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A Tale of Two Authors: John Irving and Nicholas Sparks

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageA few weeks ago, when I attended the National Book Festival (see Tom Hardej’s awesome coverage of the festival here), I ducked into the Fiction tent to avoid an imminent downpour.  I got there just in time to see two authors, John Irving and Nicholas Sparks, speak about their lives and work.

On the surface, Irving and Sparks do seem to have a lot in common.  Both are modern, commercially successful fiction authors with multiple books to their names.  Both tend strongly toward “regional” work: most of Irving’s stories are set in New Hampshire, and most of Sparks’ in North Carolina.  And, of course, there’s the most important commonality: I’ve read both of them extensively, so naturally I was pretty interested in what they had to say.  But beyond that…not much.

I’ve got something of a love-hate relationship with both authors, which I’ve discussed in this column.  John Irving has a knack for character-driven work, but his characters aren’t always sympathetic or easy to identify with.  And Nicholas Sparks can spin a great love story (The Notebook), but many of his other works have struck me as a little trite.

John Irving came out first, and he was everything you would think that an “author’s author” should be: grey-haired and stately, slow to speak, very deliberate in his answers, slightly self-deprecating and sarcastic.  He talked about the process of writing, talking about how he always—though not through a conscious choice—writes the last sentence of his books first, and how that last sentence has not changed in any of the novels he’s written.  He talked about how, inherently, most authors’ work tends to be thematically repetitive because all authors have their own obsessions and they can’t help but write about them.  He talked about how he used to purposely write as far outside the scope of his own experience as possible because he didn’t like the Hemingway-esque autobiographical style of storytelling, but that as he’s gotten older he’s softened to the idea of mining his own experiences for his work.

ImageNicholas Sparks’ style, on the other hand, was just the opposite.  Whereas Irving appeared calm and reserved, Sparks played the crowd like he was a motivational speaker or an infomercial pitchman.  He was gregarious, funny, and not too interested in reflecting on his work in the deep, contemplative style that Irving had.  He spent more time talking about his work as a high school track coach, the private school that he and his wife opened, and teaching his dogs to climb trees, than he did about his books.  For a guy who writes about death in about 80 percent of his books, he was remarkably cheerful.

It was in their attitude toward cinematic adaptations of their work in which their demeanors differed the most drastically.  Irving was cautious about movie adaptations, saying that he didn’t usually feel the need to be involved with movie adaptations of his work—though he didn’t usually stand in the way of them, either.  A bad movie adaptation, he said, does not ruin a good book.  (The notable exception to his stance was The Cider House Rules, for which he wrote the screenplay.)  Sparks, on the other hand, talked about how he had just completed a book, The Last Song, for which Miley Cyrus would be starring in the cinematic adaptation.  Apparently, he sold the screen rights to the story before he had even written a word of the book—and, because of filming timelines, he wrote the screenplay before the novel.  Whereas Irving seemed uncomfortable with the commercialism that cinematic adaptation of his work represented, Sparks embraced it.

As someone who loves books and reads voraciously, it’s sometimes easy for me to get caught up in the authorial mythos.  But watching Irving and Sparks speak in succession like that reminded me that authors—even the commercially successful ones—all have different approaches to their work.  But in a way, I think that’s what made the lectures that Irving and Sparks gave so interesting: that two such drastically different men could be so successful in the same type of work.


Selected Book Releases, October 19-25

October 19

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America
by Timothy Egan

Angels: A Pop-Up Book by Chuck Fischer

October 20

The Scarpetta Factor by Patricia Cornwell

SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer—And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place by Suzanne Somers

Blood Game by Iris Johansen

To Try Men’s Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Shades of Blue by Karen Kingsbury

The American Civil War: A Military History by John Keegan

Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich

What Would Susie Say?: Bullsh*t Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy by Susie Essman

The Christmas Cookie Club by Ann Pearlman

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters by Timothy Keller

A Deep Dark Secret by Kimberla Lawson Roby

Ace of Cakes by Duff Goldman and Willie Goldman

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The Butcher by Philip Carlo

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff

Enemies of the People: A Family’s Escape to America by Kati Marton

A Year on the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life with Birds by Tim Dee

The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross

Why I Fight by Jay Dee “B.J.” Penn

Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa F. Cook

Southern Lights by Danielle Steel

Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

I Am the New Black by Tracy Morgan

October 21

Big Man by Clarence Clemons & Don Reo, with a foreword by Bruce Springsteen

How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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