Nicholas Sparks, the author of hugely popular romantic novels such as his 1996 debut, The Notebook, is back with his 21st, The Return. Already at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, it's the story of Trevor Benson, an orthopedic surgeon who has PTSD from his service in Afghanistan. After his late grandfather leaves him his ramshackle old home and accompanying beehives in rural North Carolina, Trevor takes a break from his medical training in Baltimore to fix up the house and try to understand the mysterious circumstances behind his granddad's recent death. He's helped by Natalie Masterson, a deputy sheriff with aqua-blue eyes who steals his heart but, for some baffling reason, keeps him at arm's length.
We talked with Sparks about the new book, his career and how much he enjoys writing (not at all). Here's what we learned.
The novel is set in New Bern, North Carolina, Sparks’ real-life hometown.
I've changed some of the names in the book, but anyone from New Bern will easily recognize exactly which store I'm talking about or Union Point Park or places like that. It's been a long time since I've written a novel set in New Bern. I think the previous one was The Wedding, which came out in 2003, so I figured it was time to let people know how much the town has changed since then.
He's gaga about bees.
I've always been fascinated by beekeeping and the people who do it. Anyone who keeps bees, they get transfixed because it's the most interesting society on the planet. Every bee has a job. And they're always busy. They're working and doing exactly what they're supposed to do. It's just amazing to watch. And in the book, for instance, when it says Trevor's grandfather would use a bee to sting his knees for his arthritis? I met a man in New Hampshire who did this as I watched. I said, “Oh, you do this every day?” And he said, “Every day, and it takes my arthritis pain away.” It's fascinating.
The Return is film ready (sort of).
We'll see where that goes. Hollywood is in a bit of a strange period right now because of COVID. When I'm conceiving a story, prior to writing, I always think about the story having the potential to be a film as well as a novel. And I reject many ideas because they don't feel original as a novel or wouldn't be original as a film. Whatever story I conceive has to be original, and interesting, for both mediums. Then, once I have the story, I begin to write, and I don't think about the film at all — not once. I just try to write the best novel that I can.
The role of Trevor is still up for grabs.
I didn't have anyone in mind [while writing this book]. There have been times In my past when I've actually written stories for a particular actor or actress. For instance, when I wrote The Last Song — that was a story conceived essentially for Miley Cyrus. [Cyrus starred in the 2010 film.]
He's OK with being a guy who writes love stories.
I'm just thrilled that people enjoy my books. I read wonderful books in all genres by both men and women. And, certainly, even in the love story genre. Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, right? It's one of his classics and one of my favorite books. A couple of twin brothers wrote the film Casablanca. Erich Segal wrote Love Story. Robert James Waller wrote The Bridges of Madison County. Nicholas Evans wrote The Horse Whisperer. So I'm certainly not the only man who's ever written, I guess, dramatic stories with romantic elements in them.
He likes to include older characters in his stories.
Noah in The Notebook, he's about 80 years old. You have Ira in The Longest Ride, who also reflects on the grand love story of his life, and he was an older character. In Nights in Rodanthe, the characters certainly are in their 50s. I do try to vary the ages of my characters, and I will continue to do so.
The Notebook isn't everyone's favorite Sparks novel.
You know, I hear from a lot of readers whose favorites span the gamut of my work. Some love The Last Song or A Walk to Remember or The Longest Ride or Safe Haven or Nights in Rodanthe. The Notebook is the most well known, and the movie became kind of a classic in the film genre, but I don't ever feel pressured to live up to it. I do feel pressure every time I write to create the best novel that I can. That pressure hasn't changed since the very beginning.
Fans don't realize that writing isn't easy for him.
People think writing is enjoyable. There are many words you can use to describe writing, but seldom do I use the word “enjoyable.” I find writing to be a challenge. And it takes effort to make the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages and the chapters all become something that you think it should be. So I think that's probably a misconception — that I always get to my desk whistling with joy in the morning, crack my knuckles and just type in the words and they flow smoothly. There are days when I can't write at all.
He and his five kids are trying to adapt to the pandemic.
My twin daughters were in their senior year when schools shut down, so they lost those last few fun months of their senior year. They started this fall at two different universities; one went all online, and then the other one is still having in-class sessions, but neither one is having a normal college experience. And one of my kids got COVID — luckily, they're fine; they're doing well. On my book tour, of course, safety is the primary concern. I will sign books in advance, prior to any events. We'll see how it goes. It will be a strange tour, unlike any one I've ever done before. But it's important to support local bookstores. It's important for me to be able to thank my readers and to meet the people who enjoy my work.