Nicholas Sparks: Paganini of the heartstrings

Nicholas Sparks has no plans to stop making you cry. But the author of 15 bestselling novels, almost all of which are guaranteed to induce weeping, has his reasons for relentlessly yanking your heartstrings. "In this particular genre, the love-st...

"Safe Haven"

Nicholas Sparks has no plans to stop making you cry.

But the author of 15 bestselling novels, almost all of which are guaranteed to induce weeping, has his reasons for relentlessly yanking your heartstrings.

"In this particular genre, the love-story genre, the goal is to move the reader through the entire realm of human emotion," says Sparks, 44, who is on a book-signing tour for his latest novel, "Safe Haven" (Grand Central, $25.99).

"Different novels emphasize different sadness. It's part of the emotion of life. Ideally, a reader should feel they've experienced a mini-life between the covers, and to do that you have to include happiness, elation, love and betrayal -- and sadness. It's part of life. If you don't have that, it feels not real."

So, we should not be surprised that Sparks' writing career took off in 1996 with his first novel, "The Notebook," a story about star-crossed young lovers with a twist that has the potential to send even the most cynical reader scurrying for a Kleenex. (No one gets through the film version -- a "classic," Sparks calls it -- without sobbing. No one.)


The book was so big it has been given the Cliff's Notes treatment. The film, with Rachel McAdams as Allie and Ryan Gosling as Noah, became such a hit it even created a verb, said Sparks' editor, Jamie Raab: "Teenage girls would ask if you had a boyfriend, and if you did, they'd ask, 'Did you "Notebook" him yet?' meaning, 'Did you drag him to "The Notebook" yet?'"

At the book's publication, Sparks, a former Notre Dame track star, was selling pharmaceuticals for a living. Wary of the vagaries of the publishing world, he didn't quit his day job right away despite earning a staggering million-dollar advance for his debut novel. (He told Vanity Fair that his first real splurge was to buy a ring for his wife, whom he'd married just out of college. Talk about romance.)

But Sparks needn't have worried. "The Notebook" was just the beginning of a string of bestsellers that includes "Message in a Bottle," "A Walk to Remember," "A Bend in the Road," "Nights in Rodanthe," "True Believer," "Dear John," "The Lucky One" and" The Last Song."

That Sparks' books will make the transition to film is pretty much a given these days. "The Notebook" didn't reach the big screen until 2004, but now, the film deals are inked before the books go on sale. The suspenseful "Safe Haven" -- about a young woman with a mysterious past who falls for a small-town widower with two young children -- started a bidding war before it hit the shelves, with Relativity Media winning over larger rivals Warner Bros., Disney, Sony and Fox, according to Cinematical. Sparks wrote "The Last Song" with Miley Cyrus in mind as the lead, and he's a producer for "Safe Haven."

"I have a role in casting and location and a lot of different things I don't know very much about," he says, laughing. "I'll cede that power to people who know something about it."

So, what exactly is it about these stories that inspires the frenzy in Hollywood and at bookstores, local and online?

"They are wildly romantic, and they imagine the sort of love we all dream of finding," says Raab, who has worked with Sparks since "The Notebook." "All the characters have to jump hurdles to get what they want. But they're happy love stories, and we all like to believe in true love.

"I think readers, especially women readers, love the fact that it's a man who writes these books. There's this hope that if a man can write books like this maybe they're capable of this romantic love too! And the characters, they might have flaws, but they tend to be very likable."


Endearing characters are one of the novels' constants. The recurring small-town settings are also important to Sparks, a father of five, who lives with his wife and family in just such a place.

"I live in eastern North Carolina. We have no major cities. It's geographically beautiful, with slow-moving rivers and mist drifting over the water. ... It's quieter in small towns. I know this is common sense, but that lends itself to a certain kind of story where things move a little bit slower."

Sparks follows another surprising rule: He doesn't write about adultery, though not necessarily for moralistic reasons.

"I've also learned in the course of my career and talking to readers that it isn't the physical act they want to read about. They like the process of falling in love and feeling it happen," he says.

"Of course, other people do write about adultery, but it is the easiest obstacle. I don't find a challenge in it. Whenever you craft a story between two people you need drama, and drama comes from conflict. So, if two characters love each other, one has to go off to war, or one has Alzheimer's, or there has to be a hidden way they find each other, like in 'Message in a Bottle.' You have to put a conflict in there, and the easiest obstacle is one of them is married."

And these are supposed to be love stories: "I'm married, and I wouldn't find it romantic if my wife had an affair!"

Friendly and talkative on the phone, Sparks is remarkably relaxed about Big Questions, such as whether "literary" works -- say, Jonathan Franzen's big, fat "Freedom" -- steal too much attention from popular fiction.

"I think pop fiction gets a pretty fair shake," he said. "I get my fair share of reviews, and so do a lot of commercial authors. The New York Times Book Review is entitled to review whatever kind of books it wants to review. Doesn't matter to me.


"I think that in the end -- by the end I mean 50 years hence! -- certain books will have been selected to be read widely still, to be taught in schools or have a life. Some may be literary. Some may be more commercial. But I can't imagine in 100 years people won't be reading Stephen King. He's right there with Edgar Allan Poe, a terrific writer."

And he's not too worried about whether digital books will destroy his livelihood and passion.

"I don't know that it's going to matter except to authors and publishers. There's a craving for good stories on TV, in films and books and magazines. I think part of the human experience is to crave a good story, so the written word will always be around."

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