If wishes could come true, this would be the Nicholas Sparks novel you’ve been asking for. “The Wish” (Grand Central Publishing), Sparks’ September debut, is the current capstone of a career that began 25 years ago with the 1996 publication of “The Notebook.” It’s also his most complex story to date, straddling the generational lines and deep themes that have become the hallmark of a Sparks’ love story, but also intertwining birth and death and the choices we make about such things.
Spanning 20 years, the story of Maggie and Bryce is a timeless, cinematic read transversing both discovery and loss, and above all, the question of what it is we most wish. Epic is a term bandied about too easily in literary circles, but it applies here.
Recently, Sparks agreed to speak with Mountain Times about his epic new novel. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Mayer: I would argue that Maggie is your most ambitious character portrait today. Her depth, her backstories, your handling of her character at age 16 when all of life is before her, and at age 39, when she is facing imminent death all present a very complex character. Would you talk about that?
Nicholas Sparks: I believe yes on the complexity, but not necessarily the most challenging character I’ve created. As an author, it’s fun to write a moody teenager because they are just so gloom and doom and melodramatic. Everything is horrible — and then they shift like the breeze and something happens that is all coupled in with their insecurities. So, in many ways, Maggie was a fun character to write. I have five teenagers, so I’m well familiar with teenage moods, the phrases they use to describe the world they’re living in, which just can be so overwrought. With that said, of course, Maggie was absolutely right to feel absolutely marooned early on. Her world suddenly shifted. Then, watching Maggie grow through the course of the novel was also fun to explore, and this wonderful relationship with her aunt that really helped shaped who she eventually became.
TM: Was it difficult as an author walking the line between permission and judgment in handling the subject of teenage pregnancy?
NS: Sure. There were a few challenges. That certainly is one of them. At the same time, the decisions that her parents make, I didn’t necessarily want that judged either, right? Because teen pregnancy is a real thing and people make varying decisions when something like that comes up. I didn’t want any judgements to come up. That’s why I structured them as they are. The family is a very Catholic family and well, this is what you do when something like this happens in a very religious Catholic family. OK, let’s just put the child up for adoption and let’s not make your life any more difficult than it has to be. Maggie does understand why her parents shift her off, and in some ways even agrees with them for the reason that she would always be “that girl.” She knew they were right, but it was still wasn’t easy what she had to do.
TM: More of an observation versus a question: “The Wish” is arguably your most well-crafted to date. In a 400-page novel that never feels rushed you manage multiple storylines about cancer, teen pregnancy, adoption, family dynamics, photography, art, the war in Afghanistan, all wrapped up in not one, but two coming-of-age stories. I also have to say, the foreshadowing is phenomenal — enough that I oddly suggest two readings of the novel, the first to experience the story, the second to experience the textured nuances of the storyline. That’s all to ask this: How do you rate your experience with creating this novel as with the one you wrote, “The Notebook,” 25 years ago?
NS: Certainly some skill sets have grown, whether it’s dialogue or narrative or just an intuitive feeling for pacing or structure. I would hope I’ve improved in those things. At the same time the challenge of originality is that much greater, and sometimes stories just resonate more than others, right? I’m hopeful that ‘The Wish’ will resonate with readers of all ages for a variety of reasons. But will it be everyone’s favorite? I don’t know, but I think it’s one of the more memorable novels I’ve ever written and in some ways I think it is my best, because it is very complex and yet never bogs down. You never lose sight of the story. There’s always something happening.
TM: The pacing of this story has a very cinematic feel to it. By design, or was that organic?
NS: A little organic and a little intentional. I tend to write in a more cinematic fashion and part of that has to do with the nature of the story. You have Maggie in New York wanting to experience one last, wonderful Christmas. In no small way, that desire derived from a magical Christmas she had when she was 16 years old — the day she decided she wanted to be a photographer and Bryce was there. And so, setting was very important to establish the season and the time and feel of Christmas. At the same time, setting was incredibly important for Ocracoke to offer an utterly quiet and austere world, with nothing really in it. But to transform that into a place that allows one to think and to feel and to learn and to grow, and to have the geographical peace, the quietude to discover who you are and who you really want to be.
TM: You’ve incorporated life experiences into many of your novels in the past. Is this story personal for you?
NS: In some ways, sure. You know, whenever I write about somebody — I did it in “Two by Two,” I did it in other novels — who knows they are dying and they have time to contemplate what that means, of course, those stories always bring me back to my sister (Danielle Sparks Lewis) who passed away of brain tumor cancer over 20 years ago. So much of everything Maggie is going through early on in the novel when she’s in New York that derives, I suppose, from the perception of my sister as derived from conversations with her, noting the way she sat in silence and looked out the window. With my sister, I remember one thing she wanted, really, before she died, in addition to being married, was to be there for the birthday of her twin sons. Nobody knew if she would get that and it was so important to her. So, I wanted to explore that final wish and what that means and to do it in a way that fits in with the story I was creating.
TM: Another personal question: Beyond the storyline itself, was the handling of adoption, and its converse — abortion, which you touch on, important to you?
NS: To my mind, I just made it a non-issue. It was never up for discussion. But even more than the abortion question it was just exploring the intricacies and repercussions of adoption, and what that means was much more a challenge in the creation of the story.
TM: I’m interested in the concept of romantic separation you bring up between Maggie and Bryce — the idea that there are two types of parting: one involving security and one involving fear. Would you elaborate on this?
NS: There’s a big difference between wanting to be with someone, and afraid of not being with that person. There’s real beauty in wanting to be with someone because that means being in the presence of the other makes one feel good about oneself, and self-acceptance. But, if you phrase it like that, being afraid of losing someone is not real love. It’s just fear, and you can’t build a real, healthy relationship on fear. That’s a complex concept that even adults think about, but the fact that Maggie realized this at 16 — partially because of her experience or seeing her aunt and (her aunt’s friend) Gwen; whatever that was, it manifested and it was strong enough to explain why they didn’t see each other for seven years.
TM: If we could talk about the title. Was “The Wish” a first choice? With a novel so textured, I’m betting there was a debate.
NS: It was the first choice because, really, both sides of the story are about wishes, right? Maggie wishes for a great Christmas; but there’s a deeper wish she didn’t even know she wanted. Then there’s the young story, Maggie just wishes to go, for none of this to ever have happened, and then moves to acceptance and wishes she could stay. The whole novel is about wishes. Wishes, desires, dreams are universal conditions and so often we think we want one thing and if we get it we’re happy, but sometimes we don’t know what our deepest desire really is. So, this novel explores this, too. What Maggie wanted was acceptance and to be loved for who she is, imperfections and all. But she never really says that.
TM: I’d like to briefly shift to your films. You have 11 films in the can and are perhaps the most profitable author in terms of translating your novels into movies. What’s in the works?
NS: “The Return” just sold, so that is in the early stages of adaptation for a film. We looking for a screenwriter for that now and I do believe that we’ll offer “The Wish” for sale here in the next couple of months. We’ll see how that goes.
TM: Any TV work coming up?
NS: No TV work, but I believe “The Notebook” will be opening in Chicago, a kind of pre-Broadway thing, next April.
TM: You engage one-one-one with your fans typically during large book signings. Are there plans for a book tour supporting “The Wish?”
NS: So far, yes, and of course safety will be our paramount concern. We did it very well last year; we didn’t have any more than 10 people in any store at any one time. Everyone got photos and signed books. It worked very effectively. With safety being our first concern, I do expect (this year) to be in those cities doing whatever we can.
TM: Your events are now ticketed. Do you ever miss the daylong marathon signings at live events in New Bern and other cities?
NS: I still have those, my friend. I still have those. That hasn’t changed. It’ll be anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 books, which takes a long time, and then another two to three hours for photographs. So they are still daylong events.
TM: Also, I note that the date of your New Bern appearance is Oct. 3. That tour ender is very close to the date and place you released “The Notebook” in 1996. A coincidence, or just a nice way to wrap up a so-far 25-year career in your adopted hometown?
NS: No, it’s because they want to have me in New York on publication day, to launch the novel for the national media.
TM: Well, it’s good way to wrap up a tour then — sleeping in your own bed.
NS: Exactly. I go home and sleep in my bed, get up, go to work and then go to sleep in my bed again. It is quite nice.
TM: Well, we’ve gone over our time and I thank you for your indulgence. Any last thing to add?
NS: Nothing other than I do think “The Wish” will make a great Christmas gift. I know it comes out in September, but it’s kind of a Christmasy book.
TM: Did you mean to write a Christmas story?
NS: Yeah, and I’ll add one more thing because I think it’s interesting. ... I wanted to do a dog story, so I wrote “The Guardian”: As an author I think you have to go through the gamut. Even Grisham wrote “Stealing Christmas,” so, OK, here’s my version, here’s the Nicholas Sparks’ version of a Christmas story. You need to go through the gamut. You need a Christmas book, you need a dog book — you know Stephen King’s dog book, that was “Cujo.”
One of the things I think is interesting, and you wouldn’t have known to ask this question, is that this is a novel that has been germinating for 20 years. Probably more than 20 years, probably starting after “A Walk to Remember.” I’d been thinking about an adoption story, and a love story.
So after “A Walk to Remember” I think about it, I think about it, I can’t figure it out and end up writing “The Rescue.” After I finish “The Rescue,” you know, have I come up with the adoption story yet? What can I do? Couldn’t come up with anything, wrote “A Bend in the Road,” etc., etc.
So, this is a story that has been germinating for a very long time, at least in a small fashion, this combination of an adoption story plus a love story and one that feels different, somehow. So, I was really thrilled that after 20 years of thinking, or at least ruminating sporadically, always with the intent of doing something with it, that the idea came to fruition.
TM: Thank you for sharing that. And, I’ll leave with this: “The Wish” is a far superior book to “Skipping Christmas.”
NS: Well, this is a meaningful book. If you’re not moved by this book, you’re tough.