Author Nicholas Sparks on the Art of Writing & the Power of Love (INTERVIEW)

Master of the epic love story Nicholas Sparks talks about his best-selling career and offers up some tips on how to write the perfect love letter.
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Nicholas Sparks Photo

Nicholas Sparks has written 17 novels, which have sold more than 90-million copies. He says his novels resonate with people around the world because they "move the reader through all of the emotions of life."

“The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more,” claims Nicholas Sparks, “that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds.” If the clamorous, amorous, rapturous response to Sparks’ 17 novels, which have sold more than 90-million copies, proves anything, it’s that Sparks is not alone in his beliefs. The Omaha, Nebraska native, born 49 years ago on New Year’s Eve, is widely considered the finest living purveyor of love stories, as evidenced in works like Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, and his 1996 debut, The Notebook. The latter title, turned into a beloved, hit 2004 film starring Ryan Gosling, Gena Rowlands, James Garner, and Rachel McAdams, was actually Sparks’ third book, the first two still unpublished, penned during off-hours at his day job as a pharmaceutical rep. The manuscript sat unnoticed for two years in a New York agent’s slush pile. Once the pages were read, though, Sparks’ life changed almost overnight. He had a $1-million publishing advance in his pocket and the book became a New York Times bestseller in its first week of release. Eleven of Sparks’ novels, including the 2013 tome The Longest Ride, have been turned into feature films. In Ride, the filmed version starring Scott Eastwood, Britt Robertson, Jack Huston, and Oona Chaplin, Sparks masterfully interweaves the story of two unlikely, modern-day lovers with the profoundly emotional, World War II-era romance of another couple. In trademark fashion, Sparks sticks the landing with a narrative volta that would make O. Henry snap his every pencil. That’s what “the best kind of love” can do, at least if you’re Nicholas Sparks. 

Coming clean, a, uh, friend of mine cried a couple of times reading The Longest Ride.

That’s what people tend to do in my novels. (Laughs) So thank you. And you’re not alone.

Oona Chaplin Jack Huston Photo

Oona Chaplin as Ruth and Jack Huston as Ira in the film adaptation of “The Longest Ride.” (Photo: Michael Tackett/© 2014 Twentieth Century Fox)

In many ways, The Longest Ride feels like the novel you’ve been writing towards for many years. All of the trademark themes – the mortality, the irony, the redemption, the power of the epistolary, the endurance of love – they are all in full form and focus in this book.

I was hoping that by the time I finished writing The Longest Ride that I would love the novel. I think that the novel turned out as well as I could make it. It’s about the highest quality work that I can do. I just hope the readers continue to enjoy it, as I always do. I always want to think that my readers will find much to enjoy in my novels. In the end, it’s the readers who always choose. If you’re asking me if I’m happy with it, I think it’s if not the best work I’ve ever done, then it’s close to it. 

You’ve sold some 90-million books. Why do you think your books connect so deeply with readers?

I think that the novels succeed in accomplishing what they set out to do. If someone reads a thriller, what they want is to be thrilled. If someone reads a horror novel, what they want is to be frightened. If they read a romance novel, what they want is romantic fantasy. When people sit down to read my novels, what they hope to feel are all of the big emotions of life in a very universal, yet original, story in a time and place that feel very real. By my making the place and the people and the feelings real, by the time a reader closes the cover of one of my books, they have, hopefully, felt all of the emotions of life. It feels almost as if they’ve lived a little life with the characters. That’s what these novels are supposed to do – move the reader through all of the emotions of life. They’re not just supposed to thrill or scare, though those can be elements sometimes, but they’re supposed to move you through all of the feelings of life. By doing that, I thing the novels resonate with readers around the world.

The Notebook Movie Photo

Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in the hit 2004 film adaptation of "The Notebook."

There is both an epic quality and a profound intimacy in The Longest Ride. How does that happen?

I will tell you mechanically how I’ve done it. (Laughs) First, I wrote the story of Ira and Ruth. I wrote that from beginning to end, broke it into seven 20-page sections, so to speak. I didn’t even call them chapters; I called them sections. Once I was done with the story of Ira and Ruth, right up to the point where their story intersects with Luke and Sophia, then I literally set those sections aside and I started writing the story of Luke and Sophia. I wrote that up to the point where their story intersected with Ira and Ruth, and then I wrote through to the end. Then what I had, essentially, were two pieces that I had to puzzle together. It all seemed to fit together perfectly with virtually no editing. I was in a hotel room in Vancouver, and it took about 2 ½ hours to bring those stories together – to lay out those pages on the bed and put the storylines together. My agent was on pins and needles. She had written me about 15 letters asking me how on earth I was going to get these two stories to come together. (Laughs) I think subconsciously I kind of always knew they would. The hardest part of putting the two stories together was making sure the chapters were numbered correctly. And that wasn’t hard at all. 

There is a tension in the novel, reading it, of how will he bring this all together.

What I would hope that’s the most fun of the novel, something that will really delight readers and keep them interested, is that very question: how will these two storylines converge? Some readers may have guessed some parts of it, but I don’t think anyone has guessed the whole thing. There’s no way! 

For "The Longest Ride," Sparks wrote Ira and Ruth's story first and then Luke and Sophia's, and spent 2 ½ hours in a Vancouver hotel room bringing them together. 

For "The Longest Ride," Sparks wrote Ira and Ruth's story first and then Luke and Sophia's, and spent 2 ½ hours in a Vancouver hotel room bringing them together. 

Your career, not to take anything away from your hard work or your God-given talent, seems truly charmed. What do you think?

I’ve been very blessed to work with some very extraordinary people. I will be the first to admit that, and I will also be the first to admit that I’ve had some very lucky breaks along the way. I’ve had films that were successful at the box office, which begat more films, which expands the readership and awareness. I’ve been blessed with great people and a lot of good work. And, I would also say, I work very hard to write the best novels I possibly can and, in looking back, what I’m most proud of in my career is that, with every novel, I’ve tried to do the very best, most original, most creative work that I could do at that time. For me, that’s all I can ask of myself. I’ve been very fortunate that readers have responded.

You were a full-scholarship athlete in your youth, still holding several track and field records at Notre Dame. Is there any connection for you between running and writing in your life?

Without question. Running probably taught me more about writing than anything else that I’ve done. Running and training are not always pleasant. You have to put the time in and you have to put the effort in, regardless of whether it’s always fun or pleasant, and you do so in the hopes that what you’re doing will work. Isn’t that writing? (Laughs) You just have to keep doing it. In running, there are injuries. In writing, there’s writer’s block or plot complexities that you just can’t figure out or a character voice that just isn’t working the way you want it to. These are injuries for a writer. What running taught me more than anything is perseverance and giving your best in hopes of doing something extraordinary. With no guarantees. That sums up writing to me. 

Most of your novels seem to be, in some way at least, about the power of storytelling itself, the ways that stories can heal and uplift and redeem human beings. Tell me about that.

I think stories are just engrained in human nature. We just love a good story. Whether it’s film or television or on the stage or sitting around the campfire or in a novel, there’s just something about stories that speak to us as human beings. Perhaps its escapism or the ability to get lost in new worlds or to imagine yourself as something different than you are. The key to good storytelling is to invite people into all of that in a way that feels new and fresh, something they can enjoy with others. That’s important too.

Your stories are also often about the power of kindness. Not that everyone always behaves well, but there is a fundamental level of kindness and decency to a lot of these characters, certainly in The Longest Ride. What does that mean to you?

I think it comes from my perspective on humanity in general. I think that most people try to do the best they can most of the time. I firmly believe that. That’s what I try to capture in the novels. People can be flawed, they can make mistakes, and yet they’re not one-dimensional. They’re not only flawed. They don’t only make mistakes. They’re also capable of doing kind things or of being the kind of person you can count on, as well. I think that’s true of people. Whether I’m right or wrong, it’s what I’ve always believed. 

There is an absolutely astonishing love letter in The Longest Ride, something probably every lover wishes he or she could write for a lover. What are some basics for composing a great love letter? 

There are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, you have to set the scene. Where are you as you write it? What’s happening? What are you noticing? Explain why you’re compelled to write. There’s your opening paragraph. Add to that, specific memories and why specifically they were wonderful and memorable to you. Three, say something like “And it’s for these reasons, when I look at you, that I feel…” And then explain how you feel. And then end with a thankfulness for the other and an acknowledgement that you perceive your own life to have been blessed because of the other having entered yours. Sign off with a fond acknowledgement: “love always” or “I’m the luckiest person ever” or “you’re my one true love.” Sign your name.

That’s not bad. 

(Laughs) Yes! I think I can do this! Maybe I should put a bunch of letters in my novels! (Laughs) Now go read the letter in the book. You’ll see; that’s exactly what I did.