Love him or hate him, Nicholas Sparks clearly is in the romantic fiction game for the long haul.
And as the North Carolina author prepares to turn 50 at the end of this year, his empire only seems to be growing: He put out another new novel last week (“See Me,” his 19th in 19 years); is producing the 11th adaptation of one of his books (“The Choice,” due Feb. 5); and is developing at least two television shows – including one that builds on his debut novel “The Notebook” and another inspired (we think) by his recent divorce.
During a visit to Charlotte last week for a book-signing event, Sparks talked to the Observer about his various projects, having his writing second-guessed by his editor, what “The Notebook” would look like as a TV show and much more.
Q. So two of your last four love stories have doubled as thrillers – “Safe Haven” in 2010 and now “See Me.” Should we read anything into this?
A. No, this was very different than “Safe Haven” and it’s very different than “The Guardian” (2003), which are the two of the previous novels that had dangerous elements in them. “Safe Haven” also combined a little supernatural element, but it was danger. In both of those instances, the dangerous element – the rising suspense of the novel – came from the idea that the bad guy was closing in. And that’s where the tension came from. This novel, “See Me,” is entirely different, in that you don’t have any idea who the bad guy – or as the case may be, bad girl – is. It’s a little bit more similar to the kinds of thrillers that Harlan Coben might write, or how about this: My attempt to do what Harlan Coben does so exceptionally well.
Q. Are you adding these thriller elements as a way to challenge yourself as a writer?
A. No, one of the great things about the genre in which I work is that essentially what I’m trying to do is to explore the entire range of human emotion within the story. So I’m allowed to add wonderful elements from other genres into these stories. For instance, in “The Longest Ride,” there was a heavy cowboy culture, which some might say harkens back to the old-fashioned westerns. Or I’ve written love and danger: I’ve added thriller elements in “See Me” or “Safe Haven,” or supernatural elements in “Safe Haven” or “True Believer.” I’ve added a straight mystery element in “A Bend in the Road.” So you can pick and choose these other genre-type novels and perhaps work them into the story – if it’s appropriate for North Carolina. For example, it might be difficult to do love and spy thriller, because I’m not in Washington, D.C. There aren’t a lot of Russian spies wandering around Maysville, North Carolina – or I assume there’s not – so a spy thriller might not work. But an adventure? That might work. Mystery. Thriller. Western. I’m allowed to do a lot of things, and those actually aid in the exploration of all of these other emotions.
Q. When you’re in the process of writing a novel, what do you do to control quality and who are the people you trust to give honest feedback on drafts?
A. My agent edits sections, and I do a tremendous amount of self-editing. I might edit a 50-page section five times, in addition to editing as I write, and she gets it, offers some suggested changes. I’ll take the ones I think are correct, then I re-edit again. That process continues through the writing of the novel, and at that point, I’ve edited the novel, oh my gosh, so many times – 10 to 15. At that point, it goes to my editor, and she’s the first fresh read. She can look for different things than my agent looks for: structural issues, continuity issues, overall character issues, consistency issues, does the story succeed on the level in which it is supposed to succeed? Then I take her edits. That’s generally my process. I’ve learned that both my agent and my editor – even after 20 years working with them – they still pull no punches. I still get lots of red lines and suggestions and big sections marked “This doesn’t work, please re-write.”
Q. How do you feel when you see all those red lines and suggestions?
A. Both are very bright and they both want exactly the same thing, and that’s the best story possible. I’ve learned to trust their instincts, even if making the changes they suggest are complex and challenging. And often, I’m tired from writing the novel and the last thing I want to do is to re-write a chapter or five chapters or the entire end of the book. But as recently as “The Best of Me,” which just came out a couple years ago, my agent and I thought it worked but my editor suggested I basically re-write the last entire quarter of the novel. And boy, I was not happy. Yet I did it, and she ended up being right.
Q. We found out this summer that “The Notebook” TV series is in the works at The CW. What can you tell us about this project?
A. It’s in development, and that’s the really big thing to realize with television is that does not mean guaranteed we’re going to actually see the show. But the idea behind that is it’s Noah and Allie: The Middle Years. What happens after Allie drops the suitcase in Noah’s driveway in the film and looks up and shrugs her shoulder? You know what happens at the end, but how did her parents actually take it? How did she adapt to suddenly not being rich anymore? Did Lon ever show up again? How did Noah react to this? We know they argued, we know they loved each other passionately. How did that work? Then you cover it through the period of the ’50s and the ’60s, a very interesting period in the South. This is a show that can really explore a lot of different things.
Q. And then how about this divorce comedy you’re working on for ABC?
A. Yeah, “The Next Chapter.” Again, there is no guarantee it’s going to be on. And most of the media reports that it’s my story, that it’s about me. And it isn’t. It’s about a funny idea, and the idea is this: A guy who’s made a very successful living writing love stories gets divorced after a long period of time from his high school sweetheart, and he realizes that while the world thinks he knows everything about love and romance, maybe he doesn’t. There’s the comedy element to the show: Maybe he doesn’t know everything that he writes about. But the characters in the story are not me. Ben Diamond, the main character, is not me. The wife is not Cathy. The events – what led to the (divorce) – that’s not what happened. I have more children; there’s only two children in the show. It was more about the idea than me. And it’s gonna be really funny.
Q. You can see how people might draw certain conclusions though...
A. Sure, there’s always the possibility that people read into it that it’s my life. But I think that once they see the show they’ll understand that it’s not, because my family’s not like their family and my friends are not like this and those kinds of things. It’s about the idea, not me.
Q. How do you feel about the fact that you’re turning 50 this year?
A. As a general rule, I don’t think about my age too much. I tend to just try to maintain a healthy balance in my life, between work and family. I have a lot of projects going on: new novels, films coming up, television, Broadway, a lot with my the Nicholas Sparks Foundation, the school that I founded (The Epiphany School of Global Studies. There’s a lot to keep me going. Then of course I have five children that I like to spend time with. I just try to do what needs to be done on a daily basis to maintain the healthiest balance possible, which is a struggle for everyone – the struggle between the professional life and your personal life, or time for yourself versus time with the kids, or working out versus taking a nap because you’ve worked a hundred hours in the last week. It’s always a work in progress, and it changes depending on the season and as life comes at you from all angles. But I think it’s important to always do what you can to maintain the healthiest balance that you can – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, personally, professionally, on every level. If you strive for a good balance, you’ll find that you can approach life with a glass half-full attitude.