This death count—or, as he puts it, his lack of "emotionally satisfying endings"—is where Sparks diverges from the typical romance novel, and like a salesman differentiating his product from the competition, he's quick to point this out. But where Sparks has also broken with the romance-genre conventions is in his male characters. They're never the high-testosterone rogues that Fabio notoriously emblematized on paperback covers—never famous men, senators, captains of industry. They're not men who need to be tamed; Sparks' guys come predigested. "There are guys who grow up thinking they'll settle down some distant time in the future, and there are guys who are ready for marriage as soon as they meet the right person. The former bore me, mainly because they're pathetic," says a character in The Last Song who could be speaking for Sparks himself. At 26, as Sparks recounts in his one nonfiction book, a 2004 memoir called Three Weeks With My Brother, he was already nagging his older brother to find a soulmate and settle down. Because in Sparks' view, that's how things should happen for a man: "And when her lips met mine," he wrote in Dear John, "I knew that I could live to be a hundred and visit every country in the world, but nothing would ever compare to that single moment when I first kissed the girl of my dreams and knew that my love would last forever."

"There's a fairy-tale element," admits Raab, Sparks' longtime editor. "It's love in its most absolutely magical state. It's love amplified. And let's face it: Most people don't have that. It feeds into our own fantasies."

Yet Sparks himself, she notes, is a crucial part of that fantasy feeding. "If a woman wrote similar stories, I don't think it would have the same impact," she says. "Nicole Sparks wouldn't have the same effect." The male byline, in other words, is necessary for Sparks' readers to believe that the fantasy could be more than just fantasy—that all these decent, attractive, churchgoing, patriotic, slightly damaged, impeccably sensitive, ever-faithful, and above all love-worshipping men exist. Nicholas Sparks, as one of them, could be trusted.

• • •

"Most people are like that," Sparks says as he takes me on a driving tour of New Bern (pop. 29,000). "They try to be decent. Most people in this country, if they're married with kids, they wake up and go to their jobs and do the best they can, and do the best they can with their marriage and kids. Sometimes things aren't perfect, things don't work out or whatever. We all hear about the big divorce rate, but that means that half of these marriages keep trucking year after year after year."

He takes me to the school he founded, the Epiphany School of Global Studies, which he and his wife have sunk more than $10 million into, and where three of his five children are students. The school emphasizes international travel and the same kind of pan-denominational Judeo-Christian mores one finds in Sparks' novels. "We've moved from church to church depending on the needs of our kids, because some have great little-kid programs and different ones have better teenage programs," he explains. Then there's Nicholas Sparks Track, at the New Bern High School, a quarter-mile track that Sparks, the school's former track coach, donated in 2005. Sparks seems more comfortable talking about the school and the track and the town than about his writing career, at one point announcing, "We're going to go into quiet, non-writing mode as I give you a hopefully accurate history of New Bern.

"Up here is Amen Corner," he points out, curbing his white Buick Enclave SUV for a moment. "The site of, I believe, the first Methodist church in North Carolina." It's from 1772. Then Sparks gestures across to the Presbyterian church, which dates to 1817, the synagogue, built in 1908, and the Catholic charities building, which sits, he says, on the site of an old church. "So this is Amen Corner. See? It's neat, right?"

Afterward we take to a coffee shop, where Sparks nurses a smoothie and blanches at the idea of his cultural influence. As his tour demonstrates, he's clearly proud of the influence he's exerted on New Bern; as for the rest of the world, he's not so sure. "Oh, my gosh, there's a question I haven't thought about," he says. "Ay yay yay. I don't even think I'm comfortable thinking about it in terms of cultural influence. I'd like to be known, I guess, as someone who tells stories that a lot of people enjoy. It's as simple as that." But he's also aware, if only intuitively, that it might not be that simple. "I have heard this idea, that I've infused our cultural idea of what defines love with my own vision," he says. "And yet I don't know if I've infused it or simply found perhaps a new way to recognize what was already there." He takes a contemplative sip of the smoothie. "Because, as I said, most of . . . the female characters, they're drawn and inspired by my wife, who I very much love after a long time, you know?"

The Actors that Became Stars →