Sparks, Cyrus coexist within a romance
By Anthony Breznican
LOS ANGELES Nicholas Sparks has no love for people who call his stories "romances."
The mega-best-selling author of "The Notebook," "A Walk to Remember," "Nights in Rodanthe," "Dear John" and "Message in a Bottle" stands in a book store, literally and figuratively defending his turf.
"If you look for me, I'm in the fiction section. Romance has its own section," he says. He's smiling. Hard.
"I don't write romance novels." His preferred terminology: "Love stories it's a very different genre. I would be rejected if I submitted any of my novels as romance novels."
Rejection isn't something he has had to deal with lately. Sparks holds the No. 1 and No. 2 positions on USA Today's Best-Selling Books list with "The Last Song," a novel turned movie vehicle for Miley Cyrus, and "Dear John," recently released as a movie with Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum.
"The Last Song" movie, opening March 31, features Cyrus as a morose piano prodigy, reluctantly spending the summer with her estranged, dying father (Greg Kinnear). Cyrus' real-life boyfriend, Aussie actor Liam Hemsworth, 20, plays a kid who falls for her.
They met on the shoot, which means Sparks is a matchmaker of sorts. When Cyrus joins Sparks in the book store's stacks, he asks about her weekend: "What'd you do for fun? Out with Liam?"
Cyrus smiles widely. "At first, he was working, so I was cute," she says. "I went and got him coffee, bought him an Elvis CD and went and gave it to him at the photo shoot."
Sparks sighs. The North Carolina native spent his time watching football in his hotel room.
Hollywood has been good to Sparks, and now he's returning the favor, crafting both the novel and screenplay for "The Last Song" as a steppingstone for the Disney super-starlet, now 17, as she transitions from "Hannah Montana," which is shooting its final season, to more mature roles.
Despite his status, Sparks, 44, says he alone was not enough to get the movie made. He told Disney about the story idea, and the studio expressed interest in it as a vehicle for Cyrus but there were still a lot of maybes.
"It was not greenlit from the moment they got me on the project. She had to like it at the end, and Disney had to like it at the end."
Cyrus confesses that, well, she never finished the novel, originally published in hardcover last September. "With the book, I've only gotten through part of 'The Last Song,' " Cyrus says sheepishly. "Because the movie started first."
Sparks feigns being stricken, but then says: "I don't know if I ever watched a 'Hannah Montana' show. ... Nothing personal. My daughters do every day."
" 'Nothing personal. I just hate her show,' " Cyrus says, laughing and mocking his voice.
"The Last Song" ended up being tailored to her tastes. "It's got things I would like," Cyrus says.
"Even the name I picked 'Ronnie' for my granddad. Things like that. But it was not written to make it easy for me, either."
The character is musical, but she's not singing "Party in the USA."
"She didn't want to sing," says Sparks, who wrote her instead as a classical pianist.
Ronnie actually seems like the type of girl who used to be a big Hannah Montana fan herself, but not anymore.
"Exactly!" Cyrus says with a laugh. "Anything that would make her parents happy is something she doesn't want to do."
And though "The Last Song" is not as squeaky-clean as her Disney Channel show, the PG-rated movie is still very "chaste" (Sparks' word).
If Stephen King injects magic and the supernatural into a secular, disbelieving world, and John Grisham provides people in suits with a pulse of adventure, Sparks may be filling the holes in the hearts of those who just want a little more love in their lives. He wrinkles his nose at the theory.
"Mmmmm, OK," he says. "I think, above all, the characters in my novels feel universal to the readers. I feel as if, when they read them, they can feel for instance, if you take 'The Last Song' that 'I know a 17-year-old like Ronnie.' And these characters are by no means perfect, but when the going gets rough, they do the right thing. People want to say, 'I would do that.' "
Sparks' tales also tend to be punctuated by death.
In "Nights in Rodanthe," which was made into a film last year with Diane Lane and Richard Gere, a middle-aged woman leaves her husband to oversee a beachside bed-and-breakfast, only to fall for a doctor who is trying to get over the accidental death of a patient. Love blossoms, but. ... tragedy intervenes, adding a sheen of nobility that tugs the heartstrings a little harder than "happily ever after."
Cyrus says the threat of loss in "The Last Song" makes the viewer or reader feel good while feeling sad.
"It is melodramatic," she says. "But there is a sense of celebration, too. Even though it is tragic, we still celebrate a life."
RULING THE GENRE
Sparks says: "I'm going to interrupt you there. There's a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It's a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it's very rare that it works.
"That's why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It's all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power."
But, well, he always does kill someone by the end of his tales, usually to maximum handkerchief effect.
"Of course!" Sparks says. "I write in a genre that was not defined by me. The examples were not set out by me.
"They were set out 2,000 years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were called the Greek tragedies. A thriller is supposed to thrill. A horror novel is supposed to scare you. A mystery is supposed to keep you turning the pages, guessing 'whodunit?'
"A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet,' then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with 'A Farewell to Arms.' "