Highlights of a Life
Principal exports from Bryan, Ohio include Dum Dum suckers, Etch A Sketch, and Mark Winegardner, who was born there on November 24, 1961. He was the elder of two children of an RV salesman, who test-drove mobile homes across the country during summers. In his travel memoir, Elvis Presley Boulevard, Mark writes:
I took my first American road trip when I was seven months old, a meandering trek through New England. I loved it, or so my parents claimed. After we got home and unpacked the trailer, Mom says I sobbed for hours after Dad towed the empty trailer out of our driveway.
Mark’s mother was an avid reader, and his grandfather was a baseball nut. Their two influences converged when Mark found himself driven to read sports books. (He inherited no talent for playing sports, however, admitting he was once yanked from a Little League no-hitter after walking home several runs.) His search for the football books of Tex Maule, Sports Illustrated writer and author of “The Linebacker,” “The Receiver,” and “The Cornerback,” led him to the Williams County Public Library, where he met a librarian with “eyeglasses on a leash.”
The librarian made a deal with the young Mark Winegardner: she would let him check out any book he wanted, no questions asked, but for each of these he had to read another book that she recommended. Her picks included The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, Johnny Got His Gun, and The Old Man and the Sea. Young Mark agreed, searching through these adult books for the “dirty parts.” Looking for more books with “dirty parts” led Mark Winegardner to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather when he was 11 years old.
Aside from his reading, Mark grew up around chiseled working-class men, and he worked in a factory himself. His father’s dealership went bankrupt during Mark’s senior year of high school. But that didn’t stop Mark from going to college. He worked his way through Miami University, pursuing a degree in journalism. “God knows I didn’t grow up around anyone who was a novelist,” he said in the December 2004 issue of Cleveland Magazine. Journalism seemed like a more logical career.
But creative writing was attractive to Mark. When he graduated from Miami with honors, he applied to five graduate creative-writing programs. All of them rejected him. So Winegardner spent a year doing graduate work at Miami. When he reapplied to the same five programs the next year, all accepted him. He chose George Mason University in Virginia, where he had a fellowship and sold his first short story for $700 to Playgirl magazine.
In August 1984, just before beginning graduate school, Winegarnder married Laura Ryll. But first, perhaps in an attempt to return one last time to his childhood, he took a two-month road trip across the country in a 16-year-old Chevy Impala with a friend from college. The experience inspired a non-fiction travel book, which was published in 1988 as Elvis Presley Boulevard: From Sea to Shining Sea, Almost. Winegardner had more success with this book than he had with applying to graduate school—he sold it to the very first editor who saw it.
In 1989, John Carroll University in Cleveland hired Winegardner as an assistant professor. In 1990 his undying love for baseball finally made its way into his second major league publication: Prophet of the Sandlots. The nonfiction book followed one of baseball’s most successful scouts, Tony Lucadello, in his last season of searching for another future star. Eight months after this tour, Lucadello committed suicide. Winegardner tried not to let his book profit from the death’s publicity. He mentioned it only in an epilogue:
Tony locked his glasses and keys inside the car. Near the third-base line of Field 1, he faced the sandlot infield, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Tony fell to the ground and lay still, a few hundred yards of mud and weeds from the thicketed field where there’d once been a ballpark, where the Fostoria Redbirds once played D baseball. At the corner of that field stood a For Sale sign.
In 1996, Winegardner published another book about baseball, The Veracruz Blues. This one was fiction, but based in extensively-researched fact. It chronicled the baseball season of 1946, known as the Season of Gold, when a wealthy Mexican businessman lured some American major league baseball players to the Mexican league by promising them more money, and, for the black players, the chance to play in an officially color-blind league.
The book was well received. Said author David Bradley, “Winegardner’s players are believably white, believably black and believably American and believably Mexican, and his baseball is as perfect as his humor.” Said Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, contributor to the New York Times Book Review, “The Veracruz Blues is not just a baseball novel; it is the best baseball novel that I have read.”
Teaching and writing simultaneously was proving to work well for Mark Winegardner. He had fallen in love with Cleveland during his time at John Carroll, even though he’d fallen out of love with and divorced his first wife. About Cleveland, he told Jim Vickers of Cleveland Magazine, “I’m not from here, but this is the only place I’ve ever lived that felt like home… I have an immigrant’s love for this place.”
Living in Cleveland inspired Mark Winegardner’s next novel, one that would garner even more recognition than his first. In an interview with Kassie Rose, he said:
when I was writing Crooked River Burning I had moved to Cleveland and I had fallen in love with Cleveland and I really wanted to know how did Cleveland become this prosperous city right after WW II. … How did that city less than 20 years later become the site of the second major race riots in the United States in the 60s? How did it become a city that was made fun of on Laugh In every week? …How did the city I loved so much go through the fall and come back to some degree during the years that I lived here in the ‘90s?
Just like any love affair, Mark Winegardner’s relationship with Cleveland was far from problem-free. He enjoyed his teaching experiences: “John Carroll let me teach lots of different classes that really seasoned me as a teacher,” he told Michael Heaton of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. According to Grant Segall of the same newspaper, he taught “by teasing out students’ opinions, challenging them and trying to provoke rebuttals.” But Mark didn’t get along well with his superiors, who looked down on him when he sold a short story to Playboy. He had distaste for a school that skipped over the arts to put emphasis on business courses. Another JCU poetry teacher and friend George Bilgere told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The two entities of Mark Winegardner and John Carroll did not mesh on any level… John Carroll has a conservative point of view, and Mark emphatically does not. But even though they clashed, I thought the friction was a good thing for both of them.”
In 1997, Mark Winegardner took a teaching position in creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. By 1999 he had finished Crooked River Burning. The book sold and reviewed well. It’s a fictional story rooted in Cleveland from 1948 to 1968, chock full of real-life Clevelanders and historical events. One of the main characters is David Zielinsky, from the working-class side of Cleveland. At age 14 he has an encounter with Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, at lunch with his father and Eliot Ness. Then he goes to see Satchel Paige pitch to Jackie Robinson at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Jim Vickers says, “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.”
The big vision behind Crooked River Burning was what led Random House senior vice president, Jonathan Karp, to approach Mark Winegardner as one of his candidates for the Godfather sequel. But Winegardner almost didn’t submit his 10-page writing proposal for the project. Even though Karp was only inviting literary novelists to apply, Winegardner was wary of being associated with such a book. Whether it failed or succeeded, it could ruin his reputation as a serious writer. “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 said in Cleveland Magazine. “As a reader and writer, I constantly fight that snobbish idea that these are the literary novels and these are the genre novels.
“A reviewer said about ‘Crooked River Burning’ that my real subject has always been American mythology…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 The Godfather Returns] for a while, but it hadn’t completely occurred to me.” He finally submitted his proposal, to cover the years 1955 to 1962 – from the end of the original novel through three years after the second Godfather film.
Winegardner was told on his 41st birthday, November 24, 2002, that he was chosen to write The Godfather Returns. When he got the call he was on his way out the door to pick Tim O’Brien up from the airport, so they could attend a book fair. Jonathan Karp said he was looking for “someone who is in roughly the same place in life Mario Puzo was when he wrote The Godfather – at midcareer, with two acclaimed literary novels to his credit, who writes in a commanding and darkly comic omniscient voice.”
Winegardner took a sabbatical from his position at Florida State to write the book. He lost 30 pounds in the process. He read 100 books on the Mafia and even traveled to Sicily to research. He spent three months in secluded writers’ colonies. When he still wasn’t finished by his June 15, 2004 deadline, he began sleeping only once every 48 hours.
The Godfather Returns was published in late 2004, and since then its reviews have been largely favorable. The book jumped to number 57 on Amazon.com within a month of publication. Sarah Vowell wrote in The New York Times, December 5, 2004: “It turns out… that ‘The Godfather Returns’ is not only a real book by a real writer. It’s also a real pleasure, a fine, swirling epic – bitter, touching, funny and true.” She remarks that Winegardner “offers not just a perceptive analysis of one man’s character, but also an elegant, ironic insight into the hypocrisy of American corporate life.”
Winegardner hopes his latest book’s success will provide him with the freedom to write the books he wants to write. “I’ve always said it’s harder to sustain a book-writing career than it is to start one,” he said. But according to Jonathan Karp, senior vice president at Random House, “I keep telling him I wish I had 10 more authors like him, but that’s exactly the point – there isn’t anyone else like him, which is why he got the job in the first place, and why we hope there will be many more Mark Winegardner books, Mafia and otherwise.”