When The Choice opens in theaters on Friday, it will mark the 11th feature film adapted from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, the global phenomenon whose love stories have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. TIME caught up with the novelist ahead of the film’s release to talk about his dramas, Stephen King and his dating life post-divorce.
TIME: So many of your books have a medical element, and this one does, too. Why?
Sparks: In the end I think it reflects reality, right? Even in the course of my own life, I was 23 years old and my mom was in a [fatal] horseback riding accident, and those last few hours were spent in the hospital. My sister followed with a brain tumor. When Cathy and I were married, she had a miscarriage. My second son Ryan was diagnosed as severely autistic. I can’t tell you how many doctors we saw trying to figure out this diagnosis—it was very challenging. So I think for most people, this is part and parcel of life. At the same time, it’s often moments like those that make you question things. And so to me it just reflects the truth—in fact, to me it reflects the truth so much more than anything with a serial killer. I’ve never met a serial killer. I know they’re out there, but I’ve actually never met one, whereas I know so many people who are dealing with a mother with cancer, or a brother who is ill, or a sister who had a mastectomy.
Do you think that’s a reason readers are drawn to your stories?
When you write stories like these, you’re striving to evoke all of the emotions of life, so that by the time the reader finishes, they feel as if they’ve lived a mini-life. They went through all of these emotions, they were happy and sad and angry and frustrated and confused, and falling in love and then being in love and challenged in love, all of these great emotions. And if you remove one of those things, you write about a character who never gets angry, or there’s no humor, or there’s no sadness, it feels a little fairy tale-ish. And there’s room for those kinds of stories in the market, but it’s not what I do.
Readers and viewers seem to love the North Carolina settings. Why do you think that is?
Because I think it harkens back to feelings of nostalgia or longing for a slower pace. So many people are so incredibly busy these days, and if you work and you have children and you have a partner, a husband, parents, siblings, pets, neighbors, you are running from the moment you wake til the moment you go to sleep. Meanwhile you have this show about somebody who’s got time to just sit in the backyard, put on some music with his dog and throw the ball, and you’re like, “I want that life!”
The characters in The Choice talk about “the God question” early in their relationship. What is your answer to the God question?
I was raised Catholic, so of course, I believe in something greater out there. In my sense it kind of does fall into Einstein; the more I study the universe, the more I shake my head and say, “I don’t know how all these random elements come together without some guiding influence.” That’s my own perspective, you might call it “Intelligent Design.” For me, that resonates with the most sense. The Big Bang can fall into that. What is the truth in the end? I wonder. I guess I’ll find out. Or I won’t!
How do your kids like your books and movies?
My daughters—not my sons—have read everything, and my sons have seen the movies, but they haven’t read anything. They’ll pop over to set now and then when we’re filming, and they’ll certainly go to the premiere, and that’s a lot of fun. But my daughter, she says the same thing as some of my readers: “You have ruined men for me forever, because they’re just not romantic like this, Dad.” My daughter says this to me! So what do you make of that? To me, that’s a wonderful compliment of sorts, because it meant that they were able to escape into the story and forget that I had written it.
When you’re flipping through the dials and something like The Notebook is on, what do you do?
I might watch it! Sure. I watched A Walk to Remember. I hadn’t seen it in a while and I ended up watching it, I guess last week. I put out that movie 14 years ago. I watched and said, “Wow, that really holds up well! I love that!”
What’s your own favorite book you’ve written?
My own favorite? Oh man, that’s a tough word. For writing process, let’s say A Walk to Remember. My best work, that would be See Me, The Longest Ride and Safe Haven. If you say, which one means the most, well, The Notebook because it launched my career. The most personal, you would say Three Weeks With My Brother, because that was nonfiction and it was pretty much the story of my life.
What about your favorite book by another author?
You can’t do that to me! One favorite book by one author? I don’t know if that’s even possible. How about the collected works of Stephen King?
What do you like about him?
I like the fact that when he’s writing, he never loses sight of the fact that he’s telling a story that’s meant to engage the readers. I think that’s a lesson that has resonated throughout my career, though of course we write entirely different things.
The ABC comedy you’re producing, The Next Chapter, will be loosely based on your life post-divorce. What can you tell me about that?
I don’t know that “loosely based” is the word—it’s “loosely inspired.” It’s the story of a guy who’s been married for a while, a novelist who writes love stories, and he gets divorced, and what happens post-this in a world that thinks he’s very romantic. We’re early enough in the process that I’m still working with ABC and the writers to figure out exactly what kind of comedy are we going for. Is it more Modern Family or is it more Big Bang Theory? Or is it more All in the Family? I don’t know yet.
I know part of it is the character learning how to date again. When you go on dates, how high is the bar for them to be really romantic just because of who you are and what you write?
I have no idea. I guess you’d have to ask them. Let’s see. In the end I think that you’ve just got be yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point? If you laugh a lot, then laugh a lot. If you go in and you put out this false sense of who you are, what’s the point? You’re not gonna be that person. I don’t even understand the point. Just be who you are. I would like to think I’m the kind of person who tends to be more romantic than not. I do my best. I open doors, I send flowers, I don’t forget anniversaries, I remember things, Valentine’s Day… I’ve got all the basics down.
What assumptions do you think readers make about you that aren’t true?
I would say that they might not know that I exercise as much as I do. A lot of people think of writers as kind of artsy or introverted, and many of them are.
How much do you exercise?
At least a couple of hours a day.
What do you do?
I do various aerobic work, I do a lot of weights, sparring, Taekwondo-type stuff.
What can you tell me about your next book?
Oh, my next novel, the one I’m working on—and I very seldom tell anybody—but what I can say, look: It’s gonna be a love story, it’s gonna be set in North Carolina, and it’s gonna have some characters that I think you’re really gonna like, flawed and all. I know! I’ve pretty much given away the story. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before.