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The Independent Critic

 Bestselling Author Nicholas Sparks Gives Audiences "The Choice" 
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There's a pretty good chance that you know Nicholas Sparks, or at least you think you do. You probably know Sparks as "that guy," you know, the one who writes "those books." Ah, "those" Nicholas Sparks books. There are some who consider Sparks to be the writer of some of the world's greatest contemporary love stories. There are others who, well, don't. As is nearly always the case, Nicholas Sparks isn't simply "that guy" who writes "those books" that turn into "those movies." On the eve of the opening of the first feature film under Nicholas Sparks Productions, "The Choice," The Independent Critic caught up with Sparks as he prepared for this latest step in a 20 year career that has seen him go from a pharmacy rep in North Carolina to one of America's most beloved authors whose every book has been a New York Times bestseller. Sparks was 28-years-old when, after having written two unpublished novels he refers to as "apprenticeships," he wrote "The Notebook" over a period of six months and it was published in 1996 by Warner Books. Upon publication, "The Notebook" quickly rose up the New York Times  bestseller list but Sparks maintained his "day job" for the next four months despite having receive $1 million from Warner.

Sparks attended the University of Notre Dame on a full track and field scholarship. He majored in business finance and graduated with honors. and married his wife the following year. After 25 years of marriage, the two reportedly amicably separated in early 2015 and some have wondered how this would impact Sparks's reputation as one of the world's most famous writer of love stories. If we're being honest, Sparks has always written love stories tinged by often overwhelming tragedy and even the greatest love stories, as Sparks has taught us again and again, cannot escape the painful realities of life. 

Sparks sets many of his books in North Carolina where he continues to live. He's long had a reputation for generosity having contributed to a variety of local and national charities and is a major contributor to the Creative Writing Program (MFA) at the University of Notre Dame, where he provides scholarships, internships, and a fellowship annually. Sparks co-founded The Epiphany School in New Bern, North Carolina in 2006, an effort to provide educational and cultural opportunities to low-income children and youth living in rural communities.  As a former full scholarship athlete (he still holds a track and field record at the University of Notre Dame) he also spent four years coaching track and field athletes at the local public high school. In 2009, the team he coached at New Bern High School set a World Junior Indoor Record in the 4 x400 meter, in New York. The record still stands. Sparks reportedly still runs 30 miles a week and is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.


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Nicholas Sparks with the cast of "The Choice," Photo Courtesy of NicholasSparks.com

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

First of all, thank you for your time. It has to be pretty crazy right now with The Choice opening up tomorrow. First all, I know that The Choice is the first feature film to be released under the Nicholas Sparks Productions banner. It has been 20 years since The Notebook was published by Warner Books in 1996. What an amazing journey! Can you speak to me about this journey? Was this your roadmap? Did you have any concept when you started out that everything would turn out this way? That's a really phenomenal journey.

NICHOLAS SPARKS

It is a phenomenal journey and it's one that makes me wonder where the years have gone, though I suppose it's the same with most people's lives. Isn't it?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Yeah, I guess it is. That's amazing. Did you have this mapped out? Is this what you envisioned?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

Oh goodness, no! I wrote The Notebook and I wasn't even sure that I could get it published. I didn't have an agent. I didn't have an editor. I knew nothing about the publishing world. I had high hopes, of course, and I've been incredibly fortunate that many of them have absolutely panned out. Yet, along the way like everyone there's been twists and turns and unexpected surprises all along the way. It's a journey that's moved so quickly that I find myself wondering where the time has gone.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

When you started this journey back in 1996, did people think you were crazy for wanting to be a writer?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

I think they thought I was a dreamer. It's not as though I quit my job. I kept my job. I worked my job in pharmaceutical sales during the day and wrote at night. My wife and I had small children, the second one wasn't a great sleeper. My wife would go to bed relatively early, 8:30 or 9:00, to try to get some sleep. I figured I could either watch TV or chase a dream. I decided to chase a dream. I'd work until 11:30pm or so on my book writing a couple hours a night and six months later I was done with The Notebook. It wasn't as though I gave up everything to do it. In fact, I sold The Notebook and I sold it for a million dollar advance.  The only reason I mention the million dollars is that it's published all over ... even Wikipedia. I didn't even tell my bosses that I'd sold it. I kept selling pharmaceuticals. I viewed it as a one time thing. I mean, after an agent's commission and after taxes it's a sizable sum but it's not enough to live on the rest of your life. You've still got electric bills and you've got to buy food. It was enough to pay of college, maybe put some away for retirement and pay off a small mortgage and that's about it when it's all said and done. So, I said "I've got to live" and I didn't even tell anyone about it until The Notebook had been on the bestseller list. I didn't quit my job until The Notebook had been on the bestseller list for over four months and, more importantly, my next book was going well.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think one of the things I most learned about you as I was preparing for our conversation was getting this sense of your discipline. For example, keeping your job even past a point when many would have said "Okay, I'm a writer now." You have a very practical approach to all of this and it seems like that's been a theme in your life with your running, with the Nicholas Sparks foundation and so on. Is that just who  you are? You've always been someone who has talked about the business side of writing a lot.

NICHOLAS SPARKS

Writing is an art and there is a bit of practicality to that, as well. You've got to have enough logic to tell a story from beginning to end. Right? And to hopefully do so in a way that keeps readers engaged. I have that aspect. At the same time, publishing is a business. Publishers won't continue to publish authors who don't sell any books. They're not in it for charity. It's a business. I think it's important that one understands both the artistic side and the more practical side. I think if you do you increase your chances of success. It doesn't guarantee success, but I think it certainly increases your chances.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

This is probably the perfect time to ask you about Nicholas Sparks Productions. What led you to create Nicholas Sparks Productions?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

It was really just a natural evolution. Early on, I would sell my rights to my novels yet I would also be involved in everything from script oversight to casting to the selection of the director. Then, I moved to writing the script and producing the film. The next step is to run your own production company. What that allows us to do is to have a little bit more of a voice when it comes to all the elements of production. One of the challenges after you've made ten films is "How do you make the film feel different from the others?" How is it going to be possible for us to get people to go see The Choice in the theater, then to go home and watch The Longest Ride?  It feels as if the films are very different even though they are both love stories set in North Carolina. The Longest Ride was so sweeping. We wanted this one to have more humor. The Choice is more of an ensemble film that has almost more of an independent feel to it. We wanted it to be more intimate. We wanted the humor to be so much stronger. We wanted the situations to feel more universal than those that happened in The Longest Ride. We were able to guide those changes throughout the script and the characters then, of course, it went down to casting and everything else.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

The film opens tomorrow. Was making the film, again the first feature film under your production company, a good experience?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

It was a great experience. It's a terrific film. In the end, that's what I'd hoped to have ... a film that I know people will enjoy, a film that that captures the spirit and the intent of the original story and the characters in the novel. The Choice succeeds on all of those levels.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I would agree. I have seen the film and I would agree. I enjoyed it a lot. I'm wondering. I was reading through BoxOfficeMojo.com last night and I had to chuckle just a bit. As I was looking up your films, I realized that the website had them listed under the Brand - Nicholas Sparks. You're a brand. You really are a brand.

NICHOLAS SPARKS

(Long hesitation, then Sparks comes out with his slight North Carolina drawl)  Yes, I suppose I am. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I mean, that's really cool. That's a little intimidating. Yet, most of the time when people watch your films I do think they're watching them because they are Nicholas Sparks films. Ross Katz may do a wonder job directing The Choice, but it's a Nicholas Sparks film for most people. You've had some tremendous stars in your films such as Ryan Gosling, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Richard Gere, Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams and so on. Yet, throughout all of this, your films ARE Nicholas Sparks films.

NICHOLAS SPARKS

They know what they're getting. It's the same thing when you go into a Marvel film or the latest X-Men or the latest installment of Jurassic Park. You kind of know what you're getting. Yet, the goal becomes to do something unique and to reach a new audience and to make audiences feel something different. I think I've been fortunate enough to have films that do exactly those things.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Obviously, you've got The Choice opening and you're starting to branch out into television and other forms of media. Is that about growing "the brand" or finding new ways to tell your stories?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

It's more about being able to tell different kinds of stories. As a novelist, I'm perfectly happy writing what I write. Yet, it's somewhat limiting and television, for example, offers the chance to tell stories in different ways than people who read my novels might expect.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

This may be a weird question, but why do you write love stories?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

I write them because they're the kinds of stories that I like to read. They're the kinds of stories I really enjoy like A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway or the film Casablanca. These are stories with all the emotions of life. By the time you read the final page or watch the closing credits, you feel different and something reminiscent of life itself ... all of the emotions in one small package. That's a very meaningful and it's very meaningful to go through all of these emotions. To me, that's part of the essence of storytelling.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Now that you've had several of your novels adapted into films. Does that impact how you write?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

It impacts how I think of a story. When I create a story for a novel, I want it to be an original story. Likewise, when I have a novel turned into a film I want it to be an original film. So, there are certain stories that I just can't do or many elements of a story that I just won't do because they've been in my film before of they're familiar from other films. I wouldn't have a scene where people are making pottery and then they make love because we've seen that in Ghost. It wouldn't be original. So, lots of ideas get thrown away ... many more than there used to be. However, once I actually sit down and start writing it's still very much the same.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

One of my favorite scenes in The Choice is when Travis and Gabby are running through the woods and they stumble across a church. I don't want to give the specifics away for those who've yet to see the film, but this film really hit me emotionally. We'd already gotten to know them as both falling for each other and as flawed human beings. They enter this sanctuary and it's almost like they light up. I think this is something I see commonly in your films where you have flawed human beings and tragic experiences and yet you seem very gifted at finding the love through that or the hope through those flaws and those tragedies.

NICHOLAS SPARKS

Not only love, but I think reality. I know I'm not alone when I say that I feel a certain peace at times when I go into church. I feel a sense of peace and I'm not alone. I feel a sense of joy. Of course, it's not all the time. Sometimes, I feel boredom. Sometimes, I feel like I'd really rather be watching a game. There are more experiences when I will feel something beautiful. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that and wanting to feel that.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I want to be respectful of your time. Can you tell me a little bit about the Nicholas Sparks Foundation?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

Sure, at the Nicholas Sparks Foundation we provide scholarships for rural students who are disadvantaged and at risk. The South has traditionally had pockets of perpetual poverty. So, what we do is we try to find high quality students with parents, a mother or father, also willing to commit themselves to their child's education by volunteering at the school. We supply them scholarships. There's lots of programs that do this for urban living or in big cities, but there's really nobody who does it for rural communities. Children are the poorest age group in America. One in four kids in rural America is poor and we're trying to use education to do something about that. (Richard's Note: Sparks is being incredibly humble here - Since starting the Nicholas Sparks Foundation in 2011, Sparks has donated nearly $10 million to the foundation AND his family covers 100% of the organization's expenses so that 100% of the funds donated to the donation can go to the cause).

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I know you need to get going here. One last question and I really want us to end on your new film The Choice. What makes this film fit within the world of Nicholas Sparks?

NICHOLAS SPARKS

In some ways, it's exactly what you expect from me. It's a love story. There's real life that strikes a universal chord. It's a story that keeps viewers' attention. You're getting exactly what you expect, but you're also getting surprises every single step of the way. That's what good storytelling is all about.

"The Choice" opened nationwide in theaters on February 5th from Lionsgate Films. For more information on the film, visit its official The Choice website. For more information on See Me, the latest book from Nicholas Sparks, visit the author's website. Finally, to find out more about the Nicholas Sparks Foundation visit the foundation's website.

© Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic , 2016 

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