Twenty novels in just about as many years is no small accomplishment for any author. But when this is compounded by more than 100 million of those novels sold internationally, one of the largest social media presences in the world and a multi-media platform that is consistently among the most successful on the planet, this feat from an erstwhile pharmaceutical salesman from New Bern is nothing less than remarkable.
Today, Nicholas Sparks is as much a brand as he is an author. There are, of course, the books. Beginning with the October 1996 publication of his seminal love story, “The Notebook,” Sparks would go on to craft 19 more novels to date, and a work of nonfiction written with his brother, Micah.
There is Nicholas Sparks Productions and there are the films those books have spawned, creating one of the most consistently profitable film franchises in the history of moviemaking.
There is the charity work, the Nicholas Sparks Foundation, to promote global and diverse learning among students and teachers. There is the Epiphany School, the private educational institution Sparks founded. And there is the father, the man who coached his son’s high school track team to national success, the man who loyally never fails to mention each of his children by name in the acknowledgements of every book.
But at the foundation of all this is the writing, the story — something Sparks says he has never lost sight of.
With the Oct. 16 publication of “Every Breath” (Grand Central Publishing), then, the North Carolina author has written his fans a big check — and one he delivers on through the real-life, coastal Kindred Spirit mailbox.
Although his fans have grown accustomed to a new novel approximately every year since 1996, this work has been more than two years in the making since the publication of “Two by Two,” on Oct. 4, 2016. That wait has not been for nothing. The love story between Hope Anderson and Tru Walls spans generations and continents. It is classic Nicholas Sparks — a love story set on the North Carolina coast and centered on written letters — but it is more. The author plays with both story and style to craft a deeper and richer love story than anything he has written since “The Notebook.”
And there is also something else at work in this novel. It is this something that Sparks’ was willing to speak about during a phone conversation early in October before the book’s release. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mountain Times: There is a maturity at work in “Every Breath” that transcends each of your novels since “The Notebook.” Please speak about that for me.
Nicholas Sparks: The evolution of “Every Breath” came from two ideas. I’m not sure which one arrived first, but they were relatively close together. Part one was a desire to return to form, so to speak: Write the kind of novel that I have written in the past that I haven’t written for awhile — a shorter, intensively romantic love story, intense in many ways. That, of course, is combined with what happens in the aftermath. I did that in “The Notebook.” I did that in “Nights in Rodanthe.” I did that in “The Choice.” So, in some ways it was a return to form, and it was a conscious desire to do that.
The other idea, of course, was Kindred Spirit mailbox. It’s just so fantastic. It’s located in Eastern North Carolina; you can’t imagine. I brought these two ideas together and the entirety of the story evolved.
And between the last 20 years, one would like to think that I have evolved as a writer, or improved in some ways. I would like to think that that has happened. I certainly try to do new things with every novel, and I certainly did with this as well.
And, if you add in just the amount of time I’ve spent writing over the last 25 years, I would hope that “Every Breath” reflects a growing maturity because I feel that I’ve matured.
MT: Then, is this a novel you could have written 22 years ago?
NS: Well, it’s somewhat similar to “The Notebook,” so I would like to think, yes. Of, say, my recent novels there are some that I don’t know I could have written, like “See Me” or “The Longest Ride” or “Safe Haven.” I don’t know if I could have written those as my first novel. At the same time, in “Every Breath” the characters are more complex, I suppose, and more nuanced than they were in “The Notebook.”
MT: You document well in “Every Breath” your inspiration for the novel. Is this one any more personal to you than some of your other stories?
NS: I wouldn’t say more personal, but certainly all authors bring their own life experiences or thoughts or worldviews or elements to their writing in some way. Some more than others, regardless of what the external events are. It’s impossible not to write without bringing yourself to it. The key is to keep yourself at enough of a remove that the characters become their own unique individuals and that, while there might be similarities of experience, there are nuances particular to these two characters and their story.
So, certainly there are elements — the healing power of the beach and walking on the beach, these are elements that occur on and off throughout the novel. It’s not a major element but it is something that is drawn from my own experiences. As I’m trying to work on a new novel, I’ve driven to the beach twice in the last seven days to just walk. The beaches this time of year are quiet. They’re not empty, but they are quiet. It’s just you and the waves and the birds and the dunes and your thoughts.
I’ve been to Africa, and that brings that experience. I’ve met women who, when they reach a certain age, begin to feel a lot of pressure regarding children, or career or how did I get here? Whatever their dreams were. Certainly that isn’t the dream for every woman, but for those for whom it is a dream, I think that Hope’s experiences were somewhat reflective of what they feel at times.
MT: That’s interesting and leads me to this question. One of the themes of the novel is summed up by Hope as she’s thinking about her life: “She lived almost an entire life but had accomplished nothing extraordinary.” The reader knows this isn’t exactly true, but many people could voice a similar feeling near the end of their life. What are you, as a novelist, trying to say here?
NS: Well, believe it or not, I often feel that way.
So, I think it’s just indicative of human nature that as we grow we make decisions, we make choices. We choose a certain path. With every path we choose, other paths are closed off. It doesn’t mean you can’t get back to it, it just means that at that point it’s closed off. And, meanwhile, the passage of time is inevitable.
At the end, the question I’m saying is, what does it mean to lead an extraordinary life? Is that summed up by what others think of your life? Has it been extraordinary if you have a Wikipedia page? Is it extraordinary if you’ve gone down in history? Are those the only people who’ve led extraordinary lives?
All of us want to believe we’re capable of great things. In the end there’s this philosophical question, what does it mean to be extraordinary? And if I’m not extraordinary, am I still OK with the life I’ve led? What does that mean? For some people, family, children, they are all that matters. For others, it’s their relationship with God, for instance. For others, it’s getting elected president. But, you can not care about being elected president. You can not care about not having children. What does extraordinary mean to you?
It’s symptomatic of, what’s the old cliché — graveyards are full of extraordinary people. The world goes on. So, what does it mean?
It’s a universal truth. Everybody sits back and wonders what would happen if. … Or, you know, I had some goals and I didn’t reach them. OK? How do you feel about that?
Early on in my life, track and field was the most important thing to me. I thought I was pretty good in high school, college was OK, but my dream was the Olympics and to win a gold medal. It was probably my biggest goal. I didn’t reach it. What does that mean? Was it an extraordinary life if you didn’t reach the thing that meant the most to you for eight or nine years of your life that you devoted everything to?
I did other things. But, there are moments today that when the Olympics come on I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic and sad about a dream that didn’t come true.
MT: Thank you for sharing that. There’s another question in the story that I’m interested to hear your thoughts on: “Why does love always seem to require sacrifice?” You clearly illustrate the question in “Every Breath” and your other novels, but you don’t directly answer it. What is the answer?
NS: The answer to me is that there can’t be one without the other. They are largely synonyms. To love is to sacrifice, and to sacrifice is to love. They’re synonyms in some ways.
What is love? What does it mean if you’re not willing to sacrifice? You can’t. In the same way love and grief … are opposite sides of the same coin. To my mind, you can’t have one without the other. In every great relationship, whether it’s you in a romantic relationship, or you and a friend, or you and your parents, or you and a sibling, or child or something. At some point, death will occur. Someone will pass on and there’s grief on the other side. And, here’s the thing, if there’s no love, there’s no grief at all. Every day, millions of people die around the world and we all move on. But when it’s someone close to you, it hurts. And the more you loved, the more it hurts when it’s gone.
So, you say, you come up with a hypothetical situation. What if, like in the movie, “The Notebook,” they die at the same time? Well, how do the kids feel, now? There’s grief left behind. Do you see? How did their friends feel, people from the home, how did the nurse feel? … By its nature, sacrifice and love are part of it. How can one have a child without any sacrifice?
MT: Speaking of sacrifice: Although the Kindred Spirit mailbox has been well documented by travel sites, you’re about to introduce this isolated portion of the North Carolina coast to a million readers. Did any area locals during your research to Bird Island on Sunset Beach express concern about the exposing of the location?
NS: No, they did not. Bird Island is uninhabited. So, I don’t think that people will be offended. If there’s anyone who could perhaps have a change of life it might be one, the current caretaker. He might have to empty the mailbox more frequently. Or, if one wants to go there and find it utterly alone, that may change.
As with all things, time will lessen that and it will go back to what it was because it is isolated. It is hard to get to. It’s quite a walk down the beach. If you want to stop for a soda on the way — can’t. Have to go the bathroom on the way? You can’t. You want to park close because you can’t make the walk, you can’t, by its nature. Had it been on a place like the southern end of Wrightsville Beach or something, OK, things might change. Things like parking. But here? Maybe for a short term.
MT: What do you reflect on when you think about 20 novels in just about 20 years?
NS: I’ve tried to make each novel unique while retaining certain threads of familiarity. I’m just grateful for everyone who’s gone along for the ride. All my readers, my fans, the people with whom I work. I’ve done my best to craft stories that I hope they’ll remember for a long time.
MT: At your unticketed book signing in Charlotte on Oct. 18, will it be a straight signing or will you be speaking?
NS: Hmmm. Great question. I don’t know at the present time. Some of these things depend on crowds, venues and parking. Normally, crowds are very heavy so if there is a presentation of any type it tends to be very short.
MT: As always, I’d like to end by asking you what you’re working on, and, while I’m willing to bet you’ll say a love story set in North Carolina with a bittersweet ending … is there anything else you can add?
NS: You know, that ‘s pretty much what I’m working on. And, I hope it will strike readers as different from anything I’ve done before.