Books

09.18.13

Nicholas Sparks: How I Write

The bestselling author, whose new novel is The Longest Ride, talks about watching TV while he writes, and how his films have changed his novels.

NC: Where do you live and why? 

NS: I live in New Bern, North Carolina. I choose to live here because, to me, it feels like home. I’ve lived here for 20 years. I love the geography, the genuine kindness of the people, the small-town atmosphere. It’s been a wonderful place to raise my children. 

NC: Where’s the best barbecue in North Carolina? 

NS: Yeah, well it’s easy: the Eastern Carolina barbecue, with the vinegar and the red pepper on your pulled pork! Moore’s Barbecue, here in New Bern, is fabulous, one of the great old-time, smoked pulled-pork joints. 

Describe your morning routine on a day you’d be writing. 

I wake up about 5:30, get into my workout clothes. Have coffee, read three newspapers (the Raleigh newspaper, the local, and The New York Times) while I’m having breakfast. Interspersed with 200 squats, in sets of 50. See the kids off, they take off around 7:20. I go up to my gym and do the main part of my workout, which will include various calisthenics, followed by a four-mile run. That ends around 8:45. I shower, then about 9:15 I’ll head into the office, do emails and paperwork for about half an hour, and at 9:45 I sit down and start writing. I write until 12:30, have lunch with my wife for 45 minutes, then head back and write some more, ’til 3 or 3:30. Kids get home from school, I’ll say hey to them. I usually have some emails to answer, work in Los Angeles related to TV or film, so I’ll do that and finish up around 5, 5:30. Then I try to unwind. 

Wow, that’s a full day. What do you do to unwind?

I’ll read, spend time with the kids, swim, walk the dog, cook with the wife, go to a movie. Whatever.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I write with the TV on. I always have to have it on. I usually watch DVDs of films or TV series that I’ve seen multiple times. I never want to watch anything new, because otherwise I want to watch it. I use it as a sort of background noise.

I lean back in my chair, put my feet on the desk, put the computer in my lap.

I recently heard about a website that plays the background noise of a coffee shop, so you can have it on when you’re working. A bit of background buzz is supposed to make us more efficient.

Well, I prefer my television. I’m not sure I could write to the background of a coffee shop. I like to be able to glance up from the screen and see something I recognize.

Do you wind up watching one series over the course of writing one book, or is it not quite that organized?

Yeah, it’s usually one series or two, depends on the length of the book. I watch House or Seinfeld or Cheers or Dexter, all sorts.

All of your books have been New York Times bestsellers. Tell me about your reaction when you learned that the very first one made the list.

That was exciting! It made the list the first reporting week, I think it tied for 10th the first week that The Notebook was out.

What was the process like for you when the first film was made from one of your books, and how does the process differ for you now, when your eighth book is filmed?

The process is primarily different in the conception of the story. Now I try to come up with a story that will be dynamic, creative, and interesting both as a book and as a film. Early on I just concentrated on the novel. Because I’ve had so many films made, and there are certain elements that repeat in my novels (North Carolina, love stories), I now have to think of ways to make those stories original, distinct from one another, in book and film formats. So now I have to take the novel and a potential film into account. So many ideas are rejected, because they wouldn’t work in one or the other of those media. Once I have the idea, however, the process is very similar to the way it’s always been—focused on the novel.

Do you find yourself conceiving of scenes in your novel in a cinematic way, in terms of how they would be filmed? Does that change your writing style at all?

Not once I start writing. I can see that it can be a film as I go, but there’s no guarantee that it will be a film, so it’s only about making the novel as good as it can be as a novel.

Might you take a more forward role, perhaps directing or writing screenplays?

I’ll continue to be a producer, which means I’m involved in the process of selecting a screenwriter, director, casting, and you’re on set, so you have producer roles. But I’d never see myself as a director. That’s a skill, an art form, unto itself.

Tell me about your nonprofit.

My wife and I founded a nonprofit because we are very passionate about education. We founded a school in my hometown of New Bern, North Carolina, and really the role of the foundation is to take what we’ve learned at that school, and make that information available around the country. To make that kind of leadership schooling available, to implement the kind of training that we’ve initiated. Schools need workable models to follow, with real-world solutions in real-world settings. That information is less common than you’d think, real-world tested ideas. So the role of the foundation is to do studies and literally put out guidelines, ways to implement an international travel program, for instance. To engage students with citizens around the world. How do you implement a successful Spanish-immersion program, so students are fluent by the 4th grade, while still caught up with their other subjects, as well?  The questions of how to do these things are challenging in real-world settings. We look at the data and provide practical guidelines, so schools can take programs we draw up in their entirety, or bits and pieces.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

No, I map it out in my head. By that I mean everything that I need to know about the novel could be put down in, oh, a page and a half of bullet-points. That includes the beginning, the end, the major turning points, a little bit about the characters, time frame, setting, voice, length, some secondary characters. Once I have that, I let the rest of the story fill itself in from there.

Do you have a word count you aim for each day?

Two thousand words.

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

I think it’s a great character voice and an interesting situation.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

I tend to like it neat. I clean off all the mail, my to-do list. When I write, I lean back in my chair, put my feet on the desk, put the computer in my lap. That’s my position.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

I just went to Rio and at my first stop there, in São Paulo, the crowd was so large that they had to take me through the bowels of the mall. I had to climb through a concrete hole and down a welded fire escape ladder to get into the store. Otherwise I never would’ve made it in!

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I’m a black belt in tae kwon do.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

I suppose my name, “beloved husband and father,” the dates I was around, and the words, “Reading was my passion.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.