Leaning across the table at a
corner booth in a restaurant in the drowsy North Carolina town of New Bern, Nicholas Sparks is trying to describe the ideal man, and he's having a difficult time of it. This should be easy for Sparks, who, over the course of 17 mega-selling novels, has created legions of them—Everyman paragons of romance, fidelity, hunkiness, vulnerability, and soft-focus desirability that, in the books' Hollywood adaptations, have supplied hot-and-teary leading-man roles for young actors like Ryan Gosling (The Notebook), Channing Tatum (Dear John), Shane West (A Walk to Remember), Zac Efron (The Lucky One), and Josh Duhamel (Safe Haven), along with older catches Kevin Costner (Message in a Bottle) and Richard Gere (Nights in Rodanthe). What sort of Build-A-Bear process, I want to know, does he use to create male characters that cause women—millions upon millions of them—to swoon and to weep and to keep Sparks coming back for more?

He deflects the question toward his female characters: "They're probably more similar than my male characters, because they're modeled on what I find most attractive in women," he says. "And that's basically my wife, and that's why I married my wife." Sparks was a senior at Notre Dame when he met Cathy during a spring-break trip to Florida; within 24 hours of their meeting, he told her they'd be married one day. Pressed to describe the glue that bonds his male characters together, however, Sparks finally says, "If there's any similarity, it's that once they fall in love, it's the real thing. Once they meet the girl they love, they're actually in love." He cites his father, who was married to his mother for 26 years before her 1989 death in a horseback-riding accident, and then circles back to his own marriage, currently at the 24-year mark. "It's out there," he says. "There are guys who do this. There are guys who love the women in their lives very much forever."

Sparks' recipe for the ideal man may seem rudimentary, shy of an ingredient or three, but since the publication of his first novel, The Notebook, in 1996, it's proved more than sufficient. While his readership demographics suggest that you have never read a Nicholas Sparks novel, your girlfriend or wife probably has, along with her sisters and mother and tween cousins and the waitress who served your table last night. His novels, with their interchangeable, wistful landscape cover art, have become as much a part of the airport environment as TSA security checkpoints and Arrivals/Departures screens, and the movie adaptations—eight so far, most recently this year's Josh Duhamel–Julianne Hough weepie Safe Haven, with two more in development—have sent a million damp Kleenexes to their deaths on theater floors. The raw data looks like this: 90 million books sold, with translations into 50 languages, and $730 million in box-office receipts for the films. Sparks has yet to write a book that's failed to crack the top five of the New York Times best-seller list, and of his 11 No. 1 best sellers, 9 have occupied the top hardcover slot, The Notebook for as long as 56 weeks. His publishing and film empire now includes a television-production company.

While a few novelists, such as Stephen King and the late Michael Crichton, have spawned mini-empires, one might need to go all the way back to the early-20th-century Western writer Zane Grey to find an author with such a global, multi-platform cultural footprint. Grey might be an apt precedent in other ways, too, because he did more than sell a shitload of books and licensing deals. The mythologies he invented or perfected—the stoic, go-it-alone cowboy, the empurpled romance of the Western frontier—not only saturated popular culture but altered it. For anyone wanting to know why George W. Bush sometimes acted the way he did, the answer lies within a Zane Grey paperback. Seventeen years into his dominance as an author, Nicholas Sparks may be proving to be a cultural vector in his own right. "Every era has its ideal man," says Sparks' literary agent, Theresa Park. "Through Nick's books and movies, he is creating a new ideal of man." The leading man in Sparks' latest novel, The Longest Ride, which hits stores this month, exemplifies the type: He's a competitive bull rider with a deep chivalrous streak who's devoted equally to his mother and to the sorority girl he irrevocably kisses one night, "knowing that he didn't love her simply in the here and now, but that he would never stop loving her."

"His men have a mother lode of emotional depth," Park says, "and they have a nurturing quality—they're not cynics. That can't help but shape women's ideal." Sparks himself may not be able to describe the ideal man, but his readers can. What happens when they look up from the pages and see. . . you?