As the clouds darkened and the beach emptied of its last determined revelers, I raced into the gravel lot of a weatherbeaten seafood shack. Supermarkets are a far-off luxury in this corner of the island, and, the forecast being what it was, this rare grocery was more than a little picked over. Prying open the produce case, I grabbed two wimpy ears of corn and the last 10 new potatoes. A pound of scallops rounded out my haul, and I hurried to pay and get out, headed for the dead-end road that led to the rental I’d be in for the night. Perched on modest stilts, it hardly looked ready for a light breeze, but it would have to do. A storm was coming to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and I was 100 steps from the sand.
If this sounds like a scene from a Nicholas Sparks novel, that’s because it just about is. Nights in Rodanthe, Sparks’ 2002 bestseller, features almost these very events as its lead character readies for the hurricane barreling down on her oceanside escape.
But this story is all mine. I’d come to Rodanthe in an effort to learn more about the most famous member of Notre Dame’s Class of 1988, and learn I would. What I didn’t expect was just how much life on this trip would imitate art.
Now, when I say life imitated art, I don’t mean I fell in love with a handsome Southern stranger as Sparks’ heroines inevitably do. I already have an avowed Yankee boyfriend, and besides — as I assured said Yankee during a pre-trip rom-com viewing — I rather dislike pickup trucks, which among North Carolina men seem nearly impossible to avoid.
Instead, I mean simply that things in the aura of Nicholas Sparks take on a literary tinge — and it seems they always have.
Before there was Nicholas Sparks, the international megastar of romance literature, or even Nicholas Sparks the track star from the golden age of Notre Dame’s coach Joe Piane, there was Nick, a young boy who wanted desperately to please his parents.
“The more I excelled in school, the harder I tried to do even better, if only to stand out from my siblings,” he writes in Three Weeks with My Brother, his 2004 memoir. “I yearned for moments when I could be the center of attention at the dinner table, but no matter what I did, it never seemed to be enough.”
The three Sparks children were classic ’70s latchkey kids. While Micah rebelled and Dana retreated from her older and more adventurous brothers, quintessential middle-kid Nick learned early that, to stand out, you had to excel.
“If Micah got attention because he was the oldest and my sister got attention for being the only girl,” he explains in the memoir, “I wanted recognition for something, anything.” And the more somethings he attempted, the reasoning went, the more likely that recognition would be.
Sparks has published 21 books in the past 23 years, and every one has been a bestseller. Eleven have become films, and, at the moment, one is in talks to become a musical. They have sparked fan fiction, memes and imitators, and sold a combined 105 million copies in more than 50 languages.
First was school: Go, get As, become valedictorian. Then, athletics: Try a few sports, land on track, become very, very fast. Finally, romance: If you must date, pick the one girl in town whose father was an Olympian.
“In my sophomore year [of high school], I also had my first real girlfriend,” he writes. “Her name was Lisa, and . . . as fate would have it, her father was Billy Mills, my boyhood hero.”
Mills, a distance runner who rose from obscurity to win gold in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Olympics, had fascinated the younger athlete ever since he discovered that the medalist lived a few miles away from his home in California.
Though Sparks’ relationship with Lisa Mills didn’t last, his bond with her father did. Under Mills’ tutelage and the watchful eye of coaches at Sacramento’s Bella Vista High School, the future novelist became one of the top distance runners in the state — and before long, colleges came knocking.
Georgetown was of some interest; Dartmouth, too. But neither had all of what Sparks was looking for. Notre Dame did.
“For me, as a heavily recruited athlete, it came down to the best mix of academics and high-quality education, national perception of that education, and the athletic program in particular,” he says. “So it was the best of both worlds for me.”
Sparks insists that he struggled with his classes, but his Flanner Hall roommates remember a natural achiever who excelled at nearly everything he tried. On the track, he and his teammates set a school record in the 4-x-800 meter relay that still stands 30-odd years later. In the dorm, he won the favor of a disciplinarian rector, earning leniency for an entire floor after an illicit dorm party. And then there was spring break, senior year.
Stationed for the week at a friend’s beach house in Sanibel, Florida, the Irish crew met a group of girls from the University of New Hampshire. Sparks took a liking to a fellow senior, Cathy Cote, and by graduation, he’d sent her 100 letters.
Cathy followed Nick to his hometown of Sacramento and insisted that, within six months, she expected a ring. He provided it, and nine months after that they were married. Realizing after the birth of their first child that California was prohibitively pricey, Sparks requested a transfer for his job in pharmaceutical sales. Apart from a lower cost of living, he had one request: no snow.
Winter coats packed away and bug spray at the ready, the Sparkses arrived in North Carolina in 1992. They settled in New Bern, and Nick decided in his spare time to revisit a hobby he’d first tried at Notre Dame.
And the rest — well, we’ll come back to that later.
Locked into my tiny house in Rodanthe, I watched lightning crackle across the sky and tried to reassure myself. I polished off my seafood-shack meal and fished a candy bar from my suitcase, snacking nervously as I assessed my storm readiness.
The designers had crammed eight windows into this 12-by-12-foot house, and as the thunder grew nearer, I examined them all, munching, tapping and shaking my head. To the east, the lights of Rodanthe Pier went dark for the night. To the west, families in triple-decker mansions collected beach towels they’d left drying on the porch and hunkered down, their big screens almost watchable from next door. Between us, a black cat scampered through the billowing grass.
As I saw it, I could spend the night doing one of two things. I could stare out those windows for the next nine hours, pausing only to check the radar on my phone, or I could try — somehow — to distract myself.
I took a seat on the worn leather couch and pulled my laptop from its case.
“Amazon . . . dot . . . com,” I said aloud as I typed out the familiar command. The search bar beckoned. “Nights . . . in . . . Rodanthe.”
The familiar gold tinge of the Warner Brothers logo gave way to misty-edged romance movie, and before long, I was meeting the leading lovers I’d read about in the Sparks novel that inspired the film. They exchanged pleasantries, and it hit me why one name sounded so familiar.
Dr. Paul Flanner, the character introduced himself. Flanner. Like Flanner Hall.
I’d spoken with Sparks hours earlier about the four years he spent in the Mod Quad high-rise, and here the name was — coming from the mouths of Diane Lane and Richard Gere. I chuckled to myself and relaxed further into the couch.
Over the next 84 minutes, a spark and a storm both grew on my dingy laptop screen. As CGI rain lashed against the characters’ Rodanthe rental and very real rain lashed against mine, the tension built to its inevitable Sparksian climax: two people falling in love.
Compared to what it could have been, my storm turned out to be blessedly small. It wasn’t a hurricane, and I knew that, as rickety as the house seemed, Airbnb wouldn’t allow it on their site if it weren’t reasonably secure. I’d been in dodgier situations, and going through them alone wasn’t new to me either.
Yet as I watched Sparks’ heroes huddle together through the storm, I felt a pang of something unfamiliar.
I reached for my phone and texted my boyfriend, with a message I’d never sent from any of my far-flung solo trips.
“I kind of wish you were here.”
If Nicholas Sparks’ early life had a touch of literary good luck, he has even more of it now that he’s 27 years into life in New Bern.
“It’s just ended up being a good spot for me,” he says. “I have the opportunity to live anywhere, but I prefer to live here and visit other places.”
If you had a house like his, you’d probably want to stick around, too. Situated between a private gate and the north bank of the Trent River, the main house, pool house and eight-car garage of the Sparks estate look like what they are: the home of one of the most successful authors on the planet.
Sparks has published 21 books in the past 23 years, and every one has been a bestseller. Eleven have become films, and, at the moment, one is in talks to become a musical. They have sparked fan fiction, memes and imitators, and sold a combined 105 million copies in more than 50 languages. Though his net worth is not publicly available, it seems safe to describe his wealth in the same terms used by a character in The Notebook: Nicholas Sparks is richer than God.
When I pull up to the house in June, Sparks and his assistant, Tia Scott, greet me at the door with matching smiles and the matching postures and auras of two very fit people. The onetime Fighting Irish letterman has remained committed to wellness, waking by 5:30 each morning to hit the gym and following, with Scott, a committed ketogenic diet.
The house is immaculate — and full. Four full-time staff work there, including one dedicated to outdoor maintenance and another to the pool. Sparks’ five children, all of whom live nearby, make regular appearances, often with friends in tow. Since Hurricane Florence blew through town in September 2018, a friend who lost his home has been living on the property. I am introduced to two massive dogs.
Sparks and Scott walk me through several rooms on the home’s main floor — his master suite (the closet is larger than my bedroom); the library (Beauty and the Beast-ian); a music room, equipped with a piano that Sparks says he has no clue how to play. Two offices comprise the bestseller’s writing rooms, both with an intentional lack of views onto the sometime party zone of the backyard. Lately, Sparks says, he’s been writing in the darker-paneled office. Its sole decoration, save for an enormous globe and modest flatscreen TV, are Sparks’ books — dozens of them, in translations ranging from German to Japanese.
“When I graduated, I really wasn’t sure what trajectory my life was going to take,” he says now. “I’m fairly confident that no one really knows.” He seems genuinely surprised, even three decades in, that this is where his life took him. But he has had some say in the matter.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Notre Dame’s most famous writing alumnus majored in finance rather than English. Like the mathematicians he studied in his business classes, Sparks found a formula for success, and he’s repeated it — 19 times so far.
“The Notebook was a novel I thought I could write, and it ended up working out. And then it was . . . if someone liked The Notebook, what’s another book they might like?” He returned to the key elements of the first book — a North Carolina setting, a central love story — and produced Message in a Bottle. “And so this one worked. This one worked. Guess I’ll try another one.” Ad infinitum.
In his novels — the bashful first encounters, the moments of sorrow or frustration — Sparks attempts to capture the arc of emotions we all feel, not just in our relationships but in our lives.
His track teammate and roommate, Jeff Van Wie ’87, recalls a similar single-mindedness about Sparks’ drive for success.
He says that when Sparks began to demonstrate an interest in literature, “I asked, ‘Nick, why are you a finance major at Notre Dame when you seem to have this talent to be able to write?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Someday I’m gonna be a famous author, and I want to know how to invest my money.’”
Despite his success, and his shrewdness in achieving it, friends insist Sparks hasn’t accrued wealth for the sake of sitting on it. The author funds a generous scholarship in Notre Dame’s creative writing program — a partnership that Professor Valerie Sayers says has “helped enormously” to attract top-tier students — and, in New Bern, has given countless children an affordable education through his charity, the Nicholas Sparks Foundation.
Beyond that, Van Wie says, “He is the most generous person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s generous with his time, he’s generous with the experiences that he can bring to you. Every single time that there’s been a movie premiere, he’s made sure I had an invite. Every time he writes a book, he sends me a copy before it’s been published.”
It would be easy to think that, like the titular character in his 2008 novel The Lucky One, Sparks has some kind of preternatural good fortune. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Even a passing familiarity with Sparks’ oeuvre will tell you that his stories, while romantic, traffic heavily in heartbreak. The Notebook’s famous tear-jerking comes from a character’s struggle with dementia. The Rescue features tragic fires (two of them) and a central character learning to care for a disabled child. A Walk to Remember, the 1999 tale of a young woman dying of leukemia, became the urtext that inspired an entire genre called “sick lit” that includes such heartstring-tugging novels as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
As intimately as Sparks knows love, he knows sorrow even better — from experience.
Barely a year after his graduation from Notre Dame, his mother died at 47 in an equestrian accident. A car accident claimed his father’s life in 1996. His sister, Dana, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 26, an ailment that would take her life seven years later, in 2000, leaving her twin boys without a mother. Sparks’ own son Ryan spent his early years dealing with a learning disability that left him unable to speak. His condition only improved after the author dedicated thousands of hours to one-on-one lessons. Then, in 2015, Nicholas and Cathy divorced, the last in a set of traumas that a Greek tragedy would scarcely heap on one man.
Despite appearances, Sparks has seen setbacks.
One of them inspired his career.
During his freshman season on Coach Piane’s squad, Nick Sparks knew that something was wrong. He hadn’t been running at the speeds he was used to, and, at times, he suffered from pain so debilitating he could barely walk. At the final meet of the year, he ran his leg of the 4-x-800 relay — setting that Notre Dame record in the process — and then his pain dramatically worsened, to the point that he had to hobble off the plane on crutches when he flew home for the summer. The diagnosis was a strained Achilles tendon. The solution? No running.
Unable to train, the track star got some blunt advice from his mother, Jill.
“Your problem is that you’re bored,” she said. “You need to find something to do.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Write a book.”
He’d never thought about writing before, but, as a voracious reader, he decided that his mother’s suggestion was an appealing challenge. He pecked away at his father’s typewriter all summer long, and by move-in day sophomore year, he’d written a complete horror novel.
“He shows back up at school, and he has this 80,000-word novel he’s written,” Van Wie recalls. “Just like Nicholas Sparks, right? He didn’t have enough on his plate. He decides, ‘Eh, I’ll write a novel during my summer break.’”
Sparks put his writing talent on hold for a few years, finishing his finance degree before launching into family life. But by age 27, he was living in New Bern and ready to try again.
“I made the decision to chase a dream, but at the same time I had responsibilities,” he explains. “So, at the time, I was giving myself three chances. And if I’m not successful with any of these three, then I’ll — then I can accept that I was not meant to become a writer.”
For his first attempt, he decided to put to paper the story of Cathy’s grandparents. Star-crossed and torn apart before being brought together again by fate, the couple seemed the perfect inspiration for a romance novel — or, as he called it, a love story. In stolen moments before work or after family dinners, Sparks finished a short, sweet novel, and named it The Notebook.
Needless to say, he never needed chances two and three.
The Notebook sold in 1995, accompanied by a $1 million advance. It rocketed onto The New York Times’ bestseller list and stayed there for nearly a year. Sparks was everywhere.
“I was doing consulting work and doing a lot of traveling, so when The Notebook came out, I’m toolin’ through the airport, and I pass the airport bookstore, and it says, ‘The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks,” Van Wie recalls. “And I said, ‘Nobody else has that name.’”
Ten years after pulling up to Flanner Hall with a summer-break horror manuscript in tow, his roommate had arrived.
Sparks insists that there’s nothing about romance — nor about the dreamy, moss-draped South — that particularly drew him in. Had The Notebook not sold, he says, he may have ended up writing Westerns. The town he landed in (had he not asked for “no snow”) could as easily have been New Canaan, Connecticut, as New Bern, North Carolina. For that first novel, he wrote what he could — and, for the other 19, he simply returned to the genre and the setting that his readers said they loved.
He doesn’t write love stories because he’s a romantic; he writes them, he claims with a finance major’s practicality, because they work.
But something about that clinical self-assessment seems wrong. Sparks has an overachiever’s eye for examining the human condition and drawing forth its deepest truths. Even if he never intended to, he understands love — or at the very least, the people who experience it.
“Emotions don’t change,” he tells me over a keto-friendly lunch in downtown New Bern. “The feeling of love is the same whether you’re 14 years old or 80, or you’re divorced or single.”
In his novels — the bashful first encounters, the moments of sorrow or frustration — Sparks attempts to capture the arc of emotions we all feel, not just in our relationships but in our lives.
“If you just had that love, it wouldn’t work,” he says. “You’ve got to feel a variety of different emotions. All of the infatuation or confusion or thoughtfulness or a little irritation. You have to make that real to make the love feel real.”
Even as the conventions of dating have changed from the courtship of yesteryear to the online dating of today, the human emotions behind it, he says, have remained constant. He compares it to the evolution of anger.
“I mean, when people used to get mad at each other, they used to challenge each other to a duel and kill the other person,” he says.
Just because we don’t do that now doesn’t mean our anger isn’t real. And just because a couple may meet in a boring office romance doesn’t mean they’re less in love than a couple with a grand, romantic origin tale.
Anything can be a chapter in a love story. You need only the will — the spark — to see it that way.
“So,” I asked, “what do you want to watch?”
I had subjected my boyfriend to The Longest Ride, a 2015 film based on Sparks’ 2013 book, and it seemed only fair to let him choose what we switched on next.
“Actually,” he responded, “I wouldn’t mind another one of those.”
I’d explained at the start of the weekend that I was working my way through as many Sparks stories as I could finish. I’d polished off one of the novels before breakfast, and the movie screening had helped — but I figured that’s where my research for the day would end.
My relationship is not a lovey-dovey one. We met on Tinder, a comedian and a journalist mutually committed to remaining dry-eyed at our friends’ weddings. In a year and a half of dating, the most romantic gesture we’d exchanged was the bit he’d written about me, in which he reveals to comedy clubs full of strangers that I am 27 years old and can’t ride a bike.
Romance films are not our thing.
But my cynical significant other was game for a second mush-fest. Through my shock, I selected Dear John, a war story starring Channing Tatum that seemed about the Platonic ideal of the Sparksian form. John, a PTSD patient with a heart of gold, is quickly falling for Savannah, a college student who (spoiler alert) eventually rips out that golden ticker and tramples on it. We didn’t expect we’d get invested in their story, but before long, we were in tears.
Nicholas Sparks believes love can blossom anywhere, whether a couple meets online or on a beach vacation, and regardless of who either of you claims to be.
“Even if you’re talking about social media, Tinder — there still comes a point in time when you have to meet for the first time,” he told me in the middle of our lazy Southern lunch. “Whether you’re sitting on the couch, or posting to Instagram, it’s about what you’re feeling as you’re doing those things.”
People change slower than the world does, he says.
So far, 105 million people have agreed that a world where love hides behind every corner, waiting to be noticed and spun into a jewel-box tale, is one they want to inhabit.
If you spend enough time with the man doing the spinning, you might start to feel that way, too.
Sarah Cahalan is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a former associate editor of this magazine.