By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - Congratulations, Mark Winegardner. You are the author of the next "Godfather" novel. But don't count on everyone liking it.
Winegardner, a native of Bryan, Ohio, whose previous subjects include baseball, Cleveland and organized crime, was proclaimed the winner Friday of a contest to continue the saga of Mario Puzo's fictional crime family.
The decision, made by Random House and the Puzo literary estate, was announced on the "Today" show. "The Godfather Returns" is tentatively scheduled to be released in the fall of 2004.
"There are many stories left to tell," said Winegardner, 41, director of the creative writing program at Florida State University.
Little known until now, he has the enviable chance to reach millions of new readers and the unenviable chance to let them down. Numerous fictional characters, from James Bond to Scarlett O'Hara, have been perpetuated after the author's death. There have been notable commercial successes, such as Alexandra Ripley's "Scarlett," but few in the publishing industry found the posthumous books worthy of the originals.
"There's pressure just to write a good book anyway, and that's really all I'm trying to do," Winegardner said.
Random House plans a "big" first printing, but some question the level of curiosity about the Corleones. While "Gone With the Wind" famously ends with the future of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler in doubt, few wonder about the future of the Corleone family.
"I don't get the sense of people wanting to know where the Corleones are now," said Wayne Kral, manager of the Mysterious Book Shop, in New York City. "But if there's a good buzz on it, it will sell a lot of copies. I think people will rely heavily on reviews.
In an e-mail sent last fall to literary agents, Random House editor Jonathan Karp wrote that he was looking for "someone who is in roughly the same place in life Mario Puzo was when he wrote `The Godfather' - at mid-career, with two acclaimed literary novels to his credit, who writes in a commanding and darkly comic omniscient voice."
Puzo, who died in 1999, was $20,000 in debt and supporting a wife and five children when he sat down to write "The Godfather," which came out in 1969. "It was really time to grow up and sell out," the author later said.
Karp said he received more than 100 proposals, many of them quickly rejected, including one that had Michael Corleone fall in love with a Native American social activist. Two were turned down because the authors were British.
"This is a little bit bigoted of me," Karp said on the "Today" show.
Winegardner's books include the baseball novel "Prophet of the Sandlots" and "Crooked River Burning," a class conscious story set in Cleveland. Like Puzo, he has a knack for writing about crime. Unlike Puzo, he is not Italian.
"I am, however, German-Irish like (Corleone consigliere) Tom Hagen, and he did just fine in this world," said Winegardner, a 1979 graduate of Bryan High School in Ohio.
Finalists included James Carlos Blake, author of several violent thrillers set in the West, and Vince Patrick, whose novel, "The Pope of Greenwich Village," was adapted into an acclaimed movie starring Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke.
"We were looking for an original writer who would bring his own vision to Mario Puzo's mythic characters, just as Francis Ford Coppola did in the films," Karp said. "He's got a big heart, and that's important when you have to kill a lot of characters."
"The Godfather" has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and led to a pair of classic American films that collected nine Academy Awards. Puzo, who collaborated on the screenplays, won two Oscars.