By Allison Adato
Updated October 06, 2003 12:00 PM

His eight have-a-good-cry novels have collectively spent 156 weeks The New York Times bestseller list. His book signings sometimes run 10 hours long as fans queue up for his autograph (which he offers happily)—and advice (which he doesn’t). “I don’t like to give marriage tips,” says Nicholas Sparks, author of such heart-tugging fare as Message in a Bottle, The Notebook and The Wedding, its just published sequel. “There are people who are probably much better at marriage than I am—they’ve lasted a lot longer. I could probably learn from them.”

Still, a visit to the New Bern, N.C., home Sparks, 38, shares with wife Cathy, 36, offers plenty of examples of how to keep romance alive-despite the passage of 14 years and five kids: Miles, 12, Ryan, 10, Landon, 3, and twins Marin and Lexie, 2. Nicholas would like six, but, says Cathy, “I’m done.”

“We get up at 6 a.m., before any of the children, so we can eat breakfast together,” says Sparks. They also work out side by side three times a week at the local Gold’s Gym. “For some part of the day,” he says, “the marriage relationship has to be primary—it’s one of the best things you can teach your children. So we don’t feel guilty if we go for a walk, just the two of us.”

Also helpful? Saying within earshot of Cathy, “The women in my stories tend to be like my wife—strong, confident, intelligent and putting family first.”

Part of their compatibility, says Cathy, a former lending-company account executive, comes from their similar origins: “We both had very normal lives growing up—horses down the road, ice skating, sledding.” (She was raised in Manchester, N.H., he in Fair Oaks, Calif.) They are determined to create the same childhood for their kids. “My life is simple,” says Nicholas, whose only postwindfall indulgence is the use of a private jet. “I focus on my wife, my family and my work.”

Spend time with Sparks, who wrote his first bestseller, 1996’s The Notebook, while still in pharmaceutical sales, and you see why he’s made his fortune not with pills but with touching tales featuring 26-year-old virgins, Wonder Bread and swans that appear at precisely the right symbolic moment. “Nicholas has an amazing talent of bringing the words on a page to life,” says Shane West, who starred in the film of A Walk to Remember last year.

In fact, it may come as a surprise to dedicated readers that the protagonist of The Wedding has, by the end of the first chapter, forgotten his anniversary.

(Don’t worry—the fictional husband more than redeems himself.) “I’ve always wanted to write about how a couple lost their connection, their passion,” says Sparks. Unlike his other books, The Wedding isn’t inspired by events in his own life. (Forget an anniversary? Never.)

Over the last decade tragedies in his family have provided him ample, if unwelcome, material. “There was a period of years we suffered several personal blows,” says Sparks, who used his fiction to work through those difficult times. Message in a Bottle (which became a 1999 Kevin Costner movie) was a story of love after loss that he wrote when his mother, Jill, died in a 1989 horseback-riding accident, leaving behind Michael, her husband of 26 years. A Walk to Remember, in which the main female character (Mandy Moore in the film) dies young, came after the 2000 death from a brain tumor of Sparks’s sister Dana, just 33.

Fiction has become an emotional outlet for Sparks, who as a Notre Dame business school grad, decided to capitalize on the niche he saw in the love-story market, “He made a conscious decision about which genre to pursue, based on where the voids were,” says his brother Micah, 38, who runs a cabinetry business in Folsom, Calif.

“Writing is an art,” says Nicholas, “but publishing is a business. I have to have a theme that appeals to a lot of people.”

Evidently he does. Once again fans are lining up at bookstores to meet him. And Cathy, though proud, remains philosophical about the whole thing. “I find it interesting that women get all giddy and giggly,” she says. “He’s a great guy, but he’s just a man.”

Allison Adato

Michaele Ballard in New Bern and Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles