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Sparks brings the war home in 'The Lucky One'

Hopping from city to city on a media tour, attending "sneak peaks" of a major motion picture, making appearances at press junkets, doing videos with movie stars: "It's pretty typical," says author Nicholas Sparks of this part of his life.
But then he laughs. He knows that what has become the norm for him is not a typical life for most writers, even others with his kind of mega-best-selling numbers. Few are so comfortable moving between the worlds of fiction and film; even fewer have been so successful at it.

"You could say I've been 'the lucky one,' " Sparks adds, gently getting in what he was on the phone to talk about. "The Lucky One," starring Zac Efron as a young Marine having trouble adjusting to civilian life, opens in theaters Friday. It is the seventh Sparks novel to be made into a film, joining "The Notebook," "Message in a Bottle" and "A Walk to Remember," among others, with two more in the pipeline -- and it is a movie his fans will consider one of his best.

"The Lucky One," set during and after the combat mission in Iraq, is one of his most timely novels, and, Sparks says, it was one of the hardest to write.

"I wanted to make sure it was as accurate as possible, because it is about the Marines," he said. His hero, Logan, has survived three rough tours in Iraq, and seen more than his share of casualties. And Sparks didn't want to fudge it. "I wanted these tragedies to have happened [in the real war], for him to regard the photo [a picture of a woman that he finds in the rubble] his lucky charm, and, obviously, I needed three hot zone deployments, in which there was ... sadly, tragically ... there was real loss of life."

That authenticity was important to him, Sparks said, because he knew it would be important to those who had served, and to his readers. He eventually found a real battalion with that history. (In the book and film, Logan has been discharged and goes on a quest to find the woman in the photo he picked up in combat; when he does, as so often happens in these stories, sparks fly.)

People who don't read Sparks, who don't "get" his stuff, or who think they know his work because they've seen the movie posters (which do have a stunning similarity -- beautiful couples, embracing, or moments from a kiss) might dismiss his books as light romances. And they might scoff at what they consider manufactured melodrama -- he is known for killing off a lot of his characters, even ones we like.

But for his fans, the stories often hit much closer to home.

"What I try to do most of all," Sparks said, "is create characters who feel very real to people ... You want to feel they can be your brother or your sister, or your neighbor."

Being believable isn't always as easy as it sounds when the story also has to be dramatic, surprising and satisfying, he points out. "In some other genres, you don't have to worry so much," he said. "You can have vampires, magic schools, people who can take down assassins with their thumbs and a pixie straw ... I don't do that."

What he does do is turn out at least one novel a year, often set in his adopted home state of North Carolina. It took some time to find that rhythm: Sparks was born in Omaha on New Year's Eve 1965, grew up in California and, according to his website's bio, was valedictorian of his high school class. It also says he wrote his first novel (it wasn't published) while a student at Notre Dame, after an injury sidelined him from running track.

He finally made it into print in 1990, with a book he wrote with Olympian Billy Mills. Two years later, he and his wife moved to North Carolina, and in 1994 he wrote "The Notebook."

The story behind that book's success could almost be a Nicholas Sparks book itself. It was the first novel his agent, Theresa Park, ever sold -- she had only been at the publishers a few months, Sparks says -- and the rest is history. Although he has been married for more than 20 years and has five children, it is his agent who talks with him about his ideas and gives him feedback. "She is my sounding board, she has very good story instincts," Sparks says. His wife, Catherine (like the beloved lost wife in "Message in a Bottle"), usually reads his books "a year or two after they come out," he said.

His wife is, instead, very hands on with their other projects:

"Philanthropy has been a big part of our lives," Sparks says. They sponsor scholarships and writing programs, and also have a program to help disabled veterans receive prosthetic limbs and assistance animals, paying costs their veterans benefits don't cover.

"We've also founded an experimental school to improve curriculum nationwide -- to find ways to give kids a 21st century education," Sparks says. "Americans are ill equipped for our international culture -- we only have two neighbors, and that has hurt us in learning .... languages and understanding other cultures."

The school is, he said, "essentially a laboratory" -- a laboratory that will share its results, free of charge, with any school that wants to use them.

It is all part of the sensibility at the heart of not only Nicholas Sparks' books but also of Nicholas Sparks himself -- that no one is perfect, but almost everyone has more good in them than bad.

"I've met very few pure bad guys," Sparks says. "The simple truth of the matter is everyone has these flaws -- no one is perfect. But when push comes to shove, most people will do the right thing. .... Everyone has narcissistic moments, but they will still stop for a car accident and try to help, and they will sacrifice for their children."

He writes love stories, but they are also stories of redemption -- often a man trying to redeem himself after an error in judgment or personal tragedy (his women tend to be damaged by bad relationships).

As a character says in his novel "Dear John," "Every single person you see is struggling with something, and to them, it's just as hard as what you're going through."

Readers respond to that, because they are struggling with something, too, and they may very well find someone who understands that in a book by Nicholas Sparks.