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Author Nicolas Sparks's road to writing took many twists

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Sometimes life interrupts our perfect plans. Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks planned on being an Olympic champion, but an injured Achilles tendon put a stop to that. He excelled at the 800-meter as a freshman in high school and ran with a gifted athletic junior whom he idolized. "He was one of the best in the country," says Sparks. 

"That runner ended up becoming an NCAA All-American. He was legitimate, the fastest runner in the country his senior year. And we were running and he said, 'If you tried, you could really be good at this.' So I took him at his word, and I tried. I began to train on my own all summer, with very limited knowledge," he recalls.

"I just knew I had to run as fast and as hard as I could, and as often as I could. And in the end, I ended up receiving a full scholarship to the University of Notre Dame for athletics. And that altered the course of my life."

It was at Notre Dame Sparks injured his foot and, once more, the course of his life was altered. By his senior year, he had already written one unpublished novel. And with a senior class called American Fiction Since the 1950s he was inspired to write his second. "So had I not gone for the run that day and had he not said that, I've no idea who I'd be," he says.

But he still didn't know who he would be. "I think there was a lot to be said for trying different things at the same time, paying my own way in the world. It was challenging."

"I worked two jobs. I waited tables at night, and tried different things to find out who I was. It worked for me. I appraised real estate, tried to start my own home renovation business, sold dental products by phone."

Already married and the father of a young son, he began hawking pharmaceuticals and three years later Sparks sold his novel, "The Notebook," a romantic tearjerker that became a monstrous success.

Since then, he has fathered four other children (whom he does not mention), he and his wife of 26 years divorced. He has written 20 books, 11 of which have scrambled to the best-seller list. Many of Sparks' sagas have been transformed into popular movies like "A Walk to Remember," "Safe Haven" and "Message in a Bottle," and his computer continues to click out hot winners.

Sparks is serving as one of the narrating writers on PBS's "The Great American Read," which is compiling votes to pick the nation's favorite novel. The series airs Tuesdays (check local listings), and his segment, "What We Do for Love," will be broadcast Oct. 9. Viewers may vote by going to pbs.org/greatamericanread. The final tally will be announced Oct. 23.

In spite of the unprecedented success of Sparks's fiction, it was the nonfiction book he wrote 16 years ago that, again, changed his life. "It was the trip around the world I took with my brother in 2002," he says.

"I wrote a book about it called 'Three Weeks with My Brother.' It was a period in which I had tried to reflect on why I am the way I am — I had a month to do that — away from phones, away from email, just my brother and I," he says.

His parents had been killed in separate accidents, his younger sister succumbed after a long battle with brain cancer. "It was a period in which (you ask) why are you the way you are, and is this who you want to be? And, 'Is this what you want for the rest of your life?' Just having that time to really reflect changed me," he says, shaking his head.

"Like everybody else, I'm unique because no one else has that exact blend of your genetics and all the events in your life and what they meant to these periods. It's important to occasionally take that time for self-discovery ... Some things one can never change, but one can come up with an alternative argument," he says.

"For instance, I have a tendency to get down on myself if I don't do all I set out to do — I didn't write enough words yesterday — down on myself," he says. "That probably won't change. It's wired into me to be a bit hard on myself. So knowing this is not likely to change, what do I do? I come up with an alternative argument, and I sit with that. 'Yes, and you got some writing done, and you're closer now than you were yesterday, and today is a new day, and I have the opportunity to try again.'"

'VERSAILLES' ARRIVES FOR SWAN SONG

The machinations of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, will be back again for the last time when "Versailles" returns to Ovation Saturday. The opulent and historic saga has lived up to its promise with some terrific performances and fabulous locations. George Blagden, who plays the ambitious king, recalls when he showed up to audition for the role.

"At the time I was filming the third season of the History Channel's 'The Vikings.' I showed up with this huge ponytail, with undercut shaved sides of my head, and a beard out to here," he says, stretching his hands wide in front of him.

"I walked into the casting director's office. I walked in and did two scenes. Suzanne Smith, our lovely casting director, is quite a tough cookie. At the end of the audition she even said, 'I've seen you do better.' I'm just very lucky they decided to go that way."

'THE VOICE' PREENS CONTESTANTS

ABC's popular "The Voice" has returned in full regalia with judges Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton perched on their movable chairs, looking for a winner. Did you ever wonder how the contestants could possibly be so polished in their very first blind audition? Each performance seems better than the last and, even if they're barely in their teens, they always seem so poised and professional. Well, it's no secret, says executive producer Audrey Morrissey.

"We are receiving the blind audition people for next season soon," she says. "They rehearse for about two or three weeks — rehearsal on stage and a couple with the band — and voice lessons, even independent of that. At the end of the day, everybody's just trying to do everything they can to make sure that each artist has the best possible chance of getting the chair to turn," she says. And from this crop of hopefuls it looks like the network needs to keep those chairs well-oiled.

'THE CIRCUS' FOLDS ITS TENT ON PBS

The circus is really coming to town when PBS's "American Experience" presents "The Circus," premiering next Monday. Airing both Monday and Tuesday, the show brilliantly covers the history of the tented big top, which no longer exists in the U.S.
Johnathan Lee Iverson was the first African-American ringmaster in the history of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He served as ringmaster from 1999 through the show's final performance in 2017. Yet he tells me he never intended to run away and join the circus. "I wanted to be an opera singer," he says.

"I saw Placido Domingo when I was 13. I was with the Boys Choir of Harlem, and I was in Japan. And I saw him, and in my life, it was like a Paul in Damascus moment for me. And I said, 'That's what I want to do.' And I set my mind to that, and I was on track to doing that. I was only trying to raise money to go to Europe when I graduated from college, and I got this really strange phone call after an audition for a dinner theater, the Fireside Dinner Theater.

"And someone on the other line said, 'Would you like to audition for ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey?' It's like somebody asking, 'Would you like to serve your country and serve in the CIA?' I mean, that's what it felt like. And I thought, I was 22 at the time. I just kept hearing 'ringmaster.' And he was, like, 'Man, that's a great pickup line!' So I thought, 'Why not? I will do it for a year or two.' And it turned into 18 and a wife and two children later. And so ... it never even crossed my mind."

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