Sparks will fly
Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel in Safe Haven
As his latest novel hits the big screen, Nicholas Sparks, mega-selling author of The Notebook - and a great many more - tells DONALD CLARKEhow it's done
Nicholas Sparks tells me a story about a reader. It seems that, while at a book signing, he was approached by a female fan. She got him to autograph a copy of The Notebook, his most famous novel, and then sign a few individual extracts. It transpired that the reader was, later that afternoon, burying her husband and she wanted to leave the signed pieces of Sparksania in the coffin.
“I wondered what she was doing here on the day of his funeral,” he says with a faint headshake.
It’s quite possible that you don’t know who Nicholas Sparks is. If so, this will come as a terrible shock to his many, many fans. Phenomenon is too small a word for the Sparks industry. Since the publication of The Notebook in 1996, Sparks has gone on to become one of the most successful novelists on the planet. Such is his influence that he has spawned a legion of imitators. The Sparks formula combines a barrel of sentimentality with a hogshead of romance to create a largely harmless class of soppy moral fable.
The Notebook finds an elderly couple recalling their romance in post-war North Carolina. Dear John concerns a couple in North Carolina who are separated when the male half is dispatched on military service. Safe Haven follows a young woman as – for reasons that gradually become clear – she flees Boston for North Carolina. As you will have gathered, North Carolina features frequently in Sparks’s work.
The writer has joined us to discuss the film version of that last work. Sparks’s novels have proved deeply attractive to film studios. After a slow start at the box office, Nick Cassavetes’s version of The Notebook evolved into a cult smash on DVD. Other lachrymose entertainments that have made the jump include Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle and The Lucky One.
“I have just sold my 10th novel as a film version. That’s 10 out of 17,” he says.
He is now a producer on the pictures. So he must have considerable control. “I have always had control,” he says. “I have always had a voice. Film is a very collaborative process. You have to trust others to do the job well. We have battles. Sometimes you lose them. Sometimes you don’t.”
I don’t think Nicholas Sparks loses too many battles. He is not an unfriendly character. But he has a strange distracted aloofness that suggests somebody recently inducted into a religious cult. Throughout our conversation he fails to make eye contact. What is most disconcerting is his patina of unshakable confidence. Mention of the many bad reviews he has received triggers a largely uninterested shrug. “If it’s a well-written review, then I will read it,” he says.
He seems to have an impressively accurate recall for his staggering sales figures. Mention of The Notebook leads us on to a consideration of his assent to superstardom. “It wasn’t exactly a gruelling journey,” he says. “My first agent handed it out on Thursday and Friday and sold it on Monday noon. The following year, when it was published, it hit the bestseller list in the first week. There was no guarantee it would be on there the second week.” But it was.