By Mike Mastromatteo
Best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks’ most recent book, “The Wish,” presents a plot common to many of his successful books.
Told through flashback and reflection over a 24-year timespan, the story follows the life of 40-ish New York city photographer Maggie Dawes, who as a teenager was sent to live with her Aunt Linda — a former nun — while she prepares to give birth to an unplanned and unexpected child. While living with her aunt in a small remote North Carolina community, Maggie meets up with Bryce Trickett, a slightly older teenager who serves as her mentor and eventual first true love.
There are a couple of near implausible twists and turns in the story, but the basic narrative tension — a perfect love vanquished by fate and misfortune — is a well-worn formula in Sparks’ writing.
In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, Sparks discussed not only his approach to romance-focused storytelling, but also the Catholic influence that informs, even subtly, his body of work. While more widely regarded as a creator of romance stories, Sparks is a Catholic writer who is not shy about inserting some of his faith influences into his work.
“I was born and raised Catholic (and I am) still Catholic,” Sparks said. “I have tried to make the best novels I can. And the faith element really depends on the particular story and its characters.”
With “The Wish,” the characters’ Catholic faith and belief in God is what drives much of the tension in the story. One of the strongest characters is Aunt Linda, the former nun, who quotes St. Therese of Lisieux in an attempt to explain to Maggie the complications of human interaction.
“Catholicism pretty much sets the entire story in motion,” Sparks told CNS. “The characters’ faith, belief in God, and the particular practices and doctrines associated with Catholicism are what led to this story.”
As of December, Sparks had written 23 novels, a memoire and a nonfiction work. His books have sold more than 105 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 50 different languages. Along with his writing success, Sparks has ventured into philanthropy by establishing a foundation supporting “cultural and international understanding through education and student experience.” He also donates his time and resources in support of the creative writing program at the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater.
After obtaining a degree at Notre Dame, Sparks had no clear idea of what he wanted to do with his life.
The author credits his mother for setting him on a positive career path. While convalescing from an ankle injury while still at Notre Dame, Sparks — who had become an elite-level track star — responded to his mother’s offhand suggestion to “write a book.”
“At first, I didn’t think I could make a living writing novels,” Sparks told CNS. “And so, I went ahead and got a business finance degree and then, when I graduated, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. So, I tried a variety of different jobs and tried to zero in on who I was as a person, where my skill set lay, and I kept on writing.”
Sparks credits his mother not only for the career advice, but for instilling a sense of perseverance and resiliency in the face of life’s capriciousness. And like many Catholic families, it was the mother who made sure that the children paid some attention to the tenets of the faith during their formative years.
Sparks’ 1996 breakthrough book, “The Notebook,” not only became a bestseller, but was also made into a film starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Since then, 10 other Sparks novels have been made into movies.
Although his novels might seem overly sentimental, Sparks believes in the power of the story to stir a sense of mystery, wonder and other worldliness in his readers. His books tend to idealize love relationships, but they also suggest that they are not without pain, suffering and the possibility of irreparable loss.
In “The Notebook,” Sparks voices some of his attitude to faith and wonderment through the main character, Noah: “I bow my head and pray silently for the strength I know I will need. I have always been a firm believer in God and the power of prayer, though, to be honest, my faith has made the list of questions I definitely want answered after I’m gone.”
Sparks resides today in the coastal town of New Bern, North Carolina, an area that has become the setting for most of the author’s stories. Despite a hectic schedule of travel and promotion, Sparks finds time on occasion to attend Mass at New Bern’s St. Paul Catholic Church.
Sparks’ rapport with his readers stems in part from the authenticity and “bits of business” that the author puts into the characters he creates. Clearly this has special resonance with Catholic/Christian readers.
“Many of my novels have in some no small way come from my own experience,” he said. “I was raised in a very Catholic family. I actually know a family whose teenage daughter got pregnant. And their solution was to ship her to live with a relative until the baby was born. So, I’m not necessarily inserting myself into the stories. I’m inserting those experiences I’m aware of in my own path that I think can add authenticity to certain elements within a novel.”
Sparks is at work on his next book, expected to be released this year. He is reluctant to reveal plot details in advance of a new book’s release, but he did say it would be set in North Carolina and would involve a complicated love story.
Whatever form the book takes, the action will almost certainly speak to the author’s embrace on the human condition and how fate, fortune, suffering, disappointment, faith, wisdom and joy play out in our lives.
“I think faith is the process or the act of believing without proof,” Sparks said. “And one has to justify the act of belief without the aspects of proof. And part of that is there are unanswerable questions. Why is there suffering in the world? Why do people have to suffer? These are questions that plague theologians and philosophers for thousands of years. But the belief without proof on the other hand is about submission. It’s the idea that there is a God — Father; Jesus, his Son; and the Holy Spirit — and we’re not always meant to understand all of it.”
Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto.