Faith, Family and Fitness: An Interview with Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks is a devout Catholic, generous philanthropist, and the proud father of five children.  When not on tour advocating his 16 books or seven movies, he lives a quiet life in a sleepy town on the North Carolina coast.

Sparks is the reigning king of the romance novel genre, including best-sellers The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and Dear John.  He incorporates themes such as faith, forgiveness, and charity, and his realistic portrayal of Christian characters resonates with readers.

Sparks’ bittersweet novels translate well to the big screen, and his latest film project is The Last Song.  It will open March 31st, 2010, no doubt to huge crowds.  The movie stars Miley Cyrus, Greg Kinnear, Kelly Preston and handsome Australian newcomer Liam Hemsworth.  Julie Anne Robinson directs the ensemble cast.

The Last Song is the coming of age story of rebellious teen Ronnie Miller (Cyrus), who spends a memorable summer learning about romantic love, family love and love of neighbor.  Ronnie’s mother (Preston) forces her to spend her final summer vacation with her estranged father, Steve (Kinnear), who was her piano teacher before a painful divorce.  Feeling abandoned by her father, talented Ronnie turns down an offer to attend the prestigious Julliard and refuses to play the piano to spite him.

Over the course of the summer, Steve’s unconditional love slowly breaks through Ronnie’s emotional barriers as he helps her navigate the challenges of making new friends and falling in love with local boy Will Blakelee (Hemsworth).

After screening The Last Song, I had the opportunity to sit down with Nicholas Sparks to discuss this latest movie project, along with a few of his other passions.

Peggy Bowes: The novel has an overt Christian theme, but in the movie it’s very subtle.  What are your thoughts about that?

Nicholas Sparks:  It’s supposed to be subtle.  It’s a different medium.   Not that I say, “Oh, it’s Hollywood — I can’t.”  That’s not it at all.  It was very heavy, for instance, in A Walk to Remember.  [The main character, Jamie] is the pastor’s daughter, and she talks about God and Jesus.  Quite frankly, The Last Song is a different story.  In much of the novel, Steve’s journey is very introspective.  You get to know Steve through what he was thinking, as far as his views on faith.  It’s really tough to film that, but it’s in there.  It’s subtle, and it reflects the spirit of what I was trying to do without literally clunking you on the head with it.  You’ll see him read the Bible.  You see how he deals with his daughter — let’s say he “turns the other cheek”.  He works on the stained glass window for a church [depicting the Resurrection].  That’s about as much as I can do in that particular story.  I only have so many minutes to work with.

Bowes: In the past, you’ve based several characters on actual people in your life.  Jamie, in a Walk to Remember, is inspired by your younger sister.  In The Notebook, the lifelong love of your wife’s grandparents helped create the characters of Noah and Allie.  In The Last Song, Ronnie and Will meet on a beach and fall in love almost immediately.  That sounds a lot like the story of how you met your wife.  Are there any other similarities?

Sparks:  I was older, 22 at the time.  We were both seniors when we met on spring break.  We were on the beach, and I thought I was being charming.  She suddenly jumps up and says, “Excuse me for a moment,” and she walks up to two good-looking guys playing Frisbee.  She talks to them for about 10 minutes, and I think, “There goes my chance….”  Well, she comes back and says, “They were getting wild, and there were little kids over there.  I didn’t want them to get knocked over, so I told them to watch out.”  [Nicholas raises his voice for emphasis:] WHO, ON COLLEGE SPRING BREAK, is thinking about little kids?  Later, she stopped and held the door open for two older people.  WHO, ON COLLEGE SPRING BREAK, thinks about old people?  This is a quality person!

Now look at what Will sees in Ronnie.  He sees the way she treats her little brother.  He sees the way she treats the turtles, and he knows she doesn’t drink.  He sees these good things in her that say, “Wow — this is a good person!”  So that was a similarity as well.

Bowes: There’s quite a contrast between Ronnie and her new friend, Blaze.  Ronnie is so self-assured, while Blaze has a very low self-esteem.  You’re a parent and coach.  Any insight on how we can raise girls’ self-esteem?

Sparks:  I’m not a big believer in self-esteem.  The people with high self-esteem think they’re great, even though they didn’t do anything.  That’s a problem.  I am a big believer in self-confidence, and you have to earn that.

Ronnie devoted herself to the piano — she knows she’s good.  She developed confidence.  You have to give both boys and girls a passion, or something where they can succeed and fail.  You have to tell them it takes time, whether it’s piano, dance, cheer or soccer.  God gave everyone different gifts.  I think it’s important that parents insist that their kids pursue at least one thing — hard.  They have to pursue it, and it has to be inconvenient to them at times.  They can’t go to the party because of it.  They can’t be a vegetable in the afternoon because of it.  That’s where you get self-confidence — from knowing that you can do something.

Bowes: One of your many philanthropy projects was building a faith-based school in your hometown of New Bern, North Carolina.

Sparks:  It’s college prep, up to grade 12, with 100% [of the graduating students] off to college.  I think the average last year was $85,000 each in scholarships.  It’s regarded as rigorous among the colleges, even though it’s only been around for a short time.  It’s Christian, not Catholic, and you might wonder why. We don’t have enough Catholics in New Bern to fill up a high school!  We don’t teach doctrine.  You start with chapel, then a Bible reading, usually about how you can be a better person.

Bowes: The curriculum sounds so exciting, especially the global travel program.

Sparks:  It’s amazing.  You come in as a freshman, and by the time you leave, you will have visited 23 countries on six continents, spending over 200 days abroad.  All of these trips are not only educational but they’re also service-oriented.  For instance, my son is a sophomore, and he’s studying the Holocaust.  Next week, he’ll go to Poland and Czechoslovakia, seeing Auschwitz and the Jewish quarter in Krakow and Berkinow.  But they’ll also be doing service projects, working with a school out there.  I think it’s important to have both education and mission.

Bowes: You were a track and field star at Notre Dame, setting the record for the 4×800 relay, which still stands today.  You also coached high school track and begin each day with a workout.  Does your passion for fitness have any effect on your writing?

Sparks:  It keeps me from going crazy.  In times of high stress, whether it’s an interview or getting stuck on a section, you need a healthy outlet.  Fitness, for me, provides that.  I think health is very important.  I have children, and I think it’s important to be a good example.  My wife also makes time for exercise, and hopefully, the kids will grow up and they’ll say, “Well this has got to be a part of our lives too.”  I’m not telling them what kind of exercise to do, just — “You gotta move!”  Otherwise, it’s not good for you.

Bowes: Do you have a patron saint?

Sparks:  I’ve got two.  I lose everything, so St. Anthony is a good friend.  I am also Mr. Hopeless Cause, so St. Jude too.  I’ve done the whole publishing [novena prayers] for nine days in all sorts of newspapers — many times.

Note:  My review of the film, The Last Song, will be posted on Catholic Exchange when it’s released on March 31st.

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  • Claire

    I’ve seen Nicholas Sparks featured on EWTN, and I have to say that while I’m glad that he’s supposedly a “devout Catholic”, I have my doubts. I just recently read one of his novels (I think it was “Dear John”), and in one section the characters had premarital sex. The book did not comment on the morality of this, in fact it seemed to glamorize it. It’s one thing to keep the Christian theme of books subtle; it’s another to make it so subtle that immoral behaviors are condoned at worst or ignored at best. On EWTN he was questioned as to how he felt about the fact that when his books were made into movies, premarital sex was often incorporated into the plot. His response was that he had no control over how the producers altered his plots once he sold the movie rights. I bought that for a while until I read a couple of his books and saw that he himself includes immorality in his plots without commenting on it. I find it very disappointing. Why does a talented author feel the need to incorporate premarital sex into his story lines? Does he feel that this is the only way to sell books? I really hope someone who is familiar with his books can shed some light on this.

  • http://rosaryworkout.com Peggy Bowes

    Claire, I understand your concern! As far as Nicholas Sparks’ claim to be a devout Catholic, I did some research before the interview. I discovered that he attends Mass weekly, goes to Confession and has a son who is an altar boy. Based on my interview, he is also devoted to certain saints and has founded a faith-based school (see above). He has been married to the same woman for over 20 years and has five children. He donates money to various causes, and he sponsored a family who was left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. On paper, he seems to practice faith and charity. In person, he is friendly and personable.

    As far as premarital sex, it wasn’t a topic in this movie, so I chose not to bring it up in the interview. This issue HAS been covered in other interviews with Sparks, including the one you menitoned on EWTN and this one: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0145.html.
    I was looking for fresh questions that had not been brought up previously.

    If you’d like to read a book that celebrates chastity before marriage, then perhaps Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember” would interest you. It was also made into a movie, starring Mandy Moore.

  • fishman

    As I understand it Stephen King is a catholic too. Certainly there are elements of morality in some of his works. Still I would not say many of them are things I would encourage a Christian to read.

  • Claire

    Peggy, thank you for your response. I will certainly check out “A Walk to Remember”. However, even the link that you provided does not provide a good answer from him as to why he feels the need to feature premarital sex in so many of his novels. It does seem that his faith is very important to him, and that’s why I’m so baffled by this.

  • Ann

    I have to agree that the way Sparks has handled the issue of premarital sex in some of his books is disappointing. Since this article isn’t solely discussing the movie The Last Song, but also deals with a discussion of the character and person of Sparks himself, I find it surprising that you wouldn’t see a connection between the way important Catholic moral topics are handled in some of Sparks books and the integrity of his character.

    I’ve read The Notebook and I invite you, Peggy Barnes, to read it as well so you can have a better understanding of Sparks’s writing! (I bought it in an airport, and that’s what I consider Sparks to be…an airport novelist…)

    Regarding The Notebook, I don’t think there could be much argument against the fact that Sparks describes the sexual act between two unmarried persons without any sense of responsibility, glorifying it as though it is a committed, selfless act of love, when it is neither of those things. A misleading representation and a description that gets too detailed to honor what is appropriately an intimate act between a husband and wife.

    Since The Notebook and Dear John are mentioned by name in an article that praises the work of Sparks, they inadvertantly are promoted as well.

  • http://rosaryworkout.com Peggy Bowes

    I’m glad that my article has sparked such an interesting discussion! I do want to clarify a few things:

    First, my name is Peggy Bowes, not Peggy Barnes. :)

    Second, The Last Song is the first Nicholas Sparks book I have ever read. The stack of books by my bedside includes the Bible, a number of saints’ biographies, books on the Blessed Mother and the Rosary, and a few history books. I picked up a copy of The Last Song only when I received a somewhat last-minute notice of the interview. At first, I thought, “Beach read”. However, the more I read, the more I enjoyed the novel.

    As far as the interview, it was my first. As with every writing project I undertake, I spent quite a bit of time in prayer and reflection as well as in research and study. I had a long list of questions, but only 15 minutes to ask them. I chose what I thought were interesting topics that had not been covered before, to my knowledge. I tried to avoid questions that were asked over and over as Mr. Sparks tends to give the same answers to these. As I mentioned earlier, I did not ask a question about pre-marital sex because it was not an issue in the movie. Since I had not read his other novels, I didn’t see a need to tackle that subject at all.

    Finally, I did not mean to imply an endorsement of the other titles I listed by Nicholas Sparks. I simply selected a few of his better-known books. Ann, you introduced some valid points.

    Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

  • Claire

    Peggy, my comments weren’t in any way meant to criticize you or your interview. I just wanted to express my concern for his irresponsibility in how he handles premarital sex in some of his novels. I’m really pleased that this is not an issue in The Last Song, and I will definitely read the book and possibly try to see the movie (although I haven’t seen a movie since my son was born two years ago, so who knows!). I will also check out “A Walk to Remember”.

  • http://rosaryworkout.com Peggy Bowes

    Sometimes, virtual “conversations” can be difficult as there is no facial expression or body language to convey intentions. I always try to assume the best intentions from those who comment. My remarks were intended to clarify a few points, not to defend my article or choice of interview questions. :)

    Please understand that I am not endorsing Nicholas Sparks or any of his books or movies. This is not a book or movie review, it’s an interview, although it’s based primarily on a movie screening. (My actual review of “The Last Song” won’t be posted on catholicexchange.com until the movie is released on March 31st.)

    I did say that I enjoyed The Last Song novel,but it may not be suitable for everyone. Although there are no detailed sex scenes like the one described by another poster in a different novel, there are a few darker moments in the book. Some of the characters are less than exemplary. There is a very strong Christian theme, however, which I found refreshing in a “beach read” or “airport novel” type of book.

    I also have not read “A Walk to Remember”. I brought it up in an earlier comment because the overall theme is one of sexual chastity before marriage.

    Thanks again to those who took the time and effort to post comments.

  • Claire

    I have no problem reading novels or watching movies that have immoral characters or immoral scenes, as long as it’s clear that the author is not condoning the immorality. Unfortunately, the sex scenes in The Notebook and Dear John are romanticized and glamorized, which I find disappointing coming from a Catholic author. But, as I said, the fact that he has two books/movies with Christian themes and no glamorization of premarital sex is encouraging, and I definitely want to support these works. Maybe if there was more of an audience for the more ethical books/novels, authors like Sparks wouldn’t feel the need to feature premarital sex in the same way that secular authors do.

  • http://rosaryworkout.com Peggy Bowes

    By all means, contact Nicholas Sparks and tell him! Although there’s no link on his website to contact him directly, you can contact his publisher and/or agent at this link: http://nicholassparks.com/ContactNicholas.asp?PageID=1

    Based on the comments, I decided to read The Notebook and finished it this weekend. As a Catholic writer, I would never have penned the particular scene mentioned frequently here; however, here are a few points to consider:

    - Nicholas Sparks was 29 years old when The Notebook was published, his first romance novel and the book that brought him recognition. When I was 29, I was definitely in a different place spiritually than I am now. I was focused on my career and my marriage. My Catholic faith was important to me, but I was still stuck in that adolescent phase of my faith that characterizes so many Catholics today who don’t continue to pursue their spiritual life past CCD or Catholic school. Again, I’m not defending Nicholas Sparks, but perhaps he was in a different place spiritually when he wrote The Notebook.

    - I read the book very carefully, looking for any clues or comments on morality. At the end of the book, when Noah is reflecting on his life, he states, “I am a sinner…” As far as I can tell, the premarital sex was Noah’s only sin in the book. Is that meant to be a moral comment on his actions? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

    - Also, consider that both Noah and Allie are essentially deprived of the love they shared for 40+ years by the story’s end. Allie has no idea that the sweet man who reads to her every day is really the love of her life. Noah, on the other hand, must deal with the daily suffering of watching his wife view him with suspicion and must try to patiently win her love all over again. Is that meant to be a “moral consequence” for not waiting until marriage to share the most intimate bond or is it merely a literary device to make the story more interesting? I don’t know… I merely wanted to point out a different perspective of the story.

  • Claire

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Peggy. I didn’t realize that he was only 29 when he wrote The Notebook. I definitely see your point. I’ll have to see when Dear John was written. Maybe that was in his younger days, too. That would definitely explain why these more recent novels feature more chastity. Thanks for taking the time to look into this.

  • http://rosaryworkout.com Peggy Bowes

    My review of “The Last Song” is now posted at: http://catholicexchange.com/2010/03/31/128466

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