If anyone is qualified to write stories about love, it is Nicholas Sparks, who met his wife Cathy on a Monday and on Tuesday, told her he was going to marry her. That was 23 years ago and the couple is still happily together.
Sparks has turned his love of a good love affair into 17 books, seven of which have been made into movies, including ‘Message in a Bottle’, ‘Dear John’, ‘A Walk to Remember’, ‘The Notebook’, and opening this Friday ‘The Lucky One’, starring Zac Efron as Logan, a soldier returning from war whose life was saved when he bent over to pick up a photo he spied on the ground. When he returns from his third tour of duty in Iraq, he — along with his gorgeous and well-trained German Shepherd — goes in search of the woman (Taylor Schilling as Beth) whose photo it is. It just so happens her grandmother (Blythe Danner) runs a kennel and hires Logan to help out with the dogs.
In this interview with the prolific writer, Sparks tells his real-life love story, talks about the image that inspired the book The Lucky One, and reveals the hardest part of making a love story work.
eH: Can you tell us your personal love story?
NS: I met my wife on a Monday night on spring break in Florida. On Tuesday night, I told her that we would get married. So, for me this [love story in The Lucky One] took forever. Like, “Get on the stick Logan. Come on! She should love you already.” Of course, my wife laughed at me at the time.
eH: How long did it take until she believed you?
NS: Well, we met in March, then we went back to our respective schools. I wrote her about 100 letters, graduated in May, she visited a couple of times, moved out to California in August, I proposed in October, we married the following July, and it’s been 23 years.
eH: How did you know so quickly that she was the one?
NS: Because it was there. You know, all of the female characters I create have many elements of my wife.
eH: What do you think about when you sit down to write?
NS:When I sit down to write a novel, I want it to feel very real, that it could happen to anyone, anywhere.
eH: Can you talk about the inspiration for this story?
NS: I live in a very military area of the country. I am surrounded by Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, Cherry Point, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. So it’s what my town is. There’s a lot of military people. Years ago, I was working waiting tables, this is the first year out of college, so I am waiting tables and I lose a picture of my wife. It was in my wallet, I don’t know how, but it fell out. Next thing I know, like three or four days later, it’s pinned up on the bulletin board because the manager of the restaurant found it. And he’s like, “Hey, you know I will put it here.” And I’m like, “Dude, that’s my wife. Give me my picture back.” Because I coached track and field, some of the kids went to college to run track and other ones went into the military and they all come back with something. They all come back with something and this is what this guy found. And when he finds it, this is what he thinks kept him alive.
In the film, he bends over and picks up this picture and boom! Everybody dies behind him. Had he not seen it, he would have died. But these are his friends who died. These weren’t just Army guys. These just weren’t Marines. These were his close friends. So it’s a guy struggling with survival guilt and he’s got this thing that saved him. So, what does he do? It was the only novel that I wrote that was inspired by a single image: that of a soldier finding a picture half-buried in the sand and pulling it out.
eH: You have written many novels about love stories. Usually these stories are mainly read by girls. But in this case, there’s a male factor in this one. Do you think that theme will appeal to different audiences in this case?
NS: In the end, I just try to write the best story that I can. And you might say a majority of women read it. But you know, a majority of women read Gone With The Wind, too. I’m not saying that mine is the same as that. I’m just saying women are the majority of readers, period.
eH: Which kind of books or movies influence your image of romance or love?
NS: They just asked me yesterday to pick my top romantic movies and, I said, “‘Dirty Dancing’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Titanic’, and ‘Ghost’. These are stories in which, for the most part, the characters are very real, ordinary people. These are not famous people. There’s a universality to the characters. The love that develops is given time to bloom in these films and it’s very real. You feel not just the love story, but you feel so much more — anger, betrayal, jealousy, suspense, tension, all of these things — and then you have elements of sadness. How those emotiions play out exactly varies from story to story, but those are probably your major influences. In books, you’re looking at something like From Here to Eternity and Farewell to Arms.
eH: What’s the hardest part about making a love story work?
NS: The hardest part is you have to do three things with virtually every element in the story. Those three things are: It has to be original, interesting, and universal. It’s very easy to do two of those three things. So you have that, but then you have to genuinely evoke all of the emotions of life. You can’t manipulate it, you can’t use clichés, and you can’t verge into melodrama.
It’s incredibly hard and there are times when I am accused of doing those things, but I will say no, because I’m very aware of those things as I write. There’s a real difference between the genuine evocation of emotion. For instance, if you’re reading my book, by the time the character cries, you should already be crying. By the time the character says, “I love you,” you should say, “Well, it took you long enough. I knew that eight pages ago. What are you doing? When they get angry with each other, you should feel the burn. When you feel this sense of betrayal, it should linger like a sense of betrayal. Those are the very challenging things to do and none of those are required in other genres.
eH: Do you have a favorite among the movies that have been made from your books?
NS: I don’t. I think that one of the great things about the films that have been made is that they all tend to have legs. You will see ‘Message in a Bottle’ on cable TV 15 times a year, ‘A Walk to Remember’, 25, and ‘The Notebook’, 40.
eH: When you’re actually writing, are you envisioning particular actors at all?
NS: I don’t envision actors. The only time I ever knew for sure was Miley Cyrus in ‘Last Song’ and that was because that was a deal worked out. It was a vehicle for Miley, which was fine. I didn’t mind doing that so when I wrote the script, I knew she would be in it.
eH: One of the major themes of this film was fate. Was there a reason that you chose not to answer whether or not you believe in it?
NS: Yeah, because, it’s personal. I didn’t answer it in the novel either, but it really comes down to, fate is only understood in retrospect. Because, actually, it’s coincidence followed by the conscious choices that we make. So, looking back, it’s fate that my wife was walking through the parking lot, but that wouldn’t have meant a thing unless I made the conscious choice to get to know her. Fate is only seen in retrospect. So, was this fate? We will find out in time, but it really depends on how well they work. So, that is just my own belief.
The Lucky One, starring Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling and based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, opens in theaters on Friday, April 20.