THE HOPELESSLY DEVOTED OUTSIDER
THE FIERCELY PRIVATE PROTECTOR
THE EMOTIONALLY WOUNDED WARRIOR
THE YOUNG AND WIDOWED
THE DAMAGED MATURE MAN
"If people ask me what I do, I say I'm a novelist," Sparks says. "I wouldn't say I'm a producer, though I am. I don't say I'm the president of a TV-production company, which I am." Sparks speaks with such enthusiasm that it sometimes contorts his face, the energy behind his words rubberizing his features, his already-large eyes on the verge of bulging. Sparks is 47, with youth-pastor good looks that have been cited as selling points for his books. Today he's wearing gray pants and a green Izod V-neck T-shirt that clings to arms and shoulders that are the products of circuit training. Yet Sparks' posture is that of a man who spends his days hunched over a keyboard; that hunch, in fact, may be the most writerly thing about him. "No, I say I'm a novelist," he continues, "because that takes up most of my time, and most of the emotional and intellectual energy that I expend is spent trying to get the story just right."
Still, Sparks doesn't shy away from his role as a businessman. He's creating an ideal, but also selling one. He was a business-finance major at Notre Dame, and income, not expression, was his primary reason for taking up writing back in the mid-nineties when he was a pharmaceutical sales rep with two small children. "I didn't want to die in 40 years and say, 'All I ever did was be a rep, the guy who drops the samples by the office,'" he explains. "I thought I could do more than that. So I thought, 'What dream can I chase while still having a job to pay my mortgage, feed the children, keep the lights on?'" Even the genre he chose—Sparks prefers the term love stories over romance—was a tactical business decision: "I chose that genre," he writes on his website's F.A.Q., "because there was little to no competition."
Sparks' success story has become publishing lore: He had sent 25 agents the manuscript for The Notebook, and only Park, a young agent without a single fiction sale on her résumé, showed interest—and that was after his query to a deceased colleague was sent her way. Yet she agreed to shop the book. "It was sentimental and kind of rough," she recalls, but as a woman with an underdeveloped romantic side ("My husband used to take me to McDonald's for Valentine's Day"), she found that the book affected her in an unexpected way: It made her cry. She submitted it to a skeptical editor, Jamie Raab, who also found herself crying—before immediately tendering a million-dollar offer. But unlike the other two best-selling male love writers of the nineties, Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County) and Nicholas Evans (The Horse Whisperer), Sparks didn't fade away. He wrote Message in a Bottle, which was optioned for Hollywood before he was halfway done with it. (Working from an outline, Sparks and the screenwriter wrote their second halves simultaneously.) Then came A Walk to Remember, in which the male love interest's only broken promise is when he tells a secretly cancer-stricken girl that he won't fall in love with her, and which was soon adapted into a movie starring Mandy Moore. Then came a book per year, every year until 2012.
These were not books that charmed critics, who, when they noted Sparks at all, shotgunned his work with language like this: plasticky; treacly; gooey; knuckle-bitingly bad; hokey to the core; square, vanilla aphorisms [and] soft-focus sentiment; and syrupy froth. But if the critical scorn ever stung Sparks, the pain has long since subsided. "I don't really look at reviews, to be quite frank," he says. "I don't know that I look at any of them until I get the paperback, where they're posted in the front, and my publisher only posts the nice ones."
His ambition, he's written, has always been "to write an easy-to-read, entertaining, original love story with a poignant ending." Love Story, Erich Segal's 1970 best seller, would seem the most likely model, but Sparks cites deeper inspiration: Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, he says, "is pretty solid," and he pairs it in his personal canon with the film Casablanca, "which was really good . . . I mean, A Farewell to Arms, there's no question. Hemingway and Casablanca—they're really well done." The influence may be superficial, but you can often spot Hemingway's imprint on Sparks' men—like the trademark hundred-yard stare of the wounded warrior, rivulets of emotional disclosure mask torrents of feelings within. (Not so Hemingwayesque is the dependable way in which a good woman will open the emotional floodgates.) Yet Sparks is catholic about his influences, too. "Television has been one of my great educators as a writer," he once told an interviewer. "The creators of shows have mastered the art of what to do before the commercial break, to keep someone coming back. And if you read my novels, it is really hard to stop reading at the end of a chapter. There is an art to that."
Sparks' novels follow a pattern, if not a formula. Boy meets girl, but some variety of circumstance prevents their union, until some other variety of circumstance—this one usually fatal to someone—shoves them together. He tends to cast his novels with shattered widowers and women who've ditched abusive louts, which means that his love triangles, with ghosts and abusers occupying the third leg, are easy to prune. (He tried writing an adultery novel once, he says, "about a guy who fell in love with his best friend's wife." But he scrapped that one: "I just didn't want to write about that.") The settings are invariably the Carolinas, though with minimal southern texture (Sparks was born in Nebraska); his characters are inveterate letter writers, often writing to lovers in the grave or writing letters to be read after they themselves are in the grave; and those characters, even the abusive louts, never cuss. They also have a vicious mortality rate. Death stalks Nicholas Sparks novels as though navigating a buffet line, claiming victims via leukemia and various other strains of cancer, drowning, Alzheimer's disease, auto accidents, and mudslides, to name a few causes. It's perhaps no accident that Sparks' first attempt at a novel, written when he was 19 and sidelined by an Achilles-tendon injury, was a horror story about people who are part of an army of Grim Reapers but don't know it and keep inadvertently knocking off folks they encounter.