The title of Nicholas Sparks’ newest book is a place many readers will put off visiting — at least for a night — as they spend the wee hours finishing the story in a single sitting.
That’s because “Dreamland” (Random House), the author’s 23rd published novel, is unlike any he has written before.
There’s an implicit contract between readers and writers — readers buy and recommend the book while authors promise to take and guide them through the story — and never has that been more tested in a Nicholas Sparks’ novel. Presented in compelling and dueling stories that don’t intersect for much of the book, the promise that the stories will converge into an ending that only Sparks could conjure is a matter of trust — and a few welcomed, sleepless hours. But the rewards are here, and from this singular work it’s clear that the author of such popular novels as “The Notebook” (1996), “Dear John” (2006) and “The Wish” (2021) continues to hone his craft.
The first love story in “Dreamland” is vintage Sparks. Star-crossed lovers Colby Mills and Morgan Lee find romance at a seaside Florida resort. Colby, a North Carolina farmer with song writer aspirations, and Morgan, the daughter of a prominent Chicago family and recent college graduate on her way to a singing career in Nashville, discover that responsibilities and obligations often come at crossroads with dreams and desires.
The second tale, told through altering chapters, is that story’s alter ego. Young mother Beverly is on the run with her 6-year-old son, fleeing an abusive husband whose career and resources reach deep into the Department of Homeland Security. With virtually no resources of her own, Beverly descends into poverty and despair as she struggles to make a safe, new life for Tommie and herself.
Such dichotomies spur many questions, and I was anxious to speak with Sparks about the divergent stories in his book. The author was gracious enough to take a few telephone questions in late August from his North Carolina home. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Mayer: Nicholas, “Dreamland” is a different kind of novel and unlike any you’ve written before. I estimate that we can talk about 80 percent of it, but the last 20 percent we’ll have to tap dance around to avoid any spoilers.
Nicholas Sparks: I would agree.
TM: Which brings us to the love story, or really, the two love stories, of the novel. What was your thinking behind crafting such an intricate work?
NS: In the first part of the story, I wanted to write a novel that kind of explored the symmetry between music and love. That was something that I did on a very light level in “The Last Song” (2009), but I wanted to explore that concept on a deeper level.
So, that idea kind of set the stage for the young love story in the novel. And then, even as I conceived that that might be interesting and present a lot of technical challenges — i.e., how does one make music seem alive in a book? — I suspected that that needed something more, something on a deeper level. And so, I chose to explore the concept of family, loyalty, responsibility and obligation in a way that might surprise the reader while simultaneously giving further insight to the characters. And, the overriding message of the story, that sometimes our dreams don’t come true. And, sometimes that that’s for the better.
TM: Ah, a bittersweet love story. Nicholas, why use music — arguably a difficult medium to capture in print — to explore that symmetry within a novel?
NS: Well, certainly music has had a profound impact across culture and generations, and music has this wonderful capacity to move someone emotionally in the moment. And it also has this extraordinary ability to arouse feelings of nostalgia and trigger memory. In many ways, the profound loves of our lives operate in exactly the same way.
I hadn’t read novels, or seen films, that really explored that symmetry, so I thought I would make an attempt to undertake that because it might affect readers in a new way that my novels have not in the past.
TM: Something that’s not exactly new to a Nicholas Sparks’ love story is the strength of your female characters. In “Dreamland” you bring this to deeper places. We’ve got the aunt who not only takes in and raises two young children after a family tragedy, but who also takes over a commercial farm after her husband has a heart attack. Then there is Morgan, who is striking out on her own for Nashville after college, and Paige, who is a brilliant and successful artist, and both of them contending with their own personal and professional struggles.
In some parts of the novel, you go further than that, tweaking the traditional male-female roles in ways that are very empowering and positive for both Colby and Morgan. Not an easy tightrope for an author to traverse. Would you speak about that?
NS: I’ve always been of the belief that in more ways than not, men or women are the same underneath. When a woman feels anger, it’s roughly the same as when a man feels anger. When a man feels love, it’s roughly the same way a woman feels love, emotionally.
Men and women are more similar than different, and how we express those emotions can sometimes be different, but the feeling is the same. I’ve had the good fortune to work with many women in my life, from my agents, to my editors, to my assistant, to my social media managers, to my publicist, to, you know, so, so many women; and in our conversations that might reach personal levels, it’s always been extraordinary to me that women struggle with achieving the same balance in life as I do.
Because in life people are pulled between their relationships and their children, and their family, perhaps parents or siblings, and their friends. And meanwhile, they also have to work — and then have to have time for themselves and, oh yeah, what about our spiritual component or what about our emotional component or our mental components? It is the nature of life, too, for people to always want a little bit more, which makes that balance so hard to attain.
So, when I craft both male and female characters, I try to keep those thoughts in mind. You know, for instance, in this novel, Morgan is very clear on what she wants to do. And, lots of young people are very clear what they want to do when they first start out in life. Yet, it’s the nature of life for curve balls to arrive. Right? As it did with Colby. And Colby is a few years older — not much older, four years older — and yet, he had dreams, too. And life intervenes. As I said early on in the interview, one of the underlying messages — and it even goes to the title of the novel — is that sometimes dreams don’t work out in exactly the way we thought they would. And that’s OK, as long as we have meaningful relationships in our lives that abound with love.
TM: Staying on that theme of the dichotomy of responsibility versus dreams, Colby, as a farmer, is literally and figuratively grounded, where Morgan, with less of the experiences Colby has had to deal with, sees life as more of a carefree adventure. But both of them learn from each other, in different ways, and they both gain and grow in maturity — would you agree?
NS: I would agree. When people meet another person that they admire, for whatever reason, they take a little bit of a lesson with them on their next step down the road in life.
One might meet someone who’s very well read in science, and they’ve found this person impressed them and they said, you know, maybe I should read some books on science. But it can be anything. One of the characteristics of the relationship between Colby and Morgan is that they both seem to be learning from each other, and then saying, wow, I wish I could be a little bit more like that person — in some ways, not in every way, but in some ways — because I admire so much about that person.
That speaks to a very universal experience in life. I certainly know that in my life I’ve been influenced by so many wonderful mentors in so many different ways. I’ve carried their lessons with me throughout my life, and in some ways have tried to take steps to emulate many of those lessons to my own life, or incorporate those lessons into my own life.
TM: One of the lessons that we’re all learning to incorporate into our lives is how to navigate social media. You address this in this novel. On one hand, it’s vital to any success Morgan might ever have with a career in Nashville, but she also expresses the harm it can do to young girls, among other things. Would you talk about that, please?
NS: Morgan’s view of social media is that it is both a very essential tool for the dreams that she has, and as a tool that in some cases has negative connotations or can potentially do harm.
That is something I think about when it comes to my children, who grew up in the onslaught of the social media age, and I think we can really trace that back to the iPhone, whenever that came out in 2009 or 2010. It’s certainly made the ability to take photos on the spot and post them immediately, or make videos on the spot.
Then, of course, the companies came that took advantage of those new technological advancements in various ways. There’s been a lot written about how it hasn’t always worked out exactly the way that the originators once intended.
I know I’m not speaking clearly, so perhaps it’s best to give a good example. Early on, and this is from what I’ve seen in various documentaries, or what I’ve read, you establish a “like” button and you say, won’t it be nice for people, who are their friends, to show that they like that photo. And yes, that’s a wonderful, wonderful attribute. It feels as though the people that you care about connect with you. But that has morphed into, for some people in some ways, to, what if I don’t get enough likes? What does that say about me as a human being?
It’s important always to explore a topic like that with honesty, and certainly I do that with social media. At the same time, I’m aware of the potential negative effects of social media. My posts and my response to people’s perceptions of those posts are, let’s say, grounded in the fact that one must not read too much into such things — but that’s a very difficult lesson for young people to learn, or for people who are getting started on social media.
For me, perhaps, it’s a little bit easier now because I’ve been reviewed by book critics and readers ever since I’ve been writing. And there are people who post nice things, most of the people, but there are some who post some things that I think might be best classified as unfair. I realized early on that the ones that were unfair bothered me a bit, so my response was to not read any of them. And I think it’s been good for my self-health in the long run.
TM: Without going into any spoilers, the health and strength of family and friends, and especially in cases of severe illnesses, have always been a foundation of your stories. In “Dreamland,” having that one person who cares is literally the difference between life and death. As a society, are we doing enough to stress the role of the caretaker? That one person who cares?
NS: Oh, boy, that is a broad topic. I would hope that it’s more like, that those who are close to a caretaker realize that this person may need support at times — and for them to offer such support, as opposed to something on a societal level.
For instance, if you’re an overworked mother and you need someone to watch your kids so you can work a late shift … reading an article about how overworked mothers can be, even if it’s written sympathetically, isn’t going to help her. What might really help her is for a neighbor to say, I’ll be happy to watch your children while you go to work. It should occur on a smaller level of those who believe that at times the caretaker needs care as well — and what can I do?
TM: To not ruin the story for anyone — caretaker, friend or otherwise — who hasn’t read the ending, let’s move a little bit beyond the novel. Nicholas, your book tour is going to take you across the nation, including places such as Charlotte and Nashville. We’ve talked many times about the experience of your book tours for readers — and anyone who wonders about that can certainly visit your website, Instagram or other social media. But, I’m wondering, what’s the book tour experience like for you?
NS: Oh, Tom, I’ve been very blessed throughout my history of touring. I meet such wonderful people, so many of whom share such kind words about my novels. And there are moments when I hear such moving stories, perhaps about how a novel reflected something challenging that they’ve gone through in their own life. I’m always struck by the bravery of such people to share such stories with me. And to be frank, I find such people very inspiring. I’ve long since passed the point where touring is necessary for my career, but I’ve found over time that I feel spiritually strengthened by meeting those who have been moved by my work in the past. And, all I can think is, what an extraordinary gift they’re giving me.
TM: Again, without any spoilers, do you feel this novel, in particular, is going to inspire and move people in ways, maybe, that your works haven’t in the past?
NS: Since we’ve been speaking (during interviews) for 12 years now, you probably understand that I don’t write a novel with any societal change as my goal. I try to write universal stories that move people, and I have little doubt that “Dreamland” will very much move many, many thousands of readers who share similar experiences because, so often, such people feel alone. And they believe that other people don’t understand. And in many ways, they’re right.
Sometimes, and not with everything, there are moments when one has to experience something to really understand it. And I think some of the themes that are explored in “Dreamland” will resonate with certain people on a very deep level.
TM: Beyond your books and tours, your movies also resonate with many people. As always, I’d like to ask you about what’s coming up. I understand “The Return” (2020) is in development; is that correct?
NS: Yes, we have the screenplay done for “The Return,” and we’re in the process of electing a director at the present time. So, you know, with any good fortune, hopefully that will start filming within the next few months, perhaps early next year.
And we’re beginning to lay the groundwork for the first novel that Universal will adapt into film, and my belief is that it might be “The Wish,” and so I think we’re in the process of beginning to find the appropriate screenwriter and director in the hopes that they’ll work together in crafting the story. So, with any good luck, you know, I’m hopeful that I’ll have some films here coming up in the next couple of years. And then of course, I think “Dreamland” is up right after “The Wish,” so we’ll see what happens.
TM: And as always, Nicholas, I’ll finish up by asking you what you’re working on next — and my bet is that it’s going to be a book set in North Carolina with a love story.
NS: You took my line.
It is a love story, and you know, it will be set in North Carolina, at least in some way. And, I will say that it will be unlike anything I’ve done before. And entirely different than “Dreamland” or “The Wish” or “The Return” or “The Notebook” (1996) or “A Walk to Remember” (1999).
My hope is that people will be surprised and enthralled by the story. And above all, what I hope to do is to write a story that not only moves a reader in the present, but one that surprises them, and one that lingers in the memory long after the final pages turned. Those are very challenging things to do.
I’m hopeful that the novel I’m working on, and “Dreamland” and my other novels, reach that standard that I set for myself. In my mind they do. But of course, in the end, it’s always up to the readers.