Nicholas Sparks, THE WISH

Nicholas Sparks, THE WISH

Nicholas Sparks returns to discuss his twenty-second novel, The Wish, which had been on his mind for nearly twenty years. Nicholas and Zibby also talk about the shape of contemporary American fiction, the influence his photography had on his latest novel, and why he will always draw from his own life experiences when writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nicholas. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” for the second time, this time to discuss The Wish.

Nicholas Sparks: Excited to be here. Thank you for having me. This is always fun.

Zibby: I can’t believe you already have another book out. I feel like we just were talking about The Return. Now here you are again. This is amazing. This is your pace. This is what you do.

Nicholas: This is what I do. I’m getting close to actually finishing my next one, by the way. I should be finished sometime in October. That’s what you do if you try to write a book a year. It kind of means you have a book every year, basically.

Zibby: Yeah, I guess that would do it. Last time, we talked about The Return. This time, we have The Wish, which is very different. I know last time you had talked a lot about the themes being love and mystery. I was wondering what your positioning of this book was and if you could tell listeners what it’s about. Then I’ll chime in with more questions.

Nicholas: Real short, this was a novel that was really twenty years in the making. By that I mean, it covered an idea or a theme that I wanted to explore. I’d always wanted to write a story about a pregnant teenager who decides to give her baby up for adoption. There have been a couple books about that, movies like Juno and things like that. I will tell you that probably starting in the late nineties after I finished A Walk to Remember and even before I wrote The Rescue — that was book three and book four — I said, oh, let’s come up with an idea for that. Let’s come up with an idea for an adoption story or a pregnant teen story, so to speak. Couldn’t come up with the idea, so I wrote The Rescue. Then I finished The Rescue, tried to think of my next idea. Oh, let’s . Couldn’t come up with the idea. Took about twenty years before the idea began to come to fruition. It’s funny because it kind of dovetailed with another idea that I always wanted to explore. It’s something that I think, if you’re an American novelist, you should explore. That is, hey, got to write a Christmas story. If you’re an American novelist, look, you got to do a dog story. I did that with The Guardian. Stephen King, he did it with Cujo. You got to do a dog story. You also have to do a Christmas story. Grisham has done a Christmas story. You want to do something like that. Strangely, it was suddenly thinking about these two ideas, a pregnant teen and Christmas, and little by little, the story began to gel in my mind. There we go. We’re off to the races.

Zibby: Then when did you bring in the cancer patient who has a YouTube channel?

Nicholas: That was a little bit modeled after my sister. In a way, I ratcheted up the meaning of my Christmas story. For anyone who’s worried, am I ruining the book? all this is in the flap, by the way. You pretty much learn all of this within the first couple of pages. There are no spoilers here. If it’s your very last Christmas and you know it’s your last Christmas, what would you do? What do you do? How do you make that special? What does that even mean? The book is a little bit of exploration of that. Again, then you find a way to dovetail that into the particular story. The why I chose certain things, of course, every novel is just a series of ten thousand decisions. Yeah, I probably have answers, but we don’t have to kill the magic. Why don’t we just enjoy this story?

Zibby: I love how you tell it like it’s Maggie telling the story. She’s telling it to Mark in the book. Then you flash back. Then it becomes you, the author, telling us the story as a narrative, but you know that you’re really supposed to be pretending that Maggie is telling us the story. Then you go back and forth. Sometimes I’m like, aren’t they getting tired? They need to take a break. She’s been telling this story for so long. Not in a bad way, just that it’s so much drama. It feels like it’s a lot to take in when you’re going back with her and her pregnancy and her aunt. Fifteen holding the teddy bear, this is crazy young. I have fourteen-year-old twins. Literally, I’m like, could you just make your own sandwich? The idea of having a baby when you can’t even put the cheese back in the fridge is unthinkable.

Nicholas: Right? It was unthinkable to her. She was actually a very fun character to write in many ways. I have daughters as well. Mine are now — how old are they? Twenty-one or twenty. They’re twenty this year. I remember a little bit of the melodrama. I don’t necessarily mean just girls. I mean teenagers in general. There’s a little bit of melodrama. When something is bad, it’s awful. If it’s really bad, nothing has ever been worse for anybody in the long history of the world. This is it. This is the worst. It’s really fun to explore a character that begins her story in that tone and then to watch her mature a little bit because, quite simply, she’s forced to. She has no choice but to mature.

Zibby: Even the fact that it has to be a secret — I know this happened so much. Now 23andMe, it’s a lot harder to keep a secret these days with Instagram and everything. The idea that somebody could go off and have a whole child seems further fetched than I feel like it was just last generation where she could go off and do that. The shame, just this corrosive effect of not living the life that is actually your real life — I’m not saying that very well, but how a person has to go through life carrying that weight and what it does to them is so interesting.

Nicholas: It is. In this story, she’s from a nice, very Catholic, very Catholic family, and so abortion’s just not even an option. It was okay, probably, in their minds. I’d say half of the story occurs in about 1996. What would you do? You send her off far, far, far away for a few months. Assuming that most teenagers, the ones at her school, are wrapped up in their own lives, when she gets back, they probably will barely have noticed she was gone in the first place. That was the plan. Of course, I won’t tell you how it ends, but that was the plan. You’re right, it’s probably harder now to have this happen. Although, I do know very Catholic families here who have kept things remarkably quiet simply by having them go live somewhere else, remarkably quiet. Truly, only a couple of people know. You’re like, wow, they pulled that off. That was amazing.

Zibby: Wow. I loved the detail, by the way, where you have Maggie spot Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Berg novels by her bed. Are you friends with Elizabeth Berg? Is that why you put that in? I was just wondering.

Nicholas: I’m a big fan of her work. She writes with a really wonderful emotional authenticity. I find the voices of her characters really resonate with truth. They feel very genuine to mill. They feel very authentic, more so than many writers, in fact. I’ve just always thought she was exquisite and extraordinary.

Zibby: Does she know she’s in your book?

Nicholas: No, unless she reads it. It’s only a line.

Zibby: I know, but still. Maybe when you’re such a well-known author it doesn’t give you that same thrill, but I was excited even just — I would think she would want to know. I’ll tell her.

Nicholas: Okay, you tell her.

Zibby: I’ll tell her.

Nicholas: If you do, tell her I’m a huge fan. I think she’s just extraordinary.

Zibby: That’s so nice. That’s awesome. I love how everyone in the author community is — it’s such a nice community. I doubt this is what other industries are like. I can’t imagine people — this instinct for authors to lift each other up is really awesome in general. What about the whole photography piece of this book?

Nicholas: I love photography. It’s a hobby of mine. I’m a hobbyist. I can’t say I’m an avid hobbyist. I can’t say I’m anywhere close to a professional. I can say I enjoy it. I have taken some lovely photographs over the years. There’s something very wonderful about it. I have absolutely no desire to learn the ins and outs of Photoshop or Lightroom, which is really, these days, where the art of photography comes in. With that said, I can only be so good. I can only be good up to a point. I can never ever be great. There is something extraordinary about trying to capture what you’re actually seeing and then get it right in the camera so that it’s reflective of what you’re seeing. There’s something very artistic about that entire process. I love that. It was an element that dovetailed all the way through the novel. It was a theme that resonated from one story until the next. I tried to be very realistic with her photography career. Yes, she has a gallery, but it’s really not. There’s a famous artist in the gallery who lets her put her stuff on the walls. It’s about that.

Zibby: It counts.

Nicholas: In her mind, hey, I’ve got my own gallery, of course. Then there’s a little bit of sadness there about the reason now why she’s selling a lot of photographs. It’s because people see her on YouTube. She’s talking about her diagnosis. They want a souvenir. You’re like, yeah, I don’t know if I wanted to sell these as souvenirs. I wanted to sell them because they’re art, but you do what you can do. In the novel, she threads that needle emotionally and professionally very well.

Zibby: You mentioned earlier in the conversation about Maggie being, in part, inspired by your sister. I know last time we talked about your very tragic losses of your parents, and I’m so sorry, and your sister’s illness and everything. Can you talk a little more about how that…?

Nicholas: My sister’s final years of life — she was young. She was about thirty-three. I would go and visit her. Sometimes I would just see her standing in the kitchen and looking out the window. She wouldn’t be saying anything. There was really nothing out the window to see. It’s the same thing that’s there all the time. It wasn’t like there was a parade out there or fireworks going off. In those moments, I would wonder what she was thinking. If you knew you only had X amount of time, you see the world a little differently. Also, sometimes when you’re looking, I have the sense you don’t see anything at all except visions of your own life. I think my sister went through that. I tried to capture that with Maggie as well. It is part of the human condition to have regrets, to wonder about different paths you could’ve taken in life and where they might have led. You might question why this is happening but also who and why you are the person that you are today. You might feel that there’s unfinished business in some places with a family member. I try to capture all of that with Maggie, not in an overdone, melodramatic way that’s meant to bring tears, but just more a part of, Maggie’s human. These are very human things. In situations like that, there are no right and wrongs. Things are going to come, emotions and thoughts. In some ways, we take them for a ride and see where they lead. I wanted to explore that concept, and so I did.

Zibby: Did you ever talk to your sister about it, about those moments?

Nicholas: Yeah. I would ask, what are you thinking? Sometimes she would answer. Sometimes she wouldn’t. Sometimes I wouldn’t ask. I had the sense that there were moments when there were very personal moments to her. I wanted her to have them for herself because it seemed to be what she needed at the time. The terrible thing with my sister, of course, is she was so very young. It’s a terrible thing. She had a brain tumor. At the same time, you had a little bit of a chance to say goodbye, but what does that mean? How do you say goodbye for a month? It’s a tricky, tricky thing. In the novel, you have Mark and Maggie navigating those waters as well.

Zibby: I’m continually just moved by how you take the events of your own life but then mix them up and put in the heart of it into your books. You’re working through it in each book that you write. You work through another piece of the puzzle.

Nicholas: I think that’s important. It’s important, of course, depending on what kind of novel that you’re writing. I try to write novels that evoke genuine emotional authenticity. To do that, I think the writer has to be very honest. The writer has to be perceptive enough to not only know what a character might be thinking or feeling, but then the best way to describe that in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. That is the whole writing process. It’s one of the reasons why these novels are very challenging to write. It’s real easy to go one sentence too far. Yet if you don’t go far enough, it’s not going to quite work. Sometimes there are sections of those novels that, it’s every paragraph or sometimes every sentence. You’ve got to get those just exactly right.

Zibby: At the beginning, you said every great novelist should write a Christmas story and a dog story. What else is on the list?

Nicholas: Those are the big ones.

Zibby: That’s it? Just those two?

Nicholas: Yeah, those are the big ones. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Look, Charles Dickens, he’s going to win. He’s got the all-time greatest Christmas story. He wins. We’re going to go ahead and stipulate that right up front. You have these other stories, the ones that maybe you watch with your kids or the ones that bring you joy, White Christmas or Elf or A Christmas Story, Ralphie and the BB gun. Last year, they had a cute one, Holiday. You get these shows that deal with the theme of Christmas in one way or another. You find yourself looking forward to the next holiday season when you’re like, oh, I want to watch that again. Perhaps there’s nostalgic reasons or things like that. Those are the two big things. I don’t know that there’s a third. I really don’t. If you’re an American novelist, I don’t know that there’s a —

Zibby: — An American novelist, okay.

Nicholas: When we start reading, anybody, among the first books that people read, they’re things like Where the Red Fern Grows or Old Yeller or Call of the Wild, dog story, dog story, dog story. I read those books when I was third, fourth, and fifth grade, essentially. Those were very, for whatever reason, formative books. Certainly, they instilled within me, a love of reading. If you don’t have a love of reading, you’re never going to become a writer one day. Maybe I’m just fond of dogs. Love cats too. These were the formative books when I was at that very young eight, nine, and ten, and looking for that, wow, this story is so great. I think there’s something to that.

Zibby: Why did you not market this as a Christmas book and have it come out at Christmastime and all of that?

Nicholas: Oh, it will be. It will be. That works in publishing. Long, long, long story short is that probably about forty percent of books that are sold during the year are sold, really, in the weeks from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The bigger you are as a best-selling novelist, the further away from Christmas they put you because they want you to stay on the list all the way through. I’m pretty much the furthest out because they’re pretty sure this will last through Christmas. Yeah, it’s a Christmas story in a way, but it’s just a good story. You can find it at any time. If you read it at the beach or something over in September, you’re going to love this story. It’s got something for you.

Zibby: You’ve been doing this for so long. You have this book that, already, your team is convinced will be on the best-seller list for weeks and months. Yet you’re still doing publicity for this book. You’re still on this podcast with me and, I’m sure, doing tons of other stuff. Do you ever want to just be like, I think it’s going to be okay?

Nicholas: To a certain extent.

Zibby: I’m glad, personally, you’re not because I’m having a delightful time. I love it, but for your own sanity.

Nicholas: There’s pros and cons to a tour. First, I consider myself very fortunate that I’m able to go on tour. Many authors don’t. It’s also nice to meet readers. Writing can be a very isolating profession. When I’m writing a novel, it’s not like I’m doing it in a crowd or I have coworkers or we’re taking a break at the watercooler and things like that. It can be very isolating. I can say that I’ve learned quite a bit from going to events over the years among the questions that I ask. Hey, what was your favorite book? Which was the first book that you read, or your couple? You don’t know. Pick two or three. It’s interesting to me because sometimes it triggers in me, thoughts along the line, you know what, I haven’t done one with a young character lately. Maybe I should do that again. Of course, that lead to The Wish. I had done A Walk to Remember early on. Then ten years later, I had done The Last Song, which was also a teen story. I think it was on tour a couple of years ago, they said, “Oh, yeah, a teen story.” I’m like, that’s right, I haven’t done one of those in a while. Then you mix in Christmas. You mix in adoption. There we are with this story. You can learn things from your readers. People are very kind. If tours were miserable, I wouldn’t go on them. People are so nice. They’re so excited. You get photos with them. It’s wonderful that they take time out of their day to come say hello. That’s very meaningful to me.

Zibby: Basically, you use your book tour to get all your other ideas. You could just be honest about it.

Nicholas: Not all of them.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding.

Nicholas: It is interesting. I’m familiar with these books in a certain order. It starts with The Notebook, then Message, then Walk, straight down the list. It’s always amazing to me how many read them — what was the first book you read? The Lucky One. Wow. Then I went back to A Walk to Remember. I just read The Return. I’m like, you’re all messed up. It’s nice. That’s always interesting to me. Of course, that’s more common than the people who’ve been reading me for the last twenty-five years, to read them absolutely in order. It’s interesting. It is important to know which ones people like the best. That’s helpful too.

Zibby: If you could change something about the publishing industry, what would it be?

Nicholas: Boy, that’s a huge question.

Zibby: Just thought I’d throw it in at the end there.

Nicholas: I can say that I get so much joy from hanging out in bookstores. I love the process of going through shelves and trying to find something. You don’t always do it, but sometimes you find something that no one has told you about and you hadn’t really heard. Something about it catches you. You read it. You think it’s amazing. It’s like discovering buried treasure. I’ve always loved that feeling. If there’s one thing to change, hey, more bookstores. I don’t know whether that’s going to happen. I’m fully aware of the online stuff. I think online is great for buying. It certainly is. It’s very easy and very convenient. I still don’t find it as good for browsing, so to speak, to be able to pick up the book, see how big it is, how thick it is. What’s the font size? You can skim through the flap so easy and put it back and things like that. I find that very convenient. I just love bookstores, so more bookstores, but what can we do? Not everyone is like that.

Zibby: Awesome. I know I asked last time, but advice to aspiring authors before you go, do you have any?

Nicholas: Advice to aspiring authors, you got to read a lot. I think you got to read in a variety of genres. For instance, if someone wants to write like me — I’m certainly not recommending that they do, but if they do, you can’t just read my books. You have to read what I read. If you take something like The Return, my novel last year, unless you’ve read a lot of mysteries, you couldn’t have written that book, for instance. You got to read a lot. Read in a variety of genres. You have to read with an eye toward, what does an author do well? What does he not do well? What’s done particularly well? Why is it done particularly well? You can do all that on the second read. The first time through, you should just enjoy a book. The second time, you should figure out why you enjoyed that. That’s if you’re trying to learn.

Then of course, step number two, if you want to be a writer, you got to write. That’s it. I think that if there’s one thing you concentrate on, it is capturing voice. Voice is where I start with my novels. What is voice? It’s how a character sounds. It’s when they’re thinking. It’s how they sound when they speak. It’s their actions that they do. All of this goes to telling you who a character is. The more original a voice is, both original but also universal, that you feel like, oh, my gosh, this sounds like I used to sound, kind of, when I was a teenager or something like that — you concentrate on voice. You can do good voice in two pages. Start with capturing the voice. After you’ve read an awful lot and once you’ve been trying your hand at writing, then start with voice. Then keep going in the story. If you have a good voice, odds are, people are going to be interested in your book.

Zibby: I hope so. You might need a new job if that’s not working for you.

Nicholas: I had a job when I was writing The Notebook, for sure.

Zibby: I’m obviously kidding. Is this going to be a movie?

Nicholas: Probably, but we’ll see.

Zibby: Nicholas, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on. I really appreciate your time.

Nicholas: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Bye.

Nicholas: Bye.

Nicholas Sparks, THE WISH

THE WISH by Nicholas Sparks

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