HE COUNTS LOVE STORY AS ONE OF his favorite books. He has been known to surprise his wife, Cathy, by drawing her a candlelit bath. And when it comes to writing love letters—or reading aloud from them—Nicholas Sparks knows no peer. Sipping coffee in his Simpsonville, S.C, home, the 30-year-old drug salesman shares a portion of one of last year's missives, written to Cathy while he was away on business: "When I think of you, I feel songs in my heart and I feel dreams before slumber..." His penchant for romance, he admits, "is kinda corny, but it's what I do."

Luckily for him, it's also what sells. Sparks's first published novel, a love story so drenched with sentiment that Warner Books sends out Kleenex with its publicity kit, earned him $1 million at the get-go and landed immediately on The New York Times bestseller list. Titled The Notebook, the novel tells the story of a couple whose love sustains them from youth through old age, when the husband breaks through the haze of his wife's Alzheimer's disease by reading her a notebook he has kept about their life together. "I thought the book was pretty good when I wrote it," says Sparks, "but I've gotten letters saying it was unforgettable. People—men, women, ministers—love this book."

By and large, alas, the critics do not. Kirkus Reviews declared Notebook "an epic of treacle," and USA Today, though pronouncing it "better than The Bridges of Madison County," added meanly, "To a lot of people, that's not saying much." Sparks shrugs off the carpers and disputes comparisons with Bridges, pointing out that his lovers, unlike Robert James Waller's, aren't adulterous. "But there are few men writing romance now," he concedes, "so in that we're similar."

Sparks came by his hearts-and-flowers outlook early. The second of three children of a business professor and a homemaker turned optometrist's assistant, he grew up in middle-class Fair Oaks, Calif., with "no experience of dysfunctionality," he says. "My parents were in love and raised us with love." A high school track star, he dreamed of Olympic glory until a leg injury at Notre Dame, where he majored in business, sidelined him during his freshman year. That summer, "going bananas" with boredom, he says, he took his mother's suggestion and banged out a 300-page "not very good" horror novel.

Another spell of ennui during his senior year led to a mystery, also shelved, but soon afterward, during spring break in Florida, he met the girl who would spur him to write passionate prose. Cathy Cote, a student at the University of New Hampshire, "laughed and smiled and was effervescent," Sparks remembers, and after they parted he wrote her 150 love letters in two months. "He's more romantic than me," says Cathy, now 30, who married him in 1989. Says Sparks: "I got a great woman from writing those letters."

And with the woman, it turned out, came great material. The day after their wedding, Nicholas and Cathy paid a visit to her maternal grandparents, Lucien and Ina Dussault, both now deceased, who had been too ill to attend the ceremony. "As we talked, I realized they were flirting with each other," Sparks recalls. "There was still a hint of passion after 62 years of marriage. That stayed with me."

He didn't find a use for it right away. While selling orthopedic products in Fair Oaks, he wrote Wokini, a spiritual allegory, with Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic gold medalist in the 10,000-meter run who was also the father of Sparks's ex-girlfriend. When the book was published and disappeared, he quit writing—until the last episode of Cheers, in 1993, brought on an epiphany. "Life was good," says Sparks, who was selling pharmaceuticals and had moved to New Bern, N.C., with Cathy and their sons Miles, now 5, and Ryan, 3. "But Cheers had been on for 11 years, and I didn't want another 11 years to go by without chasing my dreams. I decided I'd give myself three more chances at writing."

He labored over Notebook—a "highly fictionalized" account of his wife's grandparents' love—for six months. The finished product brought tears to both Cathy and "my most sensitive aunts—a rigged audience," Sparks says. Two days after his agent sent the book to publishers, Warner Books offered $1 million; three days later, New Line Cinema snapped up the film rights for a six-figure sum. At first, says Cathy, "we were afraid someone would change their mind and take it back."

Nearly a year later, success has begun to sink in. Sparks, who was transferred to Simpsonville last year, has splurged on a new computer and is planning a family trip to Disney World. He has no wish to quit his day job ("I'm not taking any chances," he says), but he is halfway through his next novel, a love story called Letters to Catherine. His editor Jamie Raab says he has "a great feel for commercial fiction."

Inspiration, after all, is always close at hand. "The other day," says Sparks, "Cathy called me from her car and told me to turn on the radio because what was playing reminded her of us." The song? "Groovy Kind of Love."

KIM HUBBARD
MEG GRANT in Simpsonville

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  • Meg Grant.