The chemistry of Nicholas Sparks
Before author Nicholas Sparks even takes a seat at his small-town North Carolina country club, he’s happily ticking off his latest triumphs. ”The Notebook is coming out in CliffsNotes,” he says. ”I think the only other contemporary author they’ve done that for is Toni Morrison.” (And Amy Tan, Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver…) The Notebook, a cross-generational love story that galvanized tender female hearts everywhere and drew them in Kleenex-packing droves to the movie adaptation starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, was Sparks’ first of 14 best-sellers. But he’s unsure if the rest will end up taught in public high schools. ”Look, you know, even Shakespeare didn’t get ’em all,” he says, chuckling, before moving on to more big news. ”And you’ve probably already heard about Miley Cyrus?”
Disney recently announced plans for Sparks to simultaneously write a novel and a screenplay adaptation for their teenage star. Over the next five hours, the 42-year-old father of five will discuss his new novel, The Lucky One, about a sensitive Iraq veteran drawn to a divorced single mother; the new movie adaptation of his hanky drama Nights in Rodanthe; the adaptation of his love story Dear John that starts shooting Oct. 13 with stars Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried; and, of course, the Miley Cyrus project that is due at the end of the year. By the time he takes a call from his screenwriting partner on the Disney project (”Hey, Jeff, I’m in an interview, I’ll have to call you back…. All right, man. Holler!”), he seems less man, more generically hunky action figure.
”I’m efficient,” he clarifies, with an amused smile. On his official website, the numerically specific description of the author — ”He’s 5’10” and weighs 180 pounds. He is an avid athlete who runs daily, lifts weights regularly, and competes in tae kwon do. He attends church regularly and reads approximately 125 books a year” — squares with his similarly methodical approach to writing. A novel takes him a few months to conceive and then five months to write. He sets a daily goal for himself of 2,000 words. He writes for five to six hours a day and types approximately 60 words a minute, which he says leaves him with 54 minutes an hour to stare at the computer and six minutes to actually write. ”See,” he says, with a friendly shrug of his shoulders, ”it’s not an unbelievable pace.”
But if there’s one thing that will wear the man down, it’s this nagging suggestion that he writes romances. ”Would Tom Clancy go to a legal thriller writers’ convention?” he asks in the patient tone one might assume with a naughty toddler. ”Would you say ‘noted travel writer John Grisham’?” He pauses to neatly swap out an old piece of gum for a new one. ”I write dramatic fiction. If you go into a further subgenre, it would be a love story, but it has its roots in the Greek tragedies. This genre evolved through Shakespeare. He did Romeo and Juliet. Hemingway did A Farewell to Arms. I do this currently today.”
A shy strawberry blond waitress interrupts to read off the daily special. ”We have — kiwi — kiwi clam chowder today,” she stammers. ”Do you mean Key West?” Sparks wonders. ”Yes, I’m sorry,” she says. ”This is the first time I’ve met Mr. Sparks and I love his books and movies and I’m just getting nervous.” ”Oh, you’re very sweet,” says Sparks, smiling at his blushing fan, before ordering a chowder and Southern fried chicken salad. ”I can’t eat superheavy at lunch because I have to work out some more still this afternoon. I did my intervals this morning, I did some of my aerobics, I’ll go back and do weights later.” Ask Sparks if he ever takes an afternoon just to flop on the couch and channel-surf and he stops to think. ”Um, yeah, uh, literally vegging out, doing nothing?” he asks. ”Don’t know if I have that in me.”
When he was in high school in California, Sparks, whose family didn’t have an extra dollar to their name, made himself a promise that he would be a millionaire by the age of 30. He was a business finance major in college and spent part of his early 20s selling dental products over the phone before he landed a job as a pharmaceuticals rep. ”I was good at that,” he says. ”It was awesome!” In the ’90s his company transferred him to New Bern, N.C., where he drove to the coastline and back pushing drugs to physicians and quietly wrote The Notebook in the evenings. When he was just 29, he sold the book for $1 million. If he hadn’t gone on to be a best-selling author, Sparks says he might have ended up a hedge fund manager. ”I think I’d be good at it,” he says. ”In fact, I know I would.”
Sparks’ brother Micah, a business entrepreneur in Sacramento, says his little brother was always enormously driven. ”Nick is a good description of a middle child,” he says. ”Somebody always looking for attention and accolades. He was always teachers’ favorites and he got the straight As, and he was class valedictorian. In high school he saw running as a way to finance his college, so he ran until he blew out his Achilles, but he did first get his full ride because of it. If there’s a goal in front of him, he pursues it 100 percent.”
In 2004, Sparks wrote a different kind of love story, Three Weeks With My Brother, a memoir coauthored with Micah about the around-the-world trip the men took after they lost both of their parents in separate accidents and endured the slow, cruel death of their baby sister from brain cancer. The rapid succession with which they lost their entire family helps explain some of the wring-every-drop attitude Sparks brings to his life. Built into his book contracts are allowances for a year off, but ever since The Notebook was published, he has yet to allow himself a break. ”Currently I’m riding that nice wave,” he says. ”Yeah, I’m at the stage in my career when I can take my surfboard, get off the wave, relax, and then watch for the next wave to come in the distance. But just because I’m watching for it doesn’t necessarily mean it will come.”
Sparks admits to an ever-present cloud of worry hanging over his head. ”After every book I feel like the well is dry,” he says. ”Well, that’s it! Got nothing. Done. Washed up. Don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll write a cookbook.” But then he practices his standard method of formulating the skeleton of his next love story. ”Okay,” he says, getting excited, ”I just wrote The Lucky One. So the next one won’t be a military story. I know that right off the bat. These characters were in their 20s, okay, so the characters are not in their 20s. Okay, so if you’re in your 40s, what are the dilemmas? Oh, wait, I’ve got Nights in Rodanthe coming out, and that’s a love story with characters in their 40s, so if I come out with a book just like that, people will think I’m not original. Okay, what are the dilemmas that typically face 30-year-olds that I haven’t done? Are we dealing with a woman who has put herself on hold for the sake of her career? Very common for women. See, you want something universal. So, hmmm, where does that go? Could be anything. Hmmm, let me do her biological clock. Hmmm, maybe she goes to her 20th high school reunion? Ah, yes, maybe she had a boyfriend? Was he ever married? Was he divorced, is he widowed? Does he have kids? What if this, what if that, what if this…”
Outside the country club, Sparks gets into his shiny black Bentley with caramel leather seats and drives to the Christian school he and his wife started a couple of years ago with close to $10 million of their own money. The grounds are empty this Saturday afternoon, but Sparks puffs up with pride on the brief tour. The Epiphany School, with 220 students in grades 6 through 12, boasts a curriculum that teaches evolution and treasures the experience of global travel, with the author’s stated intention that by the time kids have graduated, they’ll have visited 26 countries on six continents.
On Monday, while the Epiphany students plan their next trip to tour the Mayan ruins, Sparks will do what he always does: wake up at 5:30, work out for two hours, run his German shepherd for 40 minutes, visit with the wife and kids, write 2,000 words, and coach track at the public high school. (He funds the travel program for the nationally ranked team that includes his oldest son, Miles, and recently donated $750,000 for a new all-weather track.) It’s a good life, one afforded to him by his 14 best-sellers.
For all of Sparks’ swollen ego moments, let it be said that he can also take criticism with breezy good humor. ”I love that stuff!” he says. ”I was in Las Vegas one time with my brother and we were at the pool at the Mandalay Bay. So there’s this woman reading, and my brother gets to talking to her and he’s like ‘Have you ever read Nicholas Sparks?’ And she was like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t stand him!’ So of course my brother thought this was hilarious and kept digging and digging: ‘Why? What is it about him? Is it just too this or too that?’ It was fun! Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I’m not going to say my books are for everyone. You know, I don’t like Ulysses. I hate it. I think it’s a terrible book. Fine. That’s why we have more than one book in the store.” When he finally stepped in and introduced himself to the woman who had just finished calling him a hack, she was mortified. But Sparks just laughed, shooed aside her nervous apologies, and bought her and her friends all drinks.