clevelanders a gift. The scrappy Italian fighter who's pulled himself through life refuses to blink when tangling with the nation's most powerful Mafia family. We're compelled to root for him. By the time Geraci wakes up to the smell of Presti's doughnuts delivered by Cleveland consigliere "Laughing Sal" Narducci -- nicknamed after the Euclid Beach amusement-park attraction, of course -- you can't help but smile at the brand of characters and rusted tradition that have rooted themselves in us.
And that's why even after moving to the sunbelt while writing "Crooked River Burning," Winegardner was still spending hour upon hour conjuring Cleveland -- sitting with Dorothy Fuldheim in her WEWS office, hiding under a radio console with Alan Freed during his riotous "Moondog Coronation Ball," watching a vindicated Dr. Sam Sheppard take one strange last shot at glory with a hokey big-time wrestling career.
"Everything that is great about Cleveland I appreciate," Winegardner says. "Everything that is screwed up about Cleveland interests me. That's the nature of love."
And when "Crooked River Burning" was published, the locals shook their heads and wondered how the son of an RV salesman from rural northwest Ohio was able to capture the city so succinctly. It was like the way local Indians sportswriters once razzed him in the press dining room when he suggested that then-general manager John Hart's efforts in rebuilding the then-tirelessly terrible Tribe would pay off one day.
"How long have you lived here?" they asked testily in that way lifelong Clevelanders always distrust outsiders. And all he could do was smile and say nothing and think that maybe someday they'd see he was really one of them.