Saturday, June 11, 2011

Reviving the Corleones

Virginia Tech professor Ed Falco has written the authorized prequel to "The Godfather."

An Italian-American and a native of Brooklyn, Falco, 62, knew from the age of 17 that he wanted to be a writer.

Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

An Italian-American and a native of Brooklyn, Falco, knew from the age of 17 that he wanted to be a writer.

Ed Falco, director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech, initially refused an offer to write a new installment in the iconic

Ed Falco, director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech, initially refused an offer to write a new installment in the iconic "Godfather" saga. Falco's addition, "The Family Corleone," will be released in July 2012.

BLACKSBURG -- If you're an up-and-coming author, and your agent lands you the chance to write a new installment in the late Mario Puzo's iconic "Godfather" saga -- well, you'd think that might well be an offer you can't refuse.

Yet Ed Falco did refuse, the first time.

"I just wasn't interested in doing it," said Falco, director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech. "I kicked myself for a long time afterwards, but I still said no to it. It's not that I would have assuredly had gotten it ... but I didn't let myself be considered for it, at all."

That was in 2002, and at the time, Falco had no interest in trying his hand at popular fiction. But a few years later, his attitude had changed. He even took a crack at writing a science fiction novel. "I had wondered whether or not I could do it."

And, to paraphrase Michael Corleone, Falco might have thought he was out -- but he was pulled back in. His agent, aware of his new interest in writing to entertain, brought him a second offer, to write an authorized prequel to "The Godfather." This time, Falco took the contract.

Grand Central Publishing will release his addition to the saga, "The Family Corleone," in July 2012. Falco said it took about a year to write, mostly in 2010.

This new novel takes place in the 1930s, before the events in the first "Godfather" movie, but after the flashback sequences from the 1920s that appear in "The Godfather Part II."

Most of the major characters return: Vito Corleone, famously portrayed in the first "Godfather" film by a padded-cheeked Marlon Brando, and in the second film's flashbacks by Robert De Niro; his sons, Sonny, Fredo and Michael, who are teenagers in the new book; Vito's fearsome enforcer, Luca Brasi; and many others.

The book chronicles Vito's ascension in the criminal underworld and how he becomes the Godfather, the most powerful don of all.

An Italian-American and a native of Brooklyn, Falco, 62, knew from the age of 17 that he wanted to be a writer. At Syracuse University he studied under literary legend Raymond Carver and cites him as an inspiration -- even though he dropped out of the class.

His first novel, and his two most recent, touch in some way on themes of crime and violence, as does as his most famous story, "The Artist," published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1995 and reprinted the next year in The Best American Short Stories.

All of these things would seem to make Falco an ideal candidate to expand the story of "The Godfather." It probably helped that his agent, Neil Olson, happens to have been Puzo's agent, too.

And it makes for an interesting coincidence that Falco has a niece who is already famous in the realm of fictional mafia lore -- Edie Falco, who played Tony Soprano's wife Carmela on HBO's "The Sopranos."

Ed Falco joined Virginia Tech's English faculty in 1985.

In a laid-back interview in his Virginia Tech office, Falco discussed his new book. Excerpts from the interview follow. You can read more online at the Arts & Extras blog at

Q: Have you ever dealt with Mafia themes before in your writing?

"Saint John of the Five Boroughs" [Unbridled Books, 2009] has an explicit gangster theme. The title character ... is a performance artist in Brooklyn. He has an uncle who's a mobster, and he's working, doing sort of odd jobs. It's not a major component of the story, but his life is altered by stuff that happens because of his connection to his uncle.

And the other book, "Wolf Point" [Unbridled Books, 2006], is also about outlaws, but not about the mob. It's about two people on the run from a very bad drug dealer. ... That's a habitual theme in my writing. Violent crime, bad choices and the consequences.

Q: Will readers of "The Family Corleone" who are familiar with your work recognize any Ed Falco touches?

I didn't try to use Mario Puzo's writing style. It was a style that worked in 1969. He sold 22 million copies of "The Godfather," but it's not a style that I think would work in 2011. There's too much summary for contemporary tastes.

The writing style is much more scenic than Puzo would probably have been comfortable with. ... The writing I would say is almost exclusively mine, but the characters of the Corleone family are Mario Puzo's, and the thematic concerns are a mix of Puzo's and my own. They often overlap.

He's often misread, Puzo, as somebody who glamorized the Mafia, and crime, but that's really not the case at all. He is fully aware of the way the Mafia destroyed Sicily, and the way it's corrupting American culture. He gives us real characters, and tries to see their motivations, but it's not at all glamorizing, not in the book anyway.

Q: What characters did you create?

One of the families is having trouble with the Irish. ... I took that one phrase [from an unproduced screenplay by Puzo] and then built the specifics, the characters out of that idea for a conflict between the Irish and the Italians.

That's when I started getting really interested in the book is when I did some research into the period and saw that the Irish really owned the criminal world in the '20s and before, through Tammany Hall and through graft. They ran New York, and there was not a lot of distinction between political positions and criminal positions. ...

The Italians, over a period of a dozen years, pushed the Irish completely out of the crime business and took it over themselves.

That transition is interesting to me. It's at the heart of the novel, actually, this conflict.

Q: American pop culture often stereotypes Italian-American communities as Mafia-connected. Was that a concern you had while writing "The Family Corleone"?

That is a significant central concern throughout the book, and one of the ways in which it's dealt with is by having the figure of Fiorello La Guardia, who's the mayor of New York at the time, sort of hovering over the action as a counterpoint to what's going on with the Corleones.

I think anyone who reads the book is going to see the author's take on that question.

Q: On the flip side of that question -- growing up in Brooklyn, did you know anyone with mob ties?

No. I didn't know any mobsters. ... Neither did Puzo, by the way, but nobody believed him. ... Everybody thought he did. A lot has been said about how contemporary mobsters model themselves on the fiction that Puzo made up.

Characters are universal. You have to find the universal in them, and then you can work with the particulars.

I don't know any mobsters, but I know a lot of strong Italian men and I grew up in Italian-American culture, so I could use all of that, and the rest I can imagine and research.

Q: Will there be another "Godfather" movie based on your book?

If the book is popular, you can bet on it. But if the book does nothing, then probably not.

Q: Did you have any qualms about the responsibility involved in adding to the stories of these iconic characters?

People are invested in these characters. There are Web pages and chatrooms, there's a video game. People are invested in these characters, so doing something interesting with them was a challenge. I didn't know when I started whether or not I'd be able to.

But now the book's done. I'm happy with the book on several levels, and I think the fans, the "Godfather" fans, are going to be happy with it too, because they haven't had a chance to have another story with their characters in it in a long time.