Fifty million books in print, nine No. 1 best-sellers on the New York Times list and seven feature film adaptations. Since the publication of The Notebook in 1996, New Bern's Nicholas Sparks has become the definition of a blockbuster writer with his tales of tragic lovers set against the Carolina coast. This year alone has seen two major film adaptations of his work, Dear John and The Last Song. Sparks' 16th novel, Safe Haven, came out on Sept. 14 and he'll be promoting it in Cary on Friday. The film rights have already been sold. We called Sparks to discuss his new book and his thoughts on writing.
Independent Weekly: Where did the initial inspiration for the story come from?
Nicholas Sparks: The inspiration for the story, like most of my novels, comes from the depths of a creative well, based on asking myself questions over and over. In other words, it wasn't any one thing that inspired me to write this novel. I try to write something different each time I sit down to write; I try to surprise the readers.
It had been a long time since I'd written anything to do with danger. I think the last one was The Guardian—and that was published eight or nine years ago—and that's been a fan favorite. So I thought, "OK, what's an element of danger I can put into a new story?" And from there, the thought process just kind of took over, and voila! The story Safe Haven came out.
For the story's themes of domestic abuse, what kind of research did you have to do?
Less research than you would imagine—in fact, I did none. I'm almost 45 years old, I've read newspapers my whole life, I've seen news shows on television, I've seen movies, I've read books, I've seen episodes on U.S. commercial television. And I think everyone has a pretty clear idea of what "domestic abuse" means. The specifics in every situation are different, so I just leaned on common sense and tried to create a female character and figure out how she would react in such circumstances.
When you're writing a story like this, what are the challenges of not writing what amounts to a public service announcement but also being responsible in your depiction?
That's much less of an issue in the writing process than you would imagine, because it's not an issue of mine when I sit down to write. All I'm trying to do is create the most interesting story I possibly can—a story I think the readers will enjoy, a story I think is compelling and page-turning. And from there, I concentrate on the style and everything that can make the novel the best it can possibly be. Because I don't view the novel as a "public service announcement," I don't think it reads like one—it reads like Katie's story.
And you're using Southport as a setting here. What do you find so compelling about the North and South Carolina areas that you've used them as a setting in most of your work?
In all of my work. They're small towns, still. They're on the water, most of them don't have major universities. I live in New Bern, still, which is 300 years old, and its population is 35,000 still—I don't think it's grown in the last 20 years.
Whenever you create an area like this that is very slow-moving—where the carnival coming to town is still a big deal, a place where everyone goes to church on Sunday and then goes out to brunch afterwards and you recognize half the people in the restaurant—there's something that I think creates a feeling of nostalgia in the reader, of the way things used to be, or that they imagined them to be. Or it brings back memories of their own childhood, of visiting their grandmother's place, or visiting their aunt's house, or wherever they went.
Has working on screenplay adaptations of your books—or just the film development process on the other adaptations—affected the way you approach prose, such as making it more visual or based in the characters' actions?
I was always a fairly visual writer from the very beginning of my work, so I doubt that that has changed. Screenwriting is different from writing a novel, but in the end it's writing. And in some ways, I find screenwriting a whole lot easier.
In what ways?
It's shorter, for one. A novel is about 100,000 words, while a screenplay is about 20 to 22,000. Novels can vary dramatically in structure—sometimes you have to invent an entirely new structure, as I had to do for Safe Haven. Screenplays are always structured the same. In novels, you're supposed to show, not tell. In screenplays, you're supposed to tell, so that the actors can show. So you're off the hook for one of the most challenging parts about writing. So screenplay writing is pretty easy.
When your work is so widely read, do you ever feel there's a tendency to dismiss "popular" literature as being not "literary"?
I hear that. I don't necessarily buy that. I'm still a little unclear, even though I'm a writer and I work in this field, what the distinction is between "literary" and "not so literary." I think a great novel is one that has a great story, that has a unique telling, original characters with great voices, that's written in a style that's appropriate for the type of book you're writing and is, of course, exactly the right length. If you fail on any one of those, it's not necessarily a great novel.
That's just my opinion, and I judge all books. If you look at, say, The Passage, [a vampire story] by Justin Cronin, which is a very intellectual, highly imaginative, well-written novel—this is a success in every possible way! I mean, it was beautifully written, it had a wonderful story, it had compelling characters, it moved you into this brand-new world and it was the perfect length. I can't recommend it highly enough. It's terrific.
What's the challenge in avoiding repeating yourself too much when you're putting out so many books?
You have to vary in theme, which changes everything within the novel. That would be first and foremost. Then, of course, you have to vary the ages, because different ages bring different dilemmas to people's lives—in other words, a 17-year-old doesn't look at life the same way a 45-year-old looks at life. And once you start to vary those things, the stories start to feel very different. I don't think there's anyone in the world that would say The Notebook is anything like Safe Haven. But they're both small-town love stories in Eastern North Carolina with kind of appealing characters. But they're nothing alike at all.
Do you feel there's a tendency to marginalize romantic stories, and that melodrama has a bad name?
Not really. I tend to avoid melodrama. I try to create very realistic settings and very realistic experiences and realistic responses to these experiences. Melodrama is the use of really big events that may or may not happen in real life—certainly they do, but they're not events that are common to most people. Most of the things that happen in my novels are things that could happen to people in real life. I think most people would agree that Romeo and Juliet is fantastic, and Wuthering Heights and Casablanca and A Farewell to Arms. You know, they're not marginalized if they're done well.
I just sit down and try to write the best possible work that I can, and if I do my work well, maybe my work will be remembered one day as well. Or maybe not. But that's the goal.