When it comes to love, there is probably no single working writer (and possibly no person in any creative field) so associated with that grand emotion as mega-selling author Nicholas Sparks. Say what you will about take on the emotion—a vision in the passionate-kisses-in-the-rain model—but he’s unquestionably touching some hearts: since his first novel, The Notebook, was published in 1996, Sparks has cooked up 15 more love stories; eleven of them were New York Times best-sellers, and eight were turned into movies.
His latest novel is no exception. Set in North Carolina like its predecessors, The Longest Ride—on sale Sept. 17—offers two love stories: a young rodeo rider and his college-student girlfriend, and an older couple with a surprising link to the first pair. And the goings-on behind the scenes will be familiar to Sparks’ fans too. All the way back in February, Fox 2000 acquired the movie rights for a reported $5 million and the film already has a release date of Valentine’s Day weekend 2015.
But The Longest Ride arrives in a literary world that’s somewhat different from the one encountered by Sparks’ 16 previous books. Though the author wrote The Best of Me for publication in the fall of 2011, it had already been completed before that summer—which makes The Longest Ride the first Nicholas Sparks story to emerge into a post-Fifty Shades of Grey world.
Not that Sparks is thinking about that.
“Of course I know of it,” Sparks says of the popular racy series. “But I did not read it.”
(MORE: The Shy British Mum Behind Fifty Shades of Grey)
Just as The Longest Ride and Fifty Shades of Grey have very little to do with one another, their authors—besides their success—don’t share much common. Fifty Shades grew from Twilight fan fiction and was originally distributed (for free) online by author E.L. James, a Brit with no prior publishing experience; The Longest Ride is penned by an astonishingly successful author, an American man who is now an industry unto himself. Sparks is synonymous with an old-fashioned kind of love (while his characters are not entirely chaste, he doesn’t write sex scenes; “I just don’t dwell on the mechanics,” he explains), while James is now synonymous with graphic tales of lust and bondage.
Still, it’s hard not to see them as two sides of the same coin. A major part of the Fifty Shades narrative (the common wisdom about its publication, not the plot of the book) has to do with the revelation that female readers were eager for erotica and not ashamed to say so. The unabashedly sex-centric books seemingly came out of nowhere but quickly grabbed headlines—and are still doing so. The news that Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam had been cast as the leads for the upcoming movie version (a rights deal reportedly in about the same neighborhood, dollars-wise, as a Sparks movie) spurred a new wave of chatter about the books.
It’s enough to make a person think readers have moved beyond love scenes that fade to black. Still, he’s not planning to go into the business of erotica any time soon. His larger goal is to walk the find line between drama and melodrama, and he says that if he started including more detail about the characters’ sex lives it could quickly end up on the wrong side of the line.
“I suppose I’m more interested [in Fifty Shades] on a level of ‘Why did it take off?’ You wonder, in a Malcolm Gladwell sense, what was the tipping point,'” says Sparks.
(MORE: Has Hollywood Abandoned the Old-Fashioned Romance Movie?)
Besides, Sparks has other things to think about. Sparks is open about the fact that he first got into love stories for simple commercial reasons; his website has since been revamped but it used to include the following FAQ: “Why do you write love stories? I chose that genre because there was little to no competition.” But he says he’s happy to be associated with the genre, and that it affords him many opportunities, since a love story—as opposed to a more narrowly defined “romance novel,” a genre with very precise publishing specifications, and one that is, he has said to his work as Cinderella is to Romeo and Juliet—has room for lots of other stuff to happen in between the sentimental parts.
“I’m in good company. There have been some great love stories written on film and in novels. Ernest Hemingway did A Farewell to Arms and that’s good company,” says Sparks. “I’m not saying I’m Ernest Hemingway.”
In a 2009 interview with a North Carolina paper, however, he did say he wants to write a book that will live forever—and, four years later, that goal still holds.
“For me, whether or not my name lives forever is certainly nothing I can control,” he says. “All I can do is to try to write a novel that’s the best I can possibly do and let the chips fall where they may, and in the end the readers are going to decide. That’s about it.”