Author Nicholas Sparks crafts stories that are universal in their appeal. His characters are the people we encounter in our everyday lives, and circumstances they face are ones with which we're familiar. He's an athlete, a philanthropist, a novelist, and with the upcoming release of The Last Song, a screenwriter. [See the trailer for the film at the end of this article]
We sat down in a room overlooking the beach in Santa Monica to talk about his new film, his family, and people who inspire him, as well as our mutual love of the ocean and the different coasts of the United States.
After growing up and living in the Midwest (Omaha, NE) and the West (Southern California and Sacramento), how did you wind up in the Carolinas?
Nicholas: I was selling pharmaceuticals, and when my wife and I had our first baby, she made it clear that she wanted to stay home when the child was young. I said, "Ok, but on my little salesman's salary, we can't afford a house here in California." So we had to move to a less expensive area of the country.
She agreed and we chose that based on weather: I didn't want the snow, she didn't want the desert. I didn't want the rain. So we picked the Carolinas and Virginia and a territory opened up.
When you look back and compare your life now to life then, what kind of changes do you see in yourself?
Nicholas: Less than you would think. You are who you are, regardless. One thing that my agent and I often talk about is that power, success and money are essentially amplifiers. Who you were beforehand, you become more. If you were a little bit narcissistic before, you're probably going to be super narcissistic afterward, if you can get away with it. If you were a humble person before your success, you'll probably downplay your success and remain a quiet and good person.
Most of the time, I don't feel like a famous author, or writer. I'm a writer. I live in a house with five children with problems and four dogs with problems, and I've got a wife. That's who I am; I'm a writer. Every now and then I'll actually finish a novel and then I'm a novelist again or I'm on tour. Then I go back to being a writer again.
But it's my job; it's what I do. I do my best at it. But then, a lot of people do their best at what they do, and it certainly doesn't make me unique. When you started the screenplay, it was because Disney came to you about a project possibly for Miley Cyrus, right?
Nicholas: Yes, they came to me and said Miley might want to do this, so they didn't guarantee she would do it or that they would even make this film. So I approached it as a novel, and though I knew who Miley was, I didn't know a whole lot about her.
She lives on one coast, I live on the other. I don't watch Hannah Montana, but my daughters do. They love it, and they're her biggest fans. But I've never watched an entire episode.
She gave me some elements she wanted: she didn't want to sing; she didn't want Billy Ray to be her dad. She wanted it to involve animals and she got to name the character. But other than that, I didn't really consult her. I didn't know that she couldn't play piano when I put it in there.
She wanted to work with me because she wanted the story I would write anyway. So I went in and said, "This is the story I'm going to write," and Miley would have to adapt to me more than I would have to adapt to her. But she's a 17-year old girl. She knew what I do, they had an awareness of what I do. I certainly had an awareness of what Disney will approve of, and what her parents would approve of. So there was an awareness all around. Do you think there were any surprises?
Nicholas: Not necessarily, because I laid out the story for them first. Some of the elements surprised them because when they read the script, they broke down in tears. Isn't that amazing? You know what's coming yet you still break down in tears. I think the reason that happens is because you write stories and events that are so relatable, and if someone has experienced what your characters do, it stirs that up. How much is from your experience?
Nicholas: I lost both my mother and father, as well as my sister to cancer. I've certainly had my fair share of tragedy. Other people have had more, of course. But I do draw on my experiences.
You get angry and rail that it isn't fair. Then you want to bargain. If I do this, then it's all going to be OK. If I finish the stained glass window, it's going to make it better. But life doesn't work like that. It's sad and there are some really hard moments.
I try to draw from some of my own experiences for those elements. Julie Ann Robinson, the director, mentioned in an interview that you have a profound understanding of human emotion. Where does that come from?
Nicholas: I guess I was blessed with a good mom and a good dad. I married well. My life has zoomed up and down. I've had success on some levels followed almost immediately by tragedies on others.
Look at 1996: an unknown author sells his book out of the blue for $1million. Wow! This is great! That was in November. In January of 1997, my second son was diagnosed as severely autistic. Then back to the book – the Literary Guild wants it and it's sold in all these countries so you're getting ready to go off on this major tour and you know it's going to be a best seller. Then a week before I go off on tour, my dad dies.
Then the book hits the best seller list and your sister's cancer comes back. It's very much of an emotional wave, so I ride it as best as I can. My wife and I have adapted and try not to go too high or too low, choosing to stay in a medium range. But it certainly makes me more aware of human emotions.
Greg Kinnear (who plays Steve, the father) said that you have a wonderful way of keeping secrets and reveal them at just the right moment.
Nicholas: I suppose that's a function of experience in writing. I've been writing for a long time, and that's one of the big challenges: how to pace it to reveal the right things at the right moments. That's the challenge of telling a good story that people will remember for a long time. I think The Last Song will be shown for a long time. After it has its studio run, it will run for a long time on TV. It's a good story that every girl will like. It's clean and chaste and young love. You mentioned in your notes on the book that you injected a very strong element of faith into the book on purpose, but it's not in the film.
Nicholas: You're limited by time in screenplays. In the novel, it was a great journey for the dad, who wants to experience the presence of God. It's very natural because he knows what's happening. He's running out of time and wants to know what it's about, what the answer is before he goes.
It's very effective in a novel, but how do you show it in a film? It's hard to film introspection. You'd need more conversations with the pastor, or other things like that. There just wasn't time. Some things have to stay in and some have to be taken out.
If you want The Last Song from Nicholas Sparks' perspective, read the book. The movie is The Last Song from Julie Ann and Disney's perspective. I love them both, but the book is really me.
I don't shy away from faith because I'm embarrassed by it or because I don't think it will be accepted. I made it really strong in A Walk to Remember, and I have no problem doing it all. It just fit in better with that story because she's the daughter of a pastor and it was natural for it to come up.
If you could invite one person living or dead to your home to spend a weekend with your family, whom would you invite?
Nicholas: Dr. Seuss. There's a guy who taught a lot of people to read. He also won an Olympic gold medal. He was an Ivy League student and an artist. I think he'd be a lot of fun.