Nicholas Sparks, THE RETURN

Nicholas Sparks, THE RETURN

Zibby Owens: Hi. How are you?

Nicholas Sparks: I’m doing fantastic. Yourself?

Zibby: I’m good. Thank you.

Nicholas: Where are you?

Zibby: I’m in New York. This is my library/home office.

Nicholas: Wow. Is this in your apartment?

Zibby: It’s in my apartment, yes.

Nicholas: I love it. I love all the books. I have books behind me too.

Zibby: I see that. Yours look awesome. I like how you have the little cages in case they’re going to run away and escape.

Nicholas: All the books that you see here are actually my books, but they’re my books in all sorts of different languages. Of course, I have, I don’t know how many, twenty-plus or whatever, and they’ve all been translated a lot of times. Every book you see is actually mine, not that I can read them because they’re in foreign languages.

Zibby: That’s so cool. I love that. Wow. How neat to have a library all of your own writing. Very inspiring. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” This is such an honor to talk to you. I’ve read so many of your books. The Return is so great. I’ve been reading it every night as my kids are going to bed. It’s fantastic. Thank you for all the content that you’ve put out into world.

Nicholas: You’re welcome.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners who aren’t familiar yet with The Return, what inspired you to write this book? What was really the main premise of it for you?

Nicholas: The initial thought for the novel — you have to have an initial thought. I wanted to do a story with a theme of love and mystery. I hadn’t done that for a long time. The last time I did that I think was in a novel called A Bend in the Road. I’ve written other themes since then. I’ve done epic love like The Longest Ride or Love and Danger, like The Guardian and Safe Haven. I’ve done everlasting love in Every Breath. This time, I wanted to go back to love and mystery. Of course, I wanted to make it as different as I could than my previous attempt. Once you start with that, your next question is, what’s the mystery? I realized, what if there’s a guy and his grandfather died and his grandfather said some things that just didn’t make sense? That, of course, leads to, well, who is this person? Once you have that down, the primary element I wanted to explore was the concept of the aftermath of trauma and how people react when something terrible happens in their own life. The characters in this novel, without giving things away, have all experienced a trauma. They all react in different ways while trying to do the best they can. I wanted to explore that, perhaps, because like everyone, I’ve had trauma in my own life. I think it’s part of the universal human experience. That makes it something that everyone can relate to. As always, I did my best to create characters who, even if they weren’t necessarily doing what you would have done, you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. All of those two themes, the aftermath of trauma and a little mystery, came together. Little by little, the story came into place.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like your main character here, though, has had more trauma than most. First of all, everything with his experience being a surgeon in the medical hospital and the PTSD that you write so well about in the story, but also his family history, it’s one thing after another. The poor guy, it’s amazing he can even get out of bed in the morning. It’s great to then explore because you do have to get out of bed. No matter how much baggage you have, the days always keep coming, if you’re lucky. How do you deal with that? How do you put one foot in front of the other when you’ve lost your ear and just all this stuff?

Nicholas: He, of course, didn’t hop up the next day. That’s part of his journey. First, he got really good at Grand Theft Auto.

Zibby: Yes, I liked that.

Nicholas: He got really good at Grand Theft Auto and drank too much until his girlfriend left him. Then he said, hmm, maybe I better start changing things.

Zibby: I was like, should I tell my son who’s obsessed with GTA that it’s actually in a book that I’m reading? I don’t know.

Nicholas: Of course. He’ll say, “See Mom, it’s helpful. It’s therapeutic.”

Zibby: Exactly. I can’t give him any more excuses to play video games, so I don’t think I’m going to bring it up. Actually, one thing that I found so interesting in your book that I feel like doesn’t come up as often, I was trying to rack my brain for other examples, is really exploring that relationship between a man and his own therapy. I feel like it happens a lot with women. You hear of women and their therapists. It’s just not as common. The relationship between Bowen and Trevor, it really courses throughout the book and deepened your understanding of Trevor and where he was coming from and even gave the reader some good, helpful, therapeutic tips for your life. Tell me about developing that relationship in the story.

Nicholas: Of course, there still is a stigma with mental health. There are those who, they have an automatic negative view toward therapy. Part of me wants to blow up that kind of thinking because I think that for some people in certain situations therapy can be very beneficial. I think that a lot of people who don’t believe in the concept of therapy, or believe in it as long as it’s not them because they’re fine, don’t necessarily understand the evolution of therapy. Really, really long story short, Sigmund Freud started psychoanalysis, and this is what most people think that a lot of therapy is. It’s someone laying on the couch and talking about their dreams and this and that. That was very prominent for a long time. That’s what therapy was. Eventually, therapists and patients learned that knowing the root cause of something doesn’t necessarily help you change it. I know the root cause of why I eat too much ice cream and that’s why I gain weight. Here’s why. It tastes good. Knowing the reason why won’t necessarily help you. A lot of therapy has changed from trying to understand why to what you do. What can you do in that instant when you have an urge for ice cream? Of course, you can substitute any issue that someone’s having. What can I do if I get angry? What can I do if my hands begin to shake, as in the case of Trevor?

There’s things you can do. It’s cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy. They give you a list. Let’s do some certain things in those moments. Then rest of your life, let’s try to be as healthy as you possibly can. You exercise. You eat right. It’s all the advice your mother gave you: exercise, eat right, sleep right, avoid mood-altering substances to a great extent. Then in these moments, what can you do when you get angry? I can turn and walk away. I can try to reframe the situation. There’s things you do in that moment. That’s really what I wanted to explore. It’s to give an idea for those who haven’t had therapy or who don’t know what it is or have a negative view of it, why it can be so beneficial. Trevor knows why he’s messed up. He needs to know what to do to not be angry at a Home Depot when someone cuts him off in line. He has to know what to do when his hands begin to shake. That’s really the therapy that he’s most interested in because doing the right thing in situations that are challenging leads you to becoming a very healthy version of yourself.

Zibby: That’s true. I think I need to remember that as I look in the freezer at night.

Nicholas: Look for the ice cream. Knowing why you want it, that’s not going to help.

Zibby: It doesn’t help at all. I want it because I just want it. Now I’m going to have it. Or because I’m angry. When you were listing the behaviors that anger should elicit, I guess eating is not really the best coping mechanism. I’ll leave that for somebody else’s therapy. It’s so funny you say this too because I know it’s so dependent on where in the country you live or who you’re surrounded by, how people feel about therapy and all the different views. I was a psychology major. I’m from New York City. Therapy here is just what you do. It’s so common. I know there are so many other places and even different religions or different cultures where it’s just not as accepted. It’s great to have a book like this which so normalizes it and explains it clearly and carefully and calmly and outlines all the benefits. That’s awesome.

Nicholas: Thank you.

Zibby: I read about how your mother is really responsible for all of your success by getting you to start writing at a very early age. You were dabbling in all sorts of other professions at that time. You were so young, but didn’t really see this coming, necessarily, for yourself. Can you tell me a little more about getting your start and how you started in pharmaceutical sales and selling dental devices or whatever you were doing and ended up being you?

Nicholas: My mom originally got me into writing. I was nineteen. At that time, I was very into track and field. I was very competitive. I was on scholarship. It was my world. I had dreams of being an Olympic gold medalist. That’s all I wanted. I got injured during my freshman year. Over the summer, I was just miserable. I couldn’t train. I had all this excess energy. I was imagining all my competitors getting better. I was falling behind. It was emotionally, mentally, physically — I was just not in my right head. My mom knew it. She said, “Look, don’t just pout. Do something.” I said, “What?” She said, “I don’t know. Go write a book.” So I did. I wrote a novel. I was nineteen. It took me about six weeks. It was terrible. I’m not being false modesty there. It was a nineteen-year-old writing his very first novel and taking six weeks to do it. I learned that I liked stories. I, of course, never thought I could make a living at it. Finish up college, get my degree, don’t get a job right away, so I write a second novel. That never gets published. I say, what am I going to do? I experiment with some different jobs for a while, find out what’s calling me, what’s speaking to me. Then when I was twenty-eight, I kind of had an early midlife crisis and said, what can I do in the evening while keeping my job? I had bills and things. I sat down and wrote The Notebook. It’s kind of like a start and a stop, and then a start and then a stop, and then a start, and here I am.

Zibby: Wow. I heard that — I shouldn’t say I heard. I read that an agent just found it in their slush pile and brought it to the top and that’s how you got discovered.

Nicholas: Yeah, pretty much. I sent letters out to a bunch of agencies. Someone pulled it out of the non-solicited query pile and said, “Hey, take a look at this.” That agent read the letter, asked for my book, read it in a couple of days. Her name is Theresa Park. She’s still my agent to this day.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. That’s so encouraging, too, for all the people who submit blindly that it can happen. It can be a smash hit and all the rest. You mentioned earlier that your own trauma sort of informs your writing. I read that your little sister died of a brain tumor. I’m so sorry to have heard that. Is that one of the things that motivates your writing? If so, I was hoping maybe you could speak to that if you feel comfortable.

Nicholas: There was a period there of about seven years where there was one loss after another. My mother died in a horseback riding accident. My father died in a car accident. Meanwhile, my sister’s having this brain tumor. Then she eventually passes away. This was all in a very brief period.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Nicholas: Certainly, when you get hit with these traumas, you go through it as best you can. I had children. I had bills. I still had responsibilities. It was challenging. I found that I reacted differently to each of these traumas because of my age, because of where I was, because of the addition of additional responsibilities. They certainly inform my writing, particularly when I write about grief or loss or trauma such as in The Rescue. That was one of the big things, as I mentioned earlier, that I really wanted to explore. You’ve got three characters that have trauma. They all react in different ways just as I reacted in three different ways after each of my own traumas. In each of those cases, even though I reacted differently, I was just trying to do my best at that time to negotiate the cavalcade of emotion that I was feeling while putting one step in front of the other. It certainly informs my writing. It’s led to direct inspiration. Message in a Bottle was directly inspired by my father after the death of my mother. Walk to Remember was inspired by my sister. It’s informed or inspired specific stories. At the same time, there’s elements there that have woven their way into each and every one of my novels as well.

Zibby: I’m so sorry about all that you’ve been through. How, as a dad, do you talk about loss and grief to your own kids? How do you help them make sense of the things that have happened in your family?

Nicholas: It’s a difficult question to answer. Even though my kids, they range in age from twenty-eight to eighteen, they’ve suffered loss too, not necessarily their parents or their siblings like me. In twenty-eight years, we’ve lost pets. They’ve had friends who’ve passed away unexpectedly. In the end, I think the most important thing you can do is to validate their feelings. You listen to them. You’re empathetic to them. You’re with them in that moment. Then you don’t necessarily try to help. You validate. Someone says, “I feel so sad. I can’t stop crying.” You don’t say, “Well, death is a part of life.” It’s not going to help them. What you do is say, “I know you do. I have no doubt that it feels absolutely awful. Part of you might wonder if you’ll ever stop crying.” Anyone will respond to that, “Yeah, that’s how I feel.” What that does is it opens up the ability to communicate on a deeper level. The most important thing is to validate. You say, “Look, I get it. I’ve been through it. It’s the hardest thing ever.” That’s whether it’s children or whether it’s friends or whether it’s siblings or whether it’s anyone. When someone is hurting, empathy, active listening, and then really responding to what specifically they’re saying and not trying to fix it, just letting them know you fully understand what they’re going through.

Zibby: You should’ve been a therapist.

Nicholas: Perhaps. I’ve had a lot of children.

Zibby: You’ve done fine for yourself. Not to say this was not the right career for you. It’s fine, but I’m just saying. You obviously have a gift in this area as well. It’s a fallback career.

Nicholas: Fallback, right. I’m hopeful some of that went through The Return.

Zibby: Absolutely. When you write, what is your writing process like? How long does each book usually take you? Where do you like to write? Is it somewhere else in that room with the beautiful books?

Nicholas: Yeah, I write here. I write in the kitchen. I write in another room near the kitchen. Then I have a second office off the gym, much more informal. I sometimes write there. I can write anywhere. I can write on airplanes, in hotel rooms, and I have. Just generally, I write at home because I’m at home a lot. I pick a spot based on my mood, essentially. Novels take about six months to write and then probably another ten weeks to edit. Much of that ten weeks is not hovering over the keyboard. You send it up to them. Then they take two and a half, three weeks, and then they send back suggested changes. You work really hard for a week. Then you send it up again. You wait another three weeks. Then you make those changes. It follows that. Then after that, you’re a good chunk into the year. The rest of the time is spent on tour and then conceiving the next novel. Then you start all over again.

Zibby: How has the pandemic been, your first tour throughout this new world that we’re in?

Nicholas: It will certainly be a different tour than I’ve done in the past. Of course, we’re very concerned about safety. I certainly don’t want to do things that would make people feel exposed. There’s a lot of feelings and very few people who want to get this thing. What can we do? Even though I will be going out and I think it’s important to support local bookstores and things like that, it’s all designed with safety in mind. We’ll see how it goes. I think I’m going to six or seven different bookstores. We’re limiting the lines. Not that we’re limiting people who can get signed books, but they’re ticketed. Only some people come then. It’s spread throughout the day. I sign the books in advance. If we take a picture, there’s Plexiglas between us, everything you have to do so that people will feel safe. That’s the most important thing on this tour, is to do it in the safest way possible.

Zibby: How about the last six months while the pandemic has been raging? Have you been working on new books during this time?

Nicholas: Yeah, I finished another novel. It’s now in the editing process. I’ve done that. I’ve started another novel. Just about done with that one as well. Workwise, it’s been fairly productive. Like everyone, COVID has hit home. My daughter had it. She went through that whole experience. It’s affected me as much as it’s affected anyone, very limited. I’ve been largely sheltering at home. On the plus side, if there is one, I’ve worked from home for years. It was my normal thing. That part has not changed.

Zibby: You’ve written dozens of books. How do you keep coming up with new characters, new plotlines? You’re like, I just wrote another novel. It sounds so causal for you. Whereas some people, it takes them their whole lives to come up with one novel. How does it work for you? Is it just the engine and once you go, the creativity keeps going? How does it work for you?

Nicholas: It was interesting. When I first started in 1996, that’s what you were supposed to do. The Notebook was published in 1996. At that time, authors wrote a book a year. If you wanted to be a successful author, you had to figure it out. It’s a little bit different now. Authors, whether you’re Dan Brown or you’re Gillian Flynn or Dennis Lehane, for instance, all excellent, excellent writers, and I love their work, they don’t necessarily put out a novel a year. Back when I was starting, that’s what you had to do. I figured that’s the only way to do it. You get in the habit of doing that, and so I’ve done that. Once you reach this stage, my goal is always the same as it has been since the very beginning, which is to write the best book possible, one that feels original to the reader, one that strikes them as something entirely new that they haven’t read before even while knowing it’ll be set in North Carolina, even while knowing there’s romantic elements.

How on earth do you make it different? I think about, what haven’t I done? What haven’t I done recently? We talked about the theme of mystery. Hadn’t done that in a long time. That was one of the original thoughts in this book. Let me have a mystery that leads to all sorts of questions. What is the mystery? Then I said, what really haven’t I explored? Three different reactions to trauma, brand-new idea, nothing I’ve ever written about before. I’ve done it with individual characters, but not every character in that novel. I said, oh, okay, so here’s something I haven’t done in a long time, something I have never done before. This is all new. This is all original. Then from there, you just keep asking yourself what-if questions regarding, what if the character’s fifty? What if the character’s forty? What if the character’s thirty? Then what happens to the story? What is the mystery? What if this? What if that? What if this? Then you just keep walking all the way through until the story forms in your mind and you’re ready to begin writing.

Zibby: Actually, I found myself getting a bit impatient really wanting to know what the backstory was for Natalie and why she was looking sad all the time. I was like, what is going on with her? When are we finding out? I can’t wait to know anymore. All of them, actually, but hers in particular. What types of books do you like to read in your spare time?


Zibby: I know so many of your books have been made into movies. How are you feeling about the movie aspect of your work? Do you see it all cinematically as you’re writing it? Do you really enjoy the adaptions of all the stories? What’s your general takeaway from that element of your writing?

Nicholas: I always try to conceive a novel with the idea that it will be both a novel and a film. Then when I write, I only think about the novel. Then after the novel is written, I only think about the film. It’s important to understand that the nature of Hollywood has been changing over the last ten years. International markets are much larger than they used to be for the box office. Streaming has become much more evident. Novels are now being adapted into limited series or extended series. There’s a lot of changes. Then of course, in comes COVID-19. People aren’t sure when and where they can start filming. There’s challenges associated with that. For right now, it’s a little tricky to navigate. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? Last question.

Nicholas: The best advice is to read a lot. One of the standard jokes that I ever say when I speak in front of a crowd and get asked this question is — they say, what advice do you have for aspiring writers? I say, I’ll tell you what helped me. When I was a kid, I watched a lot of TV. I mean that. There’s things you can learn from television. There’s things you can learn from film. There’s things you can learn from novels. I certainly was a very avid reader. If you watch television, you’ll note that particularly every show you watch — I’m talking more about network television, but even on streaming. It’s just slightly different. They’re really good at ending before the commercial or at the end of the show with a bit of a cliffhanger that makes you want to go and see what happens next. Of course, anyone familiar with my writing, I try to make it almost impossible to stop reading at the end of a chapter because you have to know what happens next. Where do you learn that? You learn that more in television and film than you would, for instance, in a classic novel by Flaubert or someone like that, or Proust. Read. Understand story. Stories can be understood.

Then I think the best thing is to figure out what you really want to write. There’s a difference. Do I want to write something that may or may not get published? That’s a different standard than, I want to write something that will a hundred percent be published; which is a different standard than, I want something that’s going to be a best seller; which is a different standard than, I want to be wonderfully, critically reviewed in The New York Times and on NPR or things like that. They’re all different, so to be clear on what you intend to write. Then finally, if you’re a young writer, whatever you do, don’t write about a young character. Everyone says write what you know, but the thing that happens when you’re young is that you think all of your thoughts are original. Really, everyone’s had them before. For my first novel, The Notebook, my main character was eighty years old.

Zibby: Wow. This has been a particularly great episode for my son because now in addition to GTA and playing video games you have said that watching TV is really good for you. I guess I’m going to have to play it for him. Thank you so much for your time. Thanks for sharing your personal history and for The Return, which was so great. Thank you.

Nicholas: Thank you very much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Nicholas: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Nicholas: Bye.

Nicholas Sparks, THE RETURN