Life alongside Twain and Dickens and such: Modern authors savor spotlight

Here's the mid-section of a package I sent to papers, on "The Great American Read." Scroll up and you'll find the mainbar; scroll down  and you get te details, some essential and some not.

By Mike Hughes

For modern authors,
this is big. “The Great American Read” puts them with the old

Diana Gabaldon (the
“Outlander” author) recalls her first reaction: “I said, 'Who
else is on the list?'”

Well, all the top
names -- Twain and Tolkien, Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and
Heller, Jane Austen and J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee and the Brontes
and more. All made the 100-book list.

We've learned about
them in school, but some of these modern masters bring surprises.

Gabaldan, who writes
Scottish-English epics, is a Latina from Arizona. Nicholas Sparks,
creator of romances, is a former drug rep and champion runner.
Neither fits the image of writer as solitary soul.

Sparks, 52, says
being a drug rep was fairly easy for him. “I'm optimistic; I'm

And Gabaldon -- 66,
with ebony hair and quick smile -- could pass for a romance-novel

She describes her
lead character, Claire Randall, as “still very tentative in
everything she does” ... then adds: “This is not me, by the way.”

Not even close.
Gabaldon describes her parents as “friendly, gregarious people”
and seems to fit that description herself.

These two modern
authors have something else in common: “For both of us, it was our
first novel that was chosen” for the list, Sparks said. Here are
sketches of both:

Nicholas Sparks

Sparks needed his
outgoing nature, when his dad's graduate studies kept him on the
move. Early on, he lived in Nebraska (twice), California (twice) and
Minnesota. But then his dad landed a job on the business faculty of
California State University, Sacramento; at 8, young Sparks settled

He found success as
a runner. In California's state high school meet, he finished fourth
in the 800-meter. Then he landed a scholarship to Notre Dame and
peaked in the four-by-800 relay; Sparks ran his leg at 1:50.3, the
team was 7:20.11 – still a school record, 33 years later.

Injuries slowed him
after that, but Sparks views it philosophically. “You learn a lot
from running.”

There's the
introspection of long runs. Sparks' first published book was
go-authored with Olympic distance champion Billy Mills -- “Wokini:
A Lakota Journey to Happiness and Self-Understanding.”

That came out in
1990, after a couple unpublished novels and stabs at other careers.
But the big change had come a year earlier, when he really got to
know his wife's parents.

“They couldn't go
to our wedding” because of illness, Sparks said. “They told us
the story of how they got together .... It was just the way he looked
at her. He was in love with his wife of 60 years.”

So Sparks wrote “The
Notebook” in the evenings. “The agent I addressed it to had
passed on,” he said.

It was found by
another agent, who made a million-dollar deal. “It was
mind-blowing,” Sparks said. “And then, of course, the fear sets
in: 'Can you write a second one? Is anyone going to read this one?'”

He could; they did.
So far, 11 of his 19 novels have been made into movies.

Diana Gabaldon

When she was 3,
Gabaldon had her first moment with literature: “'Mr. Mixie Dough,
the Baker Man' (was) the first book that I read by myself. I was 3
and it was amazing.”

She grew up in
Flagstaff, where her dad was state senator for 16 years. She savored
books, but her degrees – zoology, a master's in marine biology, a
doctorate in behavioral ecology – were in science. Her thesis --
“Nest Site Selection of the Pinyon Jay” -- wasn't a best-seller.

“I had always
known I was supposed to be a novelist,” Gabaldon said, “and when
I was 36, I said ... 'Mozart was dead at 36; you'd better get

She chose to write
about an English nurse in the late 1940s, accidentally traveling to
18th-century Scotland ... a place and time Gabaldon had
never seen. Still, she did have:

-- Experience with
love amid opposite cultures. Her mom's roots were English, her dad's
were Mexican. “It was like living in two cultures .... I had
grandparents who didn't speak English at all.”

-- Her research
skills. “You can look up anything; it's really easy.”

Gabaldon wrote parts
of the story -- “I don't write in a straight line and I don't plan
stories” -- with no endgame. Then – after an Internet discussion
– she showed a sampling in a CompuServe chat room.

One person showed it
to another, who contacted an agent, who wanted the rest. Six months
later, she sent him a finished story. “He emerged with a three-book
contract and bing, I was a novelist.”

And a successful
one. The books, starting in 1991, did well ... and found new
audiences when the cable series began in 2014. “Starz was taking
out ads that covered entire skyscrapers.”

So she continues to
thrive, a gregarious person who somehow enjoys writing and
researching alone. “I'm 66; it's been 30 years (and) it's still my
favorite thing to do.”