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.
“The Notebook never actually went to number one. It never went to number two. It spent a lot of weeks at number 10. It just stayed there a long time.”
I bet the later novels made it to number one.
“Yes. You know what? I cannot think of another that didn’t,” he says with a slightly eerie smile.
Sparks’s story about The Notebook’s slow, steady accumulation of sales is worth heeding. This class of success can’t be put down to hype or fashion. When novels (or records or films for that matter) build this slowly, they do so through word-of-mouth recommendation. Whatever else you might say about Nicholas Sparks – and critics have said plenty – you couldn’t argue that he is the creation of a cynical publicity machine. He gave readers something they didn’t know they wanted: moral tales that argue for a divine order in western society.
I wonder if Sparks ever wakes up and wonders how he got here. Is he ever surprised by his own success?
“No. I suppose, maybe in those rare moments when I reflect upon it. That’s not the nature of my personality,” he says while staring at a spot six inches above my left shoulder. “I always tend to look forward. I just sold a film last night. I had 20 minutes of excitement. Then I got out of bed and began writing an email. Here’s what we still have to do.”
That assurance is really quite disconcerting. He speaks as if he is running a multinational business (which, in a sense, he is). There is also a hint of the self-help guru about him. Sure enough, his first published work – released seven years before The Notebook – journeyed out under the title Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding.
His own route to world domination was a peculiar one. Born in Omaha (no, not North Carolina), he won a sports scholarship to Notre Dame University in Indiana (still not North Carolina) where he was a successful relay runner
“I still hold the record,” he says with a triumphant glance at something that’s not me. “My cross-country teammate was Michael Connelly. We are probably the most famous novelists that Notre Dame has produced. How do you become a novelist? You run crosscountry at Notre Dame. That’s the answer. Ha ha!”
Sparks had a tricky time of it in the years before The Notebook brought world fame. He had some ambitions to be an attorney, but that didn’t quite happen. Various business enterprises came and went. Eventually, in 1992, he ended up in New Bern, North Carolina. The small city seems to have got into his blood. Virtually every one of his books has been set there. The films – perfect beaches backing onto unchanged Main Street, America – work like effusions of the state’s tourism board. What is going on? True, Stephen King sets most of his books in Maine and thereabouts. But he was born in the area.
“It works well for the kind of novels that I write,” he muses. “It’s eastern. It’s largely small towns in that area and small towns are defined by community and church. There aren’t the big sporting events to go to, so, you go to the parade. You catch lightning bugs. It’s exceptionally beautiful. You get a full change of seasons there.”
In passing, Sparks has offered a neat summary of the way his novels work. Catching lightning bugs? Going to the parade? Whole generations of contented urbanites will recoil from those images in horror. But there remains a swathe of (using the smallest possible “c”) conservative-minded readers who yearn for the certainties of SparksLand. The latest film set in that world, Safe Haven, stars Julianne Hough as a troubled kid – from nasty, not-at-all-idyllic Boston – who flees to the beaches, softball games and firebugs of the Tar Heel state.
The film has something to do with spousal abuse. It touches on bereavement. One wonders what first triggers a Sparks tale.
“You start with a seed and that seed grows into a tree of ideas,” he says. “What I have first is often an image or a theme. In this case I wanted to write about love and danger. Everything sprouted from that.”
He is now using the tone of a creative- writing teacher.
“What you are looking for in any story are interesting characters, compelling voices, page-turning story, a stock of originality – and you are also trying to evoke the appropriate emotion. My novels evoke a stock of emotions. A horror novel may just try to scare you. Those are the five things that go into it.”
In a sense, Sparks is still writing self-help books. Millions of readers find solace and direction in his stories. He talks quite touchingly about working through his own traumas in fiction. The main character in his 2002 novel, A Walk to Remember, was inspired by his sister, who died two years before that book was published.
So, is there any sense in which he is looking for “issues” to write about? Is he consciously trying to pack his books with worthwhile advice?
“No. In this case I had no interest in writing about spousal abuse,” he says of Safe Haven. “If you start adding on things like that it gets really tough.
“It’s hard enough to write a novel. Those five things are hard enough to do. But that’s why they sell in Hollywood.”
Listen and learn. This man definitely knows something. Just ask that girl on the bus with the tear-stained Kindle.