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Between the Lines with Nicholas Sparks

This month, best-selling author Nicholas Sparks will once again watch one of his novels come to life on the big screen. Safe Haven, which hits theaters on Valentine’s Day, is the eighth novel by Sparks to be turned into a film.

Since his first novel, The Notebook, was published in 1996, Sparks has written 16 more—all of which have landed on the New York Times best-sellers list. In November of last year, The Hollywood Reporter declared Sparks as one of “Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors.” Worldwide, his books have sold an estimated 80 million copies to date.

Around the time his last film, The Lucky One, was hitting theaters, Sparks took time out of his schedule to talk with St. Anthony Messenger about his career, his Catholic faith, and the importance of his family.

And to think that it all started with a college track injury!

An Author is Born

Let me go back a bit first, though. Sparks was born December 31, 1965, in Omaha, Nebraska. The second child of Patrick and Jill Sparks, he and his family spent a good deal of his childhood moving from state to state. In hindsight, Sparks says he didn’t realize the family’s financial struggles at the time and looks upon his childhood with fondness.

Sparks was born and raised Catholic and still relies heavily on his faith. He has two siblings—older brother Micah and sister Danielle Sparks Lewis. Danielle passed away in 2000 from cancer, at the age of 33. Sparks has said his sister was the inspiration for his novel A Walk to Remember.

In 2004, Sparks and Micah coauthored the book Three Weeks with My Brother, which chronicles their lives and a trip around the world the two had taken the previous year.

For college, Sparks attended the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in business. He received a full athletic scholarship to the school for track and field, and as a freshman, he was part of a relay team in 1985 that set a school track record—one that still stands.

Divine Providence?

But now back to the injury. When he was sidelined from running by an Achilles-tendon injury, Sparks’ mother suggested he try writing. Sparks took her advice and over the summer penned his first novel, which has never been published.

While at Notre Dame, Sparks also met and fell in love with his future wife, Catherine, while on spring break. The two were married in 1989, a year after he graduated.

Over the next few years, Sparks held a number of jobs and continued writing. He penned a second novel at the age of 22.

“I had graduated and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. So I wrote a novel. Those two were never published. They were really written to see if I could finish a novel,” he confesses.

In 1984, Sparks collaborated with Billy Mills, a friend and Olympic medalist, on the book Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding. With the desire to write still in him, Sparks says he gave his writing one last shot.

“When I was 28, I had kind of a midlife crisis, wondering what I was going to do with my life,” he says. “I was selling pharmaceuticals at the time, and I knew I didn’t want to stay and move up the corporate route, but I also didn’t just want to be a pharmaceutical rep my whole life.

“I said, ‘What can I do to chase a dream?’ I figured I could write in the evenings after working in the day. We had little kids at the time, so my wife was going to bed early. So I wrote in the evenings, and that was The Notebook,” he recounts.

After a very short time, his agent informed him that the book and movie rights had been bought for $1 million.

Faith in Writing

Sparks says his faith often infiltrates his writing.

“Faith plays a big role. It sets boundaries on what I’m willing to do, essentially,” he admits. “Among those boundaries are: I don’t write about adultery. I don’t glamorize adultery. That doesn’t sound like much, but when you write novels like mine, where one of the key components is conflict between the characters, a reason the characters can’t be together, well, the easiest one of all is that one or the other is married, right? It’s one conflict I never use. Or it can be a conflict, but they just can’t consummate.”

Sparks also says he will not incorporate sex into the story line if he’s dealing with young people or teenagers. He doesn’t use a lot of profanity in his novels, either.

He does, however, include faith elements when they fit. “If faith is integral to the particular story, I have no qualms writing about it,” he says.

Is it hard to watch his books be adapted into movies?

“Not at all,” he says. “I like the movies. I mean, come on, The Notebook’s almost a modern classic, right? So I’ve been very fortunate.”

Family First

New Bern, North Carolina, is where Sparks and Catherine reside, along with their five children: Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah. The North Carolina coast is also a familiar backdrop for most of his novels. His family, says Sparks, is his top priority. Should he happen to get caught up in other things and lose focus, though, he says his wife will surely help him regain it.

“I’m married to a wife who makes no bones about the fact that, in her opinion, family comes first. That’s it. So I’m expected to do that. You have to make time every day for that,” he says.

Writing, he says, is his next priority.

“Everything else—whether it’s television or film or philanthropy, anything like that—you end up hiring really good people and you delegate much authority to them to make sure that they run well. I have a tremendous team of people around me,” he says.

Giving Back

Part of his faith is reaching out to help others, says Sparks.

“I’ve been blessed with good fortune,” he says. “And my kids certainly have. It’s important to share it with your neighbors; it’s just important. It gives great meaning to my wife and me, and we not only donate money, but we donate a substantial amount of time. My wife and I volunteer in various capacities, not only for the school, probably 20–25 hours a week for all sorts of different causes. It’s just important to us.”

In fact, Sparks spent four years coaching track and field at the local public high school in New Bern. He is also a major contributor to the Creative Writing Program (MFA) at the University of Notre Dame, where he provides scholarships, internships, and a fellowship annually.

In 2006, Sparks and Catherine started The Epiphany School of Global Studies, a Christian school in their hometown. According to the school’s website, the focus is on global education, service to others and one’s own community, and international understanding.

Sparks says the school is not explicitly Catholic because the “town is too small to just have a Catholic school, really. You couldn’t fill up the student body.” He says that while the curriculum is not Catholic doctrine, faith is certainly part of the school. In fact, the students see what Jesus regards as the most important of the commandments— love God and your neighbor as yourself at all times—right there in the school’s gathering space.

Sparks admits that while he and his wife fund the school, “it is really an experimental type. Our students are pioneers in a new educational model. My wife and I, like everyone else, know there are problems with schools in general in the United States. To us, one of the real big problems is that there just isn’t the international, cultural awareness in American schools that we really need now.”

Part of that need, he believes, comes from the growth of the Internet. “Information now travels at the speed of light. It’s overthrowing governments, and so moving forward into the 21st century, you have to know the world.”

He is realistic, however. “Obviously we can’t change every school in the country, but what we can do is say, ‘OK, we’ve tested all these things. These are the best. These are what works here. And so if you want to help your school, here you go. This information is free. Don’t make the same mistakes we did.’ So it’s really an information service in which we’re the experimentees.”

One Step Further

In 2011, the family’s philanthropic work expanded even further with the establishment of the Nicholas Sparks Foundation, which showcases on a national level the work being done at the Epiphany School.

Through the foundation, Sparks and his wife are committed to improving cultural and international understanding through global education experiences for students of all ages. According to Sparks’ website, “between the foundation, and the personal gifts of the couple, more than $10 million has been distributed to deserving charities, scholarship programs, and projects. Because Nicholas and Catherine Sparks cover all operational expenses of the foundation, 100 percent of donations are devoted to programs.”

One of the programs of the foundation is providing prosthetic limbs and service dogs for veterans.

“My wife and I come from very military families, up and down on both sides,” says Sparks, “so the military has been part of our lives for forever. The goal of the foundation is to provide a very specific form of assistance because we want to focus our money on an area that can make a great difference. We provide prosthetic limbs to veterans who’ve lost their arms or legs, because the VA will give you some, and sometimes they work. But sometimes they don’t. And there’s a cost limit that the VA can’t exceed.

“That’s where the foundation comes in. It gets you the leg you need or the arm you need to be able to function. We also provide assistance dogs. It’s just something that means a lot to us.”

Faith and Charity

When asked whether his philanthropy has changed his faith or helped it grow, Sparks says he thinks what he does is “just part and parcel [of his faith]. I think it goes to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ We’ve been very blessed, and it’s important to us.”

But that’s not to say even this author’s faith is without its bumps. “We struggle with our faith like everyone else,” he admits. “There are moments when you wonder if it’s all real. And yet, to me, philanthropy, or altruism in general—just when you’re doing something for no other benefit than to do something kind for another—to me, that’s the surest existence of God in this world.”

What’s Next?

At the time we spoke, Sparks was working on another novel. And while Safe Haven is just hitting theaters this month, Sparks reveals that another movie, based on his book The Best of Me, is in the works. Ever busy, he says that in addition, “there’s a bunch of other stuff—philanthropy, television, Broadway . . . I could go on and on. I’ve got a lot of little moving pieces.”

But at the end of the day, all those moving pieces come together to reveal one thing: Nicholas Sparks, successful author and philanthropist, is just, at heart, an all-around family guy.

Books by Nicholas Sparks

The Notebook (1996)
Message in a Bottle (1998)
A Walk to Remember (1999)
The Rescue (2000)
A Bend in the Road (2001)
Nights in Rodanthe (2002)
The Guardian (2003)
The Wedding (2003)
Three Weeks with My Brother (2004)
True Believer (2005)
At First Sight (2005)
Dear John (2006)
The Choice (2007)
The Lucky One (2008)
The Last Song (2009)
Safe Haven (2010)
The Best of Me (2011)