Some say Nicholas Sparks has thwarted the romantic expectations of a generation. Some call his stories throwbacks. But others—the largest group of others—love him. They quote The Notebook, sigh "What man out there is like Noah?" One writer called the The Notebook "a pop-culture deep tissue massage," but even if Sparks' gauzy tales of southern love are wrapped in Hallmark hokum, there's something to his stories of normal people experiencing big love despite the pressures of life. In his latest, The Lucky One, Zac Efron plays an Iraq War Marine who can honestly say a picture of a beautiful blonde stranger saved his life. When he's sent home, he sets out to find her—a trek that takes him from Colorado to Louisiana by foot. And the single mom he meets (Taylor Schilling) couldn't be less impressed by his stunt. Is he crazy? Will they fall in love? Is destiny real? Sparks says yes, yes and yes—and explains his secrets to writing romances so swoony that men get angry that he's raising female expectations.
Of all the genres to write, why'd you pick romance?
Why? People like them—if they're done well. And they're much harder to do well than people might imagine. I just listed out my top five romantic dramas of all time and I think I picked Ghost and Titanic and Casablanca and Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman. But there are so many others like When Harry Met Sally or From Here to Eternity or even Gone with the Wind. These are great little stories. And yet, after that the pickings get pretty slim pretty darn fast. But you can name ten great thrillers, ten great comedies, ten great westerns, way more than ten great war movies.
Romance is just a challenging film to do well. While the romance has to be the central subject, it won't work unless you've evoked all the other emotions first because you have to root for the character. And to root for the character, you have to really know the character. And to know them, you have to see them go through these ups and downs—see them happy, or frustrated, betrayed or lost—see them when they're hopeful, or when their hopes are dashed. When you think of these movies I've mentioned, you see all of these elements. Looks so easy when it's done well and it resonates for years afterward. Titanic was just re-released, people love The Notebook or A Walk to Remember, because they're done well. It's a tremendously challenging film genre and you can say the same about literature. There's a tremendous difference between what I do than romance novels, which have totally different rules.
A romance novel is a romantic fantasy. The man is an object, as opposed to a character.
Zac Efron is not an object?
They will always end up together in a romance novel. They have to end up together happily because you have to know what to expect. What I do, the romantic drama, is different. You create female characters not defined by the men in her life. Beth in The Lucky One is intelligent, quick-witted. She'll fall in love with Logan but who's the center of her life? Her son—no matter what. Logan has to adapt to her story and he's his own full character. And of course, there's no guarantee the film ends happily ever after. If you've seen any of my stories, sometimes they do. But you read them because you don't know what to expect.
Or you have a hope.
They should all end in hope.
One of the more important points of the film is the idea that romantic love is tied to destiny. Does love have to be fated to be ideal?
Destiny and fate are real, but only evident in retrospect. Your fate and your destiny with another are largely tied to the choices you make. In other words, after Logan found the photo, it could have been his lucky charm. He could get home from the war and put it aside. But that's not what he does. He sets out to make a series of conscious and unconscious decisions that put him on a path to meet this woman and eventually fall in love. So you can only go back and say, "It was fate."
Your producer Kevin McCormick said the story gives you the feeling of "surprise and inevitability," which sounds annoyingly safe.
Lemme tell you the story of how my wife and I met. I think this'll sum it up. I was on spring break in Florida. My wife was on spring break in Florida. She was from the University of New Hampshire. I was from the University of Notre Dame. We go out on a Monday night. I'm with my three friends, she's with her two friends. We pull into the parking lot of a condominium. She and her two friends are walking past us. I find her attractive right away. But then she walks right past us. A few minutes later they call down to us from the balcony. They say, "Hey, are you guys staying here?" We say "Yes" and they say, "We're supposed to meet some friends here, but they're not here yet. Can we use your bathroom?" We say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, go to room number..." Oh, I don't remember what room we were in.
You don't remember? How unromantic!
Ha! So her friends arrive and we all go out. We go to the beach together on Tuesday and Tuesday night, I tell her we're going to get married. We've now been married 23 years and have five children. I will say this: What would have happened if I'd hit a red light on the way home? We're talking about five seconds in the parking lot. What if we'd driven just 10 miles slower on the way home? Never would have seen her, never would have married her. And all the female characters I've ever written are kind of her: passionate, intelligent, great sense of humor, strong, not defined by men, loyal but when they fall in love they fall deeply, they're true to themselves. These are the characteristics of all of them, whether it's Allie, or Jamie, Beth or Savannah. They're all the same-they're all kind of my wife.
So she's The One?
Well, there's fate. But was it inevitable? Of course not. You make this series of conscious and unconscious decisions and you move forward. You can look back and call it inevitable, but you're a little more in control of your fate than you realize. Fate is evident only in retrospect.
You're describing a nostalgia for something that hasn't happened yet.
My films do have a nostalgic feel to them, but why is that? What is that? The world changes, but I'm also of the belief people change much slower. First, technology changes, then culture, then somewhere way, way, slower, people change. The emotions people feel, I don't think they've changed in 300 or 1,000 years. These films make that point. You can set The Notebook, as we did, in 1946 and you know who loves it? Girls born in 1996. So when I talk about nostalgia, or how people say it's the way things used to be in a simpler time, I just move away from all these changes in the world and remind you people are people and they seldom change. When Romeo and Juliet fell in love in that play in the 1600s, it was as deep and passionate as anything I'm writing 500 years later. People change little. It feels like reminding you of the past, but it's really just telling you things don't change.
I should think you'd meet men angry you were raising the expectations of their women.
Yes! Not too angry—it's more teasing—but yeah. All I'm trying to do is write a really good story! I think people are people and relationships are not easy—any relationship—and it's not defined only by what you get out of them, but what you give. Relationships are what you put in. It's all in good fun, right? The Notebook was inspired by my wife's grandparents, Dear John was inspired by my cousin, The Lucky One was inspired by an image I found, and my neighbor after he'd come back from deployment.
Do you think modern romances are just a bunch of quirks?
All my characters have quirks. Logan is suffering from PTSD, has survivor guilt, is crazy enough to walk across country, he lies to Beth, he's tormented by the guilt and in the end he's willing to leave. These are all problems. He's not rich, never went to college—for some people these are deal breakers. He isn't perfect. Beth is a girl who made a mistake, gave up her dreams and college for her kid, doesn't get along with the ex, but thinks her son should have a good man in his life—problem is that man isn't always so good. Then her grandmother's sick and she can't even do what she started out to. Her whole life is one big "I'm here in this and I can't get out." She sees Logan and hates him because she hates the Marines. Her brother was a Marine shot in friendly fire—as far as she's concerned Logan could have shot her brother.
How do you make all of that not sound melodramatic?
There's a fine line between drama and melodrama. I try to thread that needle. There's a fine line between the familiar and the clichéd. I try to thread that needle. And there's a fine line between evoking genuine emotion and manipulating emotion and I try to walk that fine line. I'm aware of it throughout the entire process of writing the novel and I'm aware of it throughout the entire process of the filming and editing and when it comes out.
Whether or not we go too far in one direction or another is a matter of opinion. All I can say is: you think it's melodramatic now? I could have shown you melodrama! He could have been violent or alcoholic, waking up with dreams and the sweats, we could have made his PTSD really big. But it was quieter. He walks to heal. Which is just as crazy, but it's not clichéd—it's subtle. I try to create flawed characters that aren't too deeply flawed because I don't find deeply flawed all that interesting. I think it's really easy to be deeply flawed. It's easy to write it, it's easy to live it, it's easy to be an alcoholic—just drink every day. It's really easy. What isn't easy is facing the enormous pressures of life and not doing it.
These are just ordinary people, and that's why people like them, because they say, "I could know someone like Beth," or "I know someone who had a baby who doesn't get along with the dad so well, and she's trying to do her best for the kid and it's hard." That's a good person. And who doesn't know someone in the military who came home and it's hard to get back into life, hard to have lost people you love. And everyone has lost someone. Think of that: they were all your best friends and you're the only one that survived. How do you deal with that? You walk.
Should people find your work instructive?
Guys tease me and it's in good fun. Girls say "I'll never find a guy like Noah!" Look, I know a lot of good guys and good girls and they meet and they're happy together. I know a lot of them. I meet them and I can tell you for every person who says, "You're ruining things!" I meet someone who says, "This is my Landon," "This is my Noah," "This is my John Tyree." Right? I get a lot of that. I was at an event yesterday and three people came up and said of a story that I wrote, "That's me and my boyfriend."
We see romance in film, we think that's what love is supposed to look like. I hear you say "It's in good fun" and we all know this is fiction, but you also say these stories come from real life. There's a tension there, no?
Not necessarily. The purpose of the genre in which I work is to move the reader or viewer through all of the emotions of life and that's why the romantic elements work. You don't get to see all of that with your neighbors at work. You don't necessarily see this about students you teach. Maybe you see this with friends and family but most people don't want you to see them when they're angry, or jealous, or envious. So you tend to relate to these characters because you've gone through these emotions with them. If you go straight to the romantic element, it won't work because that's not real life. It's the purpose of the genre. I wouldn't try to write a horror novel and not try to scare you.