In each of Nicholas Sparks’ books there’s a deep sense of family, romance, sensitivity and faith – ironically, the same attributes that the 44-year-old author strives to achieve in his life.
The North Carolina husband and father of five has written 15 books that have sold more than 50 million copies and have been printed in more than 30 languages. Six of his books have been made into movies, and his most recent, “The Last Song,” opened nationwide Wednesday March 31, starring Miley Cyrus and Greg Kinnear.
Your Catholic Herald caught up with Sparks last week by telephone to discuss his movie and the man behind the sensitive romance novels that have attracted fans world-wide.
The film is a story of first love, responsibility and second chances. It depicts reconciliation and the unbreakable bond between a father and a daughter, one that withstands disappointment, estrangement, anger and loss.
The film stars Cyrus, who portrays 17-year-old Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Miller. Her life was turned upside-down when her parents divorced and her father, Steve (Kinnear) moved from New York City to Tybee Island, Ga.
Still angry three years later, Ronnie is alienated from her parents, especially her father, until her mother decides it would be in everyone’s best interest if she spent the summer on Tybee Island with him. Ronnie’s father, a former concert pianist and teacher, is living a quiet life in the beach town, immersed in creating a work of art that will become the centerpiece of a local church.
Movie is lesson in forgiveness
An ideal lesson in forgiveness and healing, “The Last Song” is released during the Easter season, a time of reflection and reconciliation, and for Sparks, a life-long Catholic, filled with wonderful family themes.
“We are dealing with divorce in this movie and I wanted to show that despite divorce or whatever pain there is, that people can still be pleasant even though they might be angry with each other,” he said. “In this story, the parents are not getting back together, but they have learned to treat each other with kindness – and I wanted to get a message across that if people are tired of fighting, that divorced couples can genuinely show kindness and be genuine about it.”
Faith plays a central role in the film. When Ronnie visits her father, he is immersed in a project to create a magnificent stained glass window for his church.
“There are a lot of wonderful lessons in this story, such as family themes, forgiveness, growing up and love between a father and a daughter,” said Sparks. “We also deal with the daughter’s first love and the inspiring story of the father’s personal journey and his experience with the presence of God. It’s hard to determine the most important message because it is all tied together – family, faith, forgiveness, redemption, and the choices and paths we are going to choose.”
Catholicism woven throughout his life
For Sparks, the choice to write faith-filled novels is not an intentional process, rather a byproduct of his Catholicism woven throughout his life. He insists he will never write about adultery or use profanity in his novels, and acknowledges that “The Last Song” is a chaste film. Living in a small Southern town void of chain coffee shops, taxi cabs, large theaters and malls, Sparks writes about the type of life he knows.
“Faith is integral to nearly everyone in these small Southern towns,” he said. “If you move here, people won’t ask you what you do – they will ask what religion you are. They don’t care what your answer is, but they will use it to tell you who you will be meeting first because of your faith. I suppose it is like Wisconsin, and it is intrinsic to the area.”
With five children, Miles, 18, Ryan, 16, Landon, 10, and 8-year-old twin daughters Lexie Danielle and Savannah Marin, Sparks, who considers his life fairly ordinary, writes during his children’s school hours. When he has time, he takes breaks and runs errands with his wife Catherine, who he married in 1989.
“No one in my family makes a big deal of my job; it is just what I do,” he said. “So I write at home and come in and out and then stop and we have fun – it’s the same balance as anyone else might have with their job.”
While his family is accustomed to his writing work and seeing his books on the shelves of every library and bookstore, his daughters were not accustomed to meeting a mega singing and acting star like Cyrus. The experience may have been a clue that their dad’s job was a bit different than most.
“Miley was great to work with and good to my daughters who were so thrilled to meet her; after all, she is Hannah Montana,” he laughed. “They liked Greg Kinnear, too; he was funny, intelligent and just rounded out a very close set of people working on the film.”
Co-founder of Christian school
His accomplishments are many, but Sparks is proudest of his efforts to develop and fund Epiphany School. In 2005, he and his wife began thinking more about the options for their children’s education in rural New Bern and compared them to their own educational philosophies. In early 2006, they collaborated with Tom McLaughlin, a graduate of Benedictine College, who did his master’s and doctoral work at Boston College, to begin Epiphany School. The school opened later that fall with approximately 100 students in grades six through 10. The school’s mission challenges students to pursue lifelong learning, faithful discipleship, courageous leadership and compassionate service. As a college preparatory school, Epiphany offers a rigorous course load that is enhanced by travel in coordination with their studies.
“My intention is that, by the time every student has graduated, he or she will have visited 26 countries on six continents, whether it’s studying history of the Americas among Mayan ruins, Ancient Greece at the Parthenon, or ecology and the environment in the rain forests of Costa Rica. Now, the school serves nearly 300 students, and encompasses grades five through 12,” said Sparks. “I live in the rural South and it is a wonderful place in many ways, but it is a small world. It’s easy to believe that there is no world outside of these borders of our country.”
Initially, Sparks wanted to create a Catholic school, but because of the small population in the area, a Catholic school would be unsustainable. Instead, Epiphany School recognizes that God is the source and summit of one’s existence and that one strives to live in harmony with the example of Jesus Christ and Judeo-Christian tradition.
Students have opportunity to travel
Based on trimesters, students have the opportunity to travel three times a year. Currently, Ryan Sparks is in Poland and Birkenau learning firsthand about the concentration camps recently studied in school while reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“His going there adds an element that you just cannot get by reading about it,” he said. “We have students traveling to Cusco, Guatemala, and to see the Great Pyramids.”
Bubbling with enthusiasm, Sparks recalled a trip he chaperoned to Costa Rica while students were studying the rain forests.
“We took this boat ride and there were these salt water crocodiles underneath us,” he exclaimed. “The kid driving our boat was only 14 and was younger than all my students. He hopped into the water with this massive croc – it was so huge it was like a dinosaur. This kid was slapping raw chicken on the water to get its attention like the Crocodile Hunter. Seeing this young boy doing this type of work at 14 really made us all see how our lives are so blessed. We learned what it is like in other places and get a perspective that you can’t get by just staying in Craven County.”
Like his children, Epiphany School is part of Sparks’ legacy and is his way of giving back. Unfortunately, his mom, who encouraged his writing to combat the boredom after an injury to his Achilles’ tendon sidelined him from the track team in college, never saw his first book published. She died in a horseback riding accident at age 47. Though Sparks imagined that his mom would be happy with his writing and movie accomplishments, it would be his kids of whom she would be most proud.
“I think that more than anything I have done,” Sparks said, “She would be happiest about all of the grandchildren.”