Faith, family, and fiction: a Q&A with best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks
By Traci Neal
Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks never dreamed of becoming a famous novelist, rubbing elbows with some of Hollywood’s greats, or dominating The New York Times bestseller list. But his tale is not unlike that of many of his characters, whose lives take an unexpected or surprising turn. In Sparks’ case, his life changed with a windfall $1 million advance for The Notebook, which he wrote in his spare time while working as a pharmaceutical salesman. Published in 1996, The Notebook debuted on The New York Times bestseller list, and became a Hollywood blockbuster in 2004. Since then, more than a dozen of Sparks’ 15 novels have had similar success, and seven have been adapted by Hollywood, including two back-to-back releases: Dear John in February, and The Last Song, written as a vehicle for pop star Miley Cyrus and due out in theaters this month.
A lifelong Catholic, philanthropist, and father of five who married his college sweetheart, Sparks recently spoke with Catholic Digest.
When did you know you would become a writer?
I wrote my first novel at 19, my second novel at 22, then at 28 I wrote The Notebook, and that did fairly well. It’s very hard to say when I decided to become a writer. There’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to make a living.
Many of your books have been adapted to film. What is the adaptation process like?
With The Last Song, I wrote the screenplay before I wrote the novel, which is different from how it’s usually done. Still, the story came first. The story was very clear in my mind when I started working on the screenplay. Because of Miley’s schedule, she only had a slight window of opportunity to film it, so they asked me if I would write the screenplay first.
Does the film differ much from the book?
No, it’s fairly close considering it’s an entirely different medium. It’s about as close as possible.
Why do you think readers (and movie-goers) have been attracted to your work?
I think it has to do with the quality and originality of the story, and the quality and originality of the writing, and I think that in the end these are the types of novels people enjoy reading. These are love stories, and the elements of those stories were developed a long time ago by writers far greater than me… Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles; Shakespeare did it with “Romeo and Juliet”; Hemingway came along with A Farewell to Arms; Hollywood’s done everything from “Casablanca” to “Titanic.” I didn’t make up the rules and elements; I’m just good at following them.
Where do the ideas for your stories come from? Do you base your characters on the people in your life?
Occasionally. Certainly there are elements within every novel that are inspired in part by people and events, because I write novels that deal with genuine human emotion.
Your characters often have an element of faith. Can you talk about how you develop them and why?
All the characters I create are founded within Christian ideals in the way they lead their lives. They usually are good people, loyal, kind, they’ll do the right thing; when push comes to shove they’ll make the hard decision even though it may not be something they want to do. I do my best to create characters that people want to see themselves as. I don’t shy away from faith if it’s integral to the story. I have no qualms about it. But I don’t do it simply to do it.
You were raised in a Catholic family?
Yes, I grew up in a Catholic family and I was an altar boy at St. Mel’s in Fair Oaks, California, for two years. Today, in my own family, we pray before every meal, go to church every Sunday, and try to give what we can.
Can you talk about some of your charitable work?
My wife and I created and funded the creative writing program at the University of Notre Dame, my alma mater. The program really strives to develop young writers by offering scholarships, internships, and fellowships. My wife and I further donated a local all-weather tartan track to the city of New Bern (North Carolina, where Sparks and his family live). I have also spent the last five years donating time and resources to developing the track team (at New Bern), which won the last four straight state championships! We fund their travel, their uniforms. We also sponsor a track and field team during the summer that’s open to students outside of New Bern. In the last five years, we’ve sent 42 or 43 underprivileged kids to college on scholarships. …Finally, my wife and I founded a private Christian school for children in grades five through 12. Our 16 graduates last year had $1.4 million in scholarships between them. Giving back is something my wife and I consider important in our own lives. We’ve been blessed, and we like to share those blessings.
One of your blessings was the full track and field scholarship you received to the University of Notre Dame. Can you talk a little about how athletics has shaped you?
Athletics taught me a lesson in perseverance more than anything else I’ve ever done. I had good talent but I developed it into very good talent; not excellent, but good enough to get a full scholarship, good enough to break collegiate records — in fact I still hold the record for the 4 x 800 relay after 28 years. Writing is very much the same. If you sit down to write a novel, it’s not as if you’re going to finish it that evening. You’re settling in to a journey of ups and downs. It’s a matter of forcing yourself to put the work in.
How does your faith guide your writing?
In many ways. There are certain rules, largely part and parcel of my Catholic upbringing, that I don’t cross. I don’t use profanity in my novels, most of my characters are grounded in their faith, and in fact, in certain novels faith plays a tremendously strong role in guiding their morality in things they are willing to do. Certain things I don’t write about, like adultery; while you think it might be easy in my genre, love stories, it isn’t. One of the elements of a good love story is conflict and tragedy. So if you remove this conflict, which is the foundation of any number of Hollywood movies, you’ve still got to come up with a conflict that keeps them apart.
Have you considered a full-fledged faith title?
No, it’s not what I do. I’m a novelist. I’m published in Arabic, Yiddish, Hebrew. I’m published in Iceland, Germany. I try to write stories that are universal and I try to write the best novel I can. Sometimes having faithful characters lends to the making of a good fiction story.
Have you run into editors who want to edit those parts out?
No. I don’t think it’s ever come up and certainly hasn’t been a problem for them.
The Last Song will be in theaters this month. What is it about?
The Last Song is the story of 17-year-old Ronnie Miller. Her parents are divorced and she has to spend the summer with her father in North Carolina, and the summer turns out to be the most unforgettable summer of her life for any number of reasons. It’s the summer she falls in love, the summer she learns the true value of forgiveness, the summer she makes decisions that will impact the rest of her life, it’s the summer she learns the meaning of faith and family. In the end, I think it’s a story that readers will never forget.
Ultimately, what is the point you wanted to get across through The Last Song?
There’s not one message in particular. It’s a novel that is very human and very realistic. I try to write dramatic stories that aren’t melodramatic. I try to evoke genuine emotion without being manipulative. My stories are like life — it’s often built on the smallest elements, one right after another. It’s hard to pinpoint one moment, because life is a series of moments and life is a series of choices and decisions. In the end, those choices and decisions form the basis of who you are, who you perceive yourself to be, and who others perceive you to be.
For more about Nicholas Sparks, visit his Web site at NicholasSparks.com
Nicholas Sparks photo: Alice M. Arthur
"The Last Song" photo: Am Eemerson SMPSP, Copyright Touchstone Pictures