A cold December wind was blowing, and Teresa Osborne crossed her arms as she stared out over the water. Earlier, when she’d arrived…” Even though he wrote The Notebook 16 years ago, Nicholas Sparks can still quote you these opening lines as well as the entire story. This beloved author was reciting the novel while pretending to type on the vintage typewriter brought in for the photo shoot. (I made a mental note to ask him if he has all his novels memorized.) With 16 books under his belt – many of which are bestsellers, and subsequently turned into movies – there is no question Sparks is one of the most successful writers working today. And while success of his level is only shared with a few, it’s not the journey to the top that interests me most, but rather what one does with the success. In that vein, Nicholas Sparks should be the poster child. This loving husband, father of five, coach, mentor and philanthropist, not only balances all of these aspects of his life with ease, but in turn passes his incredible blessings on to others.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine at Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: You wrote The Notebook in 1994, and with Safe Haven’s release that makes 16 books in 16 years, a daunting task for anyone…what drives you to keep this schedule? You’re not tempted to take a couple years off?
Nicholas Sparks: Primarily it’s an internal motivation. It’s the nature of my personality. I like to set goals and then try to reach them. Every time I finish a novel my thoughts almost immediately turn to the next potential story. My goal is always to make the next one – the one I’m going to start writing – the best thing I’ve done in my life. It’s a challenge and I’m just driven by challenges.
RM: Many of your books have been turned into movies…navigating Hollywood can’t be an easy task. How do you know who to trust?
NS: I have great agents and most of my novels are adapted with repeat people.
money or fame or power, are simply amplifiers. You become more of the person that you originally were.
RM: It seems like you’re getting more involved with creative control in the film industry, which has got to be pretty fun…you wrote the screenplay for The Last Song and I hear you’re going to produce Safe Haven. Is there a particular significance with this book, or just something you’ve wanted to do?
NS: It was time for me to be a producer and have a little bit more input into the way the film is made. It sounds fun and it’s something I haven’t done before. It will be a new experience, and that’s probably the extent of it. Just because I’m a producer now doesn’t mean I know everything there is to know about producing… that’s why I have two other producers. They know a lot about it. For me, I think I know a little bit about story, but for everything else, I’m more than content to let them take the lead and I’ll sit back and learn.
RM: By the world’s standards you’d be considered one of the most successful writers of our time… how do you view success?
NS: When I get there I’ll let you know what it’s like. It’s always the next thing for me. It’s impossible not to look back on my life and to realize the good fortune I’ve had and the blessings I’ve received. It’s impossible not to realize that my life is different now than it would have been had I not done any of this. But the most important thing to understand about my chosen profession, or anything really in the entertainment field, is that money or fame or power, are simply amplifiers. You become more of the person that you originally were. If you weren’t that nice, you’re not very nice at all; if you were kind of into yourself, you become a total narcissist; if you were a good guy, you become more philanthropic; it’s just an amplifier. And so it’s important not to take any of those things too seriously because they don’t change who you are, it just makes more of it.
RM: In terms of amplifying, I’d say your generosity and your spirit of giving back is what gets amplified as your success grows. Your life is not going to be defined by your career; you get tons of attention for your books and films but there is so much more to Nicholas Sparks… like investing your time and money into kids’ lives. Especially through track & field where you volunteered as a coach and built a track for a club whose runners come from low-income and at-risk families. Why does this hold such a special place in your heart?
NS: Thank you. Track and field changed my life. It was how I got to college. It was a way for me to chase dreams, to succeed and fail on a daily basis, to get up and try again, to learn to persevere, to learn discipline – it was wonderful in all of those areas and I wanted to share that with other kids. And I just happened to live in a town with a lot of poor kids, and they ended up being the fast ones. [Laughter].
RM: Your son is one of those kids.
NS: Well he would be one of the rare exceptions. For the most part, the kids who were really fast came from not the greatest backgrounds. That didn’t mean they were bad kids, it was just that they came from tough, tough backgrounds – gangs, violence, drugs, and a lot prison in their family and trouble with the law – and it was a great outlet to get them to focus on something positive and to move toward their own dreams in the future.
Between the club and the high school program, I don’t know how many kids we sent off to college on track scholarships, maybe 90-100. For most of them they were the first in their families ever to attend college. It was a lot of fun and we had a lot of success doing it. We were voted the High School Track & Field Team of the Year in 2009. My high school team, over four years, won four straight state championships, and 17 national championships, and set national records… and so it had its moments of fun too as a coach.
RM: Do you ever think you’d develop a sports themed book?
NS: Maybe. I have a non-fiction book under contract but I haven’t decided what it is going to be – whether it will be on fatherhood, the track program, or the Christian school that I started.
…just because you have tragedy or something bad happens to you, it is not a free pass to ignore the other responsibilities in your life.
RM: Speaking of the Christian school, The Epiphany School, you started in North Carolina is rooted in the Christian faith and focuses on a global education. Tell me more about what the kids learn and why you founded it?
NS: First off, it is a Christian school, and yet when you’re in the South that has a very strong connotation of a severe form of fundamentalism. The Epiphany School is not that. The Epiphany School does not teach any doctrine, and is not affiliated with any church whatsoever. You do not have to be Christian to go there and you do not have to be Christian to teach there. The slogan for our school is what Jesus himself said was the greatest of the commandments, Love God and your neighbor as yourself. So for us [founded school with his wife] that’s what the real core depth of Christianity means. Living the example of Christ, do service, be courageous, be a good person, treat others with kindness, and love God. And if you do that I think you really develop a well-rounded student spiritually. The school is however, a very rigorous college prep program.
The students average about $90,000 per student in college merit scholarships. That’s not financial aid, that’s not athletic, that’s strictly merit. One of the reasons (for such a high cost) is that it is truly a global education… if you come in as a freshmen, by the time you graduate, you’ll have visited 23 countries on 6 continents, spent 213 days abroad, be fluent in Spanish, learned the culture of all the countries you’ve visited, spent time doing service work in all the countries you visited, plus enjoyed all the great sights.
An example would be, our sophomores, like sophomores across the country, would learn about the Holocaust. They would read The Diary of Anne Frank and Night by Elie Wiesel. But then the difference with The Epiphany School is then in March, we put them [students] on a plane and fly them to Poland and they tour Auschwitz and Auschwitz 2, also known as Birkenau. They go to Krakow and see the painted line in the road which defined the Jewish quarter, they go to Warsaw where the uprising was held, they see the sight of Schindler’s factory in Prague, they see Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, and it brings it home. They see all the shoes and the luggage, and they walk through the gas chambers and it brings it home. They’re in Poland, they’re in Germany, they’re in Czechoslovakia and Demark, and now they understand. Auschwitz to them means more probably than to other students because they’ve walked that hallowed ground.
It is very important to my wife and me that we keep the tuition very low so that opens up the opportunity to attend the school to middle-class kids, even lower middle-class kids. If you realize… even with all the travel you’d be at $36,000 for 4 years… remember you’re averaging $90,000 in merit-based scholarships, and then if you’re an athlete you get more, and if you need financial aid, which many of our students do, you get more. So a lot of them go to college for a very low cost.
RM: That’s amazing – sign me up! I want to go back to school. What better way to learn than to be hands-on and traveling… which begs the question, have you given thought to expanding this model nationwide?
NS: A lot schools tend to overspend on buildings. We don’t have any classrooms that aren’t in use, ever. We’ll throw up a mobile classroom if needed. Is our school the prettiest in the U.S.? No.
RM: But you can access the world as your classroom.
NS: Sure. They learn about the weather and the rainforest and the ecosystems, so of course we load them on a plane and fly them to Costa Rica. And they hike through the rainforest, and take bungee jumps, and go white water rafting… they hike through the Monte Verde Cloud Forest, they go horseback riding through the plains, they plant trees at the local schools and so they do that. Then they learn about the South Americans, and the next thing you know they’re hiking the Incan Trail heading to Maju Peetu.
RM: Obviously, with the idea of service and values, your faith is important to you, what role does it currently play in your life?
NS: It plays a central role in my life and it always has. Of course I go to church, but I don’t go to any one particular church – I kind of mix and match. I go to the Catholic Church one week, then the Methodist, and then the Baptist church – I roll around. It kind of depends on where the kids want to go. I think it’s important to keep kids interested. So Miles [his oldest son] and all his friends really like the Baptist church, so to keep a teenager going to church, you go to the Baptist church for a while. But then the girls’ friends are now at the Methodist church, so we go to that one. Really it depends what time we wake up on Sunday as to what church we go to.
RM: But it’s important that your kids have that foundation.
NS: And that they like it. I talk to God every day. A lot of times it’s at a very high volume with lots of cursing. But that is because God is my friend and He forgives. [Laughter]. It’s much easier to talk to God about my frustrations about writing then it is to burden my sweet, overworked wife with that stuff. So God gets the brunt of that. Then of course we talk it out, I do most of the talking, if not all.
And then you know it influences what I write in my novels. There’s not profanity, and kids don’t engage in premarital sex, and if there is premarital sex it’s within the context of a loving relationship, it’s not just a one-night stand, you know they [the characters] are going to be together forever. Like in The Notebook, it was there, but you knew they’re moving toward being together forever. I don’t write about adultery, so my faith influences all of those things as well.
RM: Everything you touch seems to turn into success. It’s clear God continues to not only bless your career, but use you to bless others through your words or resources. How does it make you feel to know the tremendous impact you have on others?
NS: I don’t know that I think of it that way. I don’t do many things, but the things I do, I try to do to the best of my own ability. And that’s the difference between me and, for instance, my wonderful brother. Like my brother… he’s sailed yachts, he can wakeboard, snowboard, ski, he mountain bikes, he does all of this… me, I ran. But I ran really fast; fast enough to get a scholarship. But he ran too. He does everything and has fun doing it. If I’m going to do something I want it to do well – whether it’s writing, starting a school, running track, coaching track, being a dad – so I’m very limited, I don’t have many distractions. There are so many things I can’t do at all. I can’t roller blade, I’m not a good fisherman, I don’t surf well – my brother can do all of these things.
RM: While your life seems too-good-to-be-true, you’ve still had your fair share of challenges…you’ve been open in talking about things your family has had to deal with – from cancer to car accidents and loss – how do you deal with tragedy?
NS: That’s a good question. What I do – and it’s funny because my brother and I are kind of the death experts among our friends because we went through it relatively young – we lost our mother, and then our father, and then our younger sister, until we were the only two left. And basically when someone says, ‘What was it like losing your mom?’ We say, ‘Well it’s going to suck for about 6 months. You’re going to miss them and it’s going to hurt. There’s not much anything anybody can do to make you feel a whole lot better.’ But then after about 6 months the pain of loss begins to fade, the emotional ache associated with it begins to fade. You’ll still remember missing them, but the pain associated with that leaves. So you just have to ride it out. What I’ve tended to do is to say, just because you have tragedy or something bad happens to you, it is not a free pass to ignore the other responsibilities in your life. I still had a wife, I still had children, I still had bills to pay, I still had my own dreams, and I still had all these things. Tragedy is not a permanent free pass to not lead the kind of life that you should lead.
RM: I’ve never met your wife, but she has to be incredible. Five kids, book tours, movies, people pulling you in every direction…what makes her the perfect partner for you?
NS: She takes a lot of things off my plate that I don’t have to worry about. My wife is a mom first and that takes a big load off. In other words, if I’m working I know my kids are getting to the doctor, and the dentist, and they are happy and loved. She handles the stuff around the house, she’s there to listen, she’s funny, she’s pretty, and she’s easy to talk to. She’s much like the female characters in my novels. She’s loyal, she’s confident, she’s strong… my wife is strong, she’s tough. I don’t mean physically, I could take her in an arm wrestle [Laughter]. But emotionally she’s very strong.
RM: I read that in your mid-twenties you thought your life was good, but you still wanted to chase your dream.
NS: I had a mid-life crisis.
RM: You didn’t want to look back and know you’d given up making your mark on the world. I’d say you’ve left a pretty big mark so far, what’s left that you still want to accomplish?
NS: I’ve kind of spent the last 12 years, flitting from thing to thing. I’ve coached the track team, I started the school, we’ve built the house, I studied economics and investing with Jim Rogers. I dabbled in non-fiction and right now I’m writing spec screenplays and producing movies in my spare time. And we’ll see, that will probably be a phase that lasts, like all of them, for 3-4 years and then it will be replaced by something new and I can’t tell you what that might be, could be anything, maybe I take up hang gliding, I don’t know.
RM: We were joking earlier during the photo shoot as you were reciting The Notebook while simulating typing on the vintage typewriter, do you really have all your books memorized?
NS: I have a funny memory. I memorize anything that I want to, in a relatively brief period of time. It’s not completely autodidactic, in other words I have to think about doing it. But yeah. For instance, if you gave me 100 random digits, just random digits, and you gave me, I don’t know, 3 minutes… I could remember it for 50 years, if I wanted. Backwards and forwards, pick up in the middle – I would know it. So it made school much easier than I suppose it is for other people.
RM: Wow, your mind is impressive! And is it also true that you still read 100 books a year?
NS: At least… about 3 a week.
RM: I’m sure that’s more than the average person. Are you reading for competition, for pleasure, have you always been a reader?
NS: I read for enjoyment, I read because it relaxes me. I learn something from every book that I read. Sometimes you learn how to do things well, and sometimes you learn how not to do them… but you learn.
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