Master of romance Nicholas Sparks brings his latest, “The Longest Ride,” to the Hostess City, Oct. 8.
Welcome back to Savannah, Nicholas! What are your memories of that summer in 2009 when The Last Song was filming on Tybee Island?
Well, I remember that it was hot and humid, but of course I’m used to that, being from North Carolina. More memorable were the friendly people, the great food and the beautiful architecture. The Last Song was the first screenplay I’d adapted from one of my novels, though it was significantly rewritten by the studio after I turned it in. So the final script is different than I’d originally imagined it.
Talk about life imitating art, did you know that The Last Song inspired Tybee to host its first seafood festival?
No, I did not. What improbable news. It’s great to see that the film inspired a new tradition for the community—and a tasty one at that.
In your novels, you use characters’ backstories to mine big issues. In The Longest Ride, you explore the South’s deeply rooted historic Jewish communities. What nugget inspired you to tell Ira and Ruth’s story in The Longest Ride?
I was struggling to find an idea that excited me for my next novel when I came across a reference to Black Mountain College while researching North Carolina historic sites online. Like most people, I’d never heard of Black Mountain College, and I was immediately captivated—that this small, isolated school in North Carolina was so influential to the American art scene absolutely fascinated me.
From there, my imagination took hold: I began researching the school. Soon enough, Ira’s character took shape in my mind and it was clear he had a story to tell. Well, I had his story to tell, anyway…
You also bring together these seemingly disparate strands—immigrants, Abstract Expressionism, fraternity life, farm life and the small-town rodeo circuit. Was it a challenge to find the thread that ties Ira, Ruth, Luke and Sophia together?
While there were certainly points that proved challenging to figure out, all in all I found it uniquely satisfying to bring Ira and Ruth’s story together with Luke and Sophia’s. I think starting with a real place and a real historical backdrop helped. As Orson Welles once put it, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Having the story unfold within the framework of the Black Mountain College’s history and legacy was, in a sense, freeing.
Many authors do extensive research to be able to walk around in the skin of their characters. Did you ride any bulls—mechanical or otherwise? Are you a connoisseur/collector of mid-century artists? Sneak into any frat parties?
Most of my research took place in my library. It’s amazing what the Internet has done to transform the writing process for me over the years. I only visited Black Mountain for the first time in-person after writing the book. I did go to college at the University of Notre Dame, and I pulled from that memory-well for Luke and Sophia’s story, because some things never change.
With regards to riding bulls: anyone who reads the novel or watches any of the easily available videos of professional bull riders online will understand why my wife, Cathy, would prohibit that.
Often in your stories, there’s also this juxtaposition between the highbrow/lowbrow, native/immigrant, fish-out-of-water cultures, where the South so often resides. Do you find your comfort zone in these paradoxes?
I don’t know that I’m ever in my comfort zone when writing, but I would say I’m attracted to these paradoxes. People have such strong ideas about what the South is like, but the truth is that it can’t be so easily pigeonholed. It makes for endlessly interesting settings and stories.
With your foundation and the Epiphany School, you and your family have made a tremendous commitment to cultural competency—preparing children to be citizens of the world. Can you elaborate on the moment you had your epiphany that global and cultural understanding would be the cornerstone of your philanthropy?
It really came from watching my own children get older, and thinking about the type of adults I hoped they’d become. I have five kids, and of course none of them is exactly like another, but I hope they all share a sense that they are part of something bigger—and that they feel empowered to contribute to their global community in meaningful ways.
I believe that compassion begins with perspective, and so providing an education that enriches students’ understanding of the whole world, and not just their corner of it, is the first step in the right direction.
Reading the Acknowledgments in The Longest Ride dispels any notion that authors simply work alone in a room and produce a book. How has this growth from novelist to cottage industry shaped your creative process, because at the end of the day, you are still a writer telling stories?
The creative process still begins with an idea that catches, and I still have to spend countless hours in my office inNorth Carolina, pulling out my hair and writing every day until I’ve turned that idea into a fully formed novel.
The one thing that I would say has changed in terms of my drafting and plotting is that I inevitably keep one eye towards the potential film adaptation now. The films based on my books have helped grow my audience significantly, and I’ve enjoyed playing a role in bringing the stories to the big screen.
Even though The Longest Ride is your 17th novel, do you still get a little giddy when you open the New York Times and see one of your books atop the bestseller list?
Yes—each and every time. I know better than to take anything for granted, and I’m grateful for every single reader who decides to buy one of my books.
An Evening with Nicholas Sparks at the Savannah Book Festival, presented by Georgia Power
6 p.m., Oct. 8
Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
$10 per person
Tickets go on sale Sept. 10. To purchase tickets, CLICK HERE >>
Check out the romantic getaway packages HERE >>