NEW YORK – A puddle, that’s what Tyler Malik has been reduced to, a veritable puddle.
“He reaches and touches me to the core,” she says mid-sob, face raw, as Nicholas Sparks – that would be He – signs books, hundreds of them, at a Union Square bookstore.
Malik rose well before dawn and drove three hours from her Great Barrington, Massachusetts, home to be rendered a wreck. “Your stories mean more to me than I could ever explain in words,” she tells the author, clutching two copies of “Two by Two,” his latest tear de force.
Fans purchased more than 98,000 copies of the new novel in the opening week, further proof of Sparks’s indomitable appeal. His total sales number more than 100 million in 50 languages. This fall marks a significant milestone in Sparkslandia: 20 years and as many books since the onetime North Carolina pharmaceutical rep sold his first novel.
“The Notebook” crowned the bestseller list for more than a year. The movie, stuck for years in what the author calls “development heck,” finally appeared in 2004 and made Ryan Gosling a star (and a meme), and it transformed Sparks into the undisputed king of tear-soaked literature.
“I write in this strange little subgenre of what’s called a love story,” says Sparks, 50, sitting in his agent’s office, his face blanketed in foundation for the camera and a cavalcade of smartphone snaps. “People read them because they move the reader through the whole range of human emotion.”
A former champion runner, Sparks has the powerful physique of a man who works out religiously. He tends to answer questions with an intense earnestness that borders on confession, “oh, gosh” punctuating many of his sentences.
More than two decades ago, Sparks was a salesman with a dream: He wanted to produce a book like Erich Segal’s “Love Story,”Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” or Nicholas Evans’s “The Horse Whisperer,” then crushing the bestseller list.
If the love story “doesn’t go,” the Notre Dame graduate thought, “maybe my next book would be a horror story or a thriller.”
There would be no thrillers. Instead, Sparks accomplished what almost no one else in his strange little subgenre, which tends to consist of one-hit wonders, has: He became a brand.
Eleven books became movies about ordinary people in love who happened to be portrayed by extraordinarily gorgeous actors, grossing $885 million at the global box office. Says Sparks, “I think these movies lend themselves to people wanting to be cast in them because the actors themselves get to act and go through the entire range of human emotion.” Every book hit the New York Times bestseller list, often spiking to the top.
So, to celebrate his 20th anniversary in publishing, Sparks wrote a divorce story.
“Two by Two,” with a first printing of almost 1 million, refers to the adman hero, Russ, and his young daughter, whom he is left to raise alone after his wife leaves. Russ, Sparks says, is “empathetic and at times a little bit clueless.”
Indeed. When his wife begins labor, Russ jumps in the shower so he can look fresh for the birth photos, something Sparks admits he did when his wife, Cathy, went into labor with the first of their five children, now ages 15 to 25.
“Two by Two” features a salad bar of turmoil – illness, death, despair, adultery – but divorce dominates the narrative. (Fear not, the book also contains a love story.)
Divorce, alas, is something Sparks now knows. After 25 years of marriage, the laureate of love and Cathy, who long served as his muse, divorced last October, no reason given. “For our children’s sake, we regard this as a private matter,” Sparks said when the couple separated in January 2015. Fans lamented on Twitter: “There’s no hope for any of us.”
“The vast majority of the book was written after my divorce,” Sparks says. But, he adds, “I wanted to make sure the story felt authentic, the dissolution felt authentic, the pain felt authentic, the achingly slow healing felt authentic. Anyone who’s been through anything like this knows the healing is slow.” He hopes, however, that his audience won’t confuse his experience with the novel, especially the wife, Vivian, who will win no popularity contests. “Vivian is not Cathy,” he says. “We remain friends. Our story is different.”
As a gift to his readers, Sparks commissioned an original song for the book by musician JD Eicher, whose previous big break was having a tune selected for an Olive Garden commercial. He’s averaging 1,000 free daily downloads.
Eicher accompanied Sparks on his book tour – literally, singing while fans waited in line to have books signed – and witnessed a proposal at an appearance last week in suburban Denver, a regular Sparks phenomenon. Fans have also requested that Sparks write down favorite quotes so that they can get tattoos in his handwriting.
Two decades after his first tour, Sparks still appears thrilled to meet his fans, 90 percent of whom, he estimates, are women. His longest appearance, he recalls, lasted 17 hours: “I think I signed 6,000 books.”
There’s no formula to his stories. “Each time I think the well will be dry and I’ll run out of ideas,” he says. “One of the goals is to make each of these novels feel unique. To do that I vary as much as I conceivably can per novel. I’ll vary the theme. I’ll vary the ending: happy, bittersweet, tragic. I’ll vary the voice: first person, third person or some are combinations, like third person limited omniscient. I’ll vary the period, I’ll vary the length. Importantly, I’ll vary the age of the characters.”
But he knows what keep readers happy. “They know there will be a love story and it will be set in North Carolina,” he says. “Those are the only two constants.”
Theresa Park, a Harvard-trained lawyer, was a neophyte agent who had never sold a novel when she pulled “The Notebook” from a stack of unsolicited manuscripts in June 1995.
“The writing was so rough, but two-thirds through I got really choked up, and I’m the least romantic person on the planet,” she says. She recalls thinking, “If this is doing this to me, what’s it going to do to the rest of the women of the world? I felt that there was not a person on the planet who is not going to shed a tear.”
Jamie Raab, editor of all 20 books and president of Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing, had the same reaction. “I cried, and I almost never cry.” She offered $500,000 to pre-empt an auction.
“That’s not enough,” Park responded. “I was thinking of a lot of money, like ‘Horse Whisperer’ money.” Ten minutes later, Raab called back and proposed $1 million.
The three have worked together ever since.
“We never call them romances,” Raab says. “I think romance is formulaic. His books are not.”
Sparks, concerned that he might be a one-novel wonder, kept the salesman job for another 15 months after selling “The Notebook.” He became a very rich writer but chose to stay in New Bern, North Carolina, a central coastal town of 30,000. “It’s a very quiet life,” he says.
Quiet, but hardly simple. Sparks lives in a 24,000-square-foot house, a villa built from kisses, with a screening room, a bowling alley and a napping room, in addition to his writing room, where he plays television shows (“House,” “Big Bang Theory”) in the background while he writes. (Although Craven County was battered by Hurricane Matthew, Sparks’s home was undamaged.) And he writes fast, usually six months start to finish. He bought a Bentley. On his wrist is a Patek Philippe watch that costs a serious five figures. He has more.
A devout Catholic, Sparks founded the Epiphany School of Global Studies with Cathy a decade ago, a private institution “anchored in the Judeo-Christian commandment to Love God and Your Neighbor as Yourself,” according to the school’s website. His influence is everywhere. His face appears on the website homepage. “This summer I had this deadline for ‘Two by Two’ and I’m writing policies for the student handbook,” he says. “I think I’ve donated close to $15 million over the years.”
Why launch a school? “While the public school in New Bern is very good for many students, it doesn’t work for other students for whatever reason,” he says. “I just thought that having a choice would be a good thing for the town in which I live.”
In 2014, former headmaster Saul Hillel Benjamin filed a federal lawsuit against Sparks and Epiphany, charging racial and religious discrimination and bias against gay individuals. Sparks declined to comment. “The lawsuit is ongoing,” he says. “Of course, I have thoughts, but I don’t think it’s wise to say anything.”
Twenty years in, the Nicholas Sparks brand is going full force. “The Notebook” has been sold to the CW as a television series. Sparks’s agent says she is within “striking distance” of signing a Broadway deal for “The Notebook” as well. Potentially, it could be the soggiest musical ever – the rainstorm kiss onstage, verklempt fans producing squalls when Noah sings to Allie, “It wasn’t over! It still isn’t over!”
After three Sparks movies were released in 18 months, his team decided to hold back the movie rights on “Two by Two.” Says Park, “It was too much of a glut. We’re going to take a little break and give everyone a breather.”
A Sparks glut?
As Eicher sang and played guitar, and the team unrolled his latest book to weeping fans like Malik, Sparks felt the weight of his readers’ expectations.
He had scanned the packed house, the line snaking through the bookstore, and declared that the signing would last a little over an hour. Almost two hours, about 500 books and so many tears later, Sparks was done and heading to Pittsburgh to sell more.
He professed fatigue but looked rejuvenated while obsessing about the next book, No. 21, with the team.