Bestselling author talks about his romance with words, North Carolina
Here’s how Nicholas Sparks really got into writing: He was 19 and home for the summer from the University of Notre Dame, nursing an Achilles tendon injury and, honestly, moping. His mom told him to do something rather than just pout and he sulkily asked what.
“Write a book,” she told him.
“OK,” he said.
Eight weeks later, he had “The Passing,” an unpublished manuscript that’s still buried somewhere in his attic. Though it never saw sunlight, it started something that has made Sparks one of the most successful working writers today.
Since 1995, he’s written 15 books, all best-sellers, and his 16th, “Safe Haven,” comes out Tuesday.
Sparks recently reflected on life, love and the delicate art of writing psychos from his North Carolina home.
Rachel Sauer: So, let’s talk about Kevin (a character in “Safe Haven”). He’s psycho. How’d you go about conceiving and writing him?
Nicholas Sparks: With Kevin, it was interesting. I knew that I had to create a villain, essentially, and villains are very hard to craft if you want to make them original.
I knew the key to his originality would be in his voice and in this kind of paranoid way that he sees the world. So, the sections regarding Kevin were the first pages I wrote in the novel.
I literally wrote seven sections and labeled them section one, section two, through section seven. Then I set those aside and started writing myself a love story, and inserted them in as I was writing.
It was imperative when I was creating Kevin to keep his voice very consistent and then move him through a very regular rate of becoming a little more insane — if he’s drinking this much in section three, then he’s drinking this much in section four.
Sauer: This novel has the elements of a thriller, which seems like new ground for you — sort of a love story thriller.
Sparks: I’m very happy writing a love story, because if you do that you are allowed to add different elements of different genres into those.
For this one, it was the elements of a thriller. In “The Lucky One,” it was a quest, the story of a guy on a journey. So, you are able to pull from other genres different elements and move them into a love story, and I think you make an overall better story.
Sauer: In your novels, you don’t necessarily give readers a tidy happy ending. Why is that?
Sparks: It’s very simple: Every genre has a goal. The goal of a thriller is to thrill. The goal of a horror is to scare. The goal of a romance is to bring two people together.
My genre is dramatic fiction, and its goal is to move a reader through the entire range of human emotion, so the reader feels they have gone through a mini-life between the pages.
In “Safe Haven,” we were happy with Katie (the heroine), we were sad with Katie, we were nervous with Katie, we were cautious and frustrated and scared and all of the emotions of life. That’s the goal of the genre, and, of course, sadness is a part of that. It’s not always happy endings.
Sauer: In your own life, you’ve experienced a lot of tragedy (his sister died of cancer at age 33, his mom died in a horseback riding accident at age 47 and his dad died in a car accident at age 54; his son Ryan’s Central Auditory Processing Disorder, or CAPD, was initially misdiagonosed as autism). How does it inform your writing?
Sparks: It informs it in a lot of ways. It really depends on particular stories.
“A Walk to Remember” was drawn from my sister, “The Rescue” was based on dilemmas facing my second son, Ryan. So, you pull from different areas.
If I’m to write about happiness or love or sadness, like everyone else in the world, I’ve experienced those. The challenge is to put them down on paper to make everyone feel the way you felt.
Sauer: So, what is it with you and North Carolina? All your books take place there.
Sparks: Well, I live here. That’s probably a big reason.
No. 2 is, readers have to know something of what to expect in my novels. They have to know something about what they’ll find, so I do keep some things the same.
Readers know there’s going to be a love story and it’s going to be set in a small town in North Carolina, and they will find characters who are appealing despite their flaws. But after that, the stories are so different.
I don’t think in the slightest way you could say “Safe Haven” is anything like “The Notebook.” Because they’re so dramatically different, you have to keep some consistency, readers have to pick it up for a reason, that they’re getting a Nicholas Sparks book. So, that’s No. 2.
No. 3 is, not a lot of people write from here. And No. 4, I find the area very beautiful. In a small town like this, the pace is very slow. I’ve had my car for six years and it has 16,000 miles on it.
Everything is seven minutes away here. People say, “How far’s the airport?” Seven minutes. “How far’s the store?” Seven minutes.
Places like that are largely about family and community and friendship, finding joy in the quiet things in life — fishing off the dock, going to the beach, being wildly excited when the traveling carnival comes to town.
Whenever you write about small towns, I guess it hearkens back to a simpler time when life wasn’t so rushed.
Sauer: But your books sell very well in big cities.
Sparks: My No. 1 market is New York City. And my No. 2 market is Los Angeles. My lines in New York are around the block, longer than Howard Stern’s.
Sauer: Your books aren’t overtly religious, but there’s an implied morality through them. How do you do that?
Sparks: I do it in a way that I generally craft my female characters first.
Whenever I’m crafting a female character, I craft a woman that I find attractive. And it’s essentially my wife. There’s intelligence there, there’s a quick wit, there’s a sensuality, there’s a belief that family is important, there’s a belief that some areas of the life are black and white: You take care of your kids, you’re loyal to your family.
So, these women are crafted this way and it comes across in, look, you have kids, life is different, you don’t just go out and party whenever you want to. Why? Because that’s the right thing to do. My wife is my example, and in my wife’s world there are no grays.
Sauer: You’ve written both novels and screenplays. Which is more difficult?
Sparks: Writing a novel. I’ve written 15 novels, and they’re hard. They’re incredibly hard.
Screenplays are not. If they ask me to write the screenplay for “Safe Haven,” which they may, it’ll take 10 days. They’re just not hard.
In novels, you have to show and not tell, and novels are generally 100,000 words, whereas a screenplay’s 20,000. You get into a screenplay and the structure’s always the same. You know that by page 54, that’s the mid-point of a movie, and you know that by page 26 you’d better set into motion the events in act two, which is page 29.
Sauer: You’ve gotten around in Hollywood. What’s the most star-struck you’ve ever been?
Sparks: It was pretty cool meeting Paul Newman. The most star-struck moment was when he called my house. He was an actor who really wanted to go see the kind of people he’s portraying, so he called and asked, “where’s the best place to find good, Southern shrimping fisherman people?” So, I sent him to McClellanville, S.C.
It was just something to see his number on caller ID — “oh, Paul Newman’s calling.”
Sauer: Does it ever strike you as strange when you compare your life now, as a best-selling author, to what it was 15 years ago when you were still a pharmaceutical salesman?
Sparks: I really don’t think about it. Right now, I’m done with “Safe Haven,” I’m currently way more interested in my next project. I don’t really have time to sit back and look at where I am. When I’m here, I’m not really anything special.
If I’m writing, I’m at home and I’m in the office and I guess the dogs think I’m great, but they’re supposed to.