Nicholas Evans, a British novelist whose debut album, ‘The Horse Whisperer’, became a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 15 million copies and leading to a hit film adaptation by Robert Redford, died on August 9 at his home in Totnes, in the English county of Devon. He was 72 years old.
A mild-mannered former journalist and TV producer, Mr Evans was working as a screenwriter and trying to break into film when he heard a story that “shivered me”, as he later said. Visiting a friend in the South West of England in 1993, he met a blacksmith who told him about a “horse whisperer”, an almost mystical figure who could heal a traumatized pony with a few sweet words .
The story captivated Mr Evans, who had grown up playing cowboys and Indians in the English countryside and reading novels by Jack London. Now he was £60,000 in debt, looking for new direction – and possibly a second mortgage – after unsuccessfully trying to direct his own film. Here, he decided, lay the seeds of a story he could tell in his own voice.
“If my film career had been more successful, I might have tried writing the story in screenplay form,” he recalled in a Q&A on his website. “Fortunately, I was on my feet, deeply disillusioned with the cinema, and saw no point in writing another screenplay to gather dust on my desk.”
So Mr. Evans began writing a novel, traveling to Montana, New Mexico and California to interview expert riders and research the American West. He returned home with the outline of a story about a young girl, Grace Maclean, and her spirited horse, Pearl, who are hit by a truck and recover with the help of a Montana rancher who falls in love. of Grace’s mother. Mr Evans wrote half the book, around 200 pages, and shared the manuscript with his friend King, deciding that if the agent didn’t like it, “I was just going to throw it away”.
The manuscript remained. Marketed as a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s Western novel “All the Pretty Horses” and Robert James Waller’s bestselling romance “The Bridges of Madison County”, it generated a bidding war after King sent it to the publishers just before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1994. The North American publishing rights were auctioned off for over $3 million, and Mr. Evans won another $3 million for the film rights, after what he described as a surreal evening during which he was tasked with sizing up Hollywood producers, including Redford and Scott. Roudin.
“My kids and my wife were downstairs,” Mr. Evans later told Variety, “and upstairs some of the biggest names in the business asked my permission to take $3 million from them. was just absurd.”
By the time “The Horse Whisperer” was published in 1995, critics seemed eager to cut Mr. Evans’ multimillion-dollar novel down to size. A New York Times reviewer, Randall Short, described it as “sentimentally bloated and utterly devoid of genuine feeling”; another, book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, called it “a sappy romance novel, stuffed with sentimental patter about the emotional lives of animals and lots of Walleresque hooey about men and women”.
Readers felt differently. The novel topped the Times bestseller list and Mr. Evans’ US publisher, Delacorte, claimed it was the best-selling debut novel in history, with more than 1, 5 million copies sold in its first year alone. The book has been translated into 40 languages and adapted into a 1998 film starring Redford, who produced and directed. The film also starred Kristin Scott Thomas and Scarlett Johansson, in one of her first major film roles, and grossed over $186 million worldwide.
Mr Evans, who said he turned down an offer to write the screenplay, admired the acting but felt the film had ‘completely missed the point of the book’, hitting what he saw as a note of hope at the end, even though the penultimate scene featured a deadly stampede of wild horses.
“I think there seems to be a kind of quest going on right now, with people wanting to know if there’s more to life than material things,” he told The Times on the release. of the novel. “This book is about hope, healing and the redemptive power of love, and how humans have an extraordinary ability to go through the worst kinds of pain and survive. It is an affirming message from life at a time when there is a lot of darkness around.
Mr. Evans had direct experience of this darkness. As his novel was sold at auction, he was unsure of ever finishing it, having recently been diagnosed with skin cancer. He kept his illness a secret even as reporters hailed him as “Britain’s luckiest man”.
“The day after the operation, I was going around publishing houses trying to look suave and normal, and I was in cold sweats,” he revealed in a 2011 interview with the Guardian. “I was just dying, I was in so much pain.”
Then came the day of publication and the rapid rise of his book on the bestseller lists. There were more hardships ahead – a fractured marriage, near-fatal mushroom poisoning – but “for three or four years,” he said, “my feet didn’t touch the ground.”
Nicholas Benbow Evans was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on July 26, 1950. His father was a sales manager for an engineering company and his mother was a housewife. At age 8, he was sent to boarding school and the nearby Bromsgrove Day School. He then studied law at St Edmund Hall, part of Oxford University.
After graduating in 1969 with first class honours, he was a reporter for the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle upon Tyne and later was a journalist and television producer, doing segments on American politics and the Lebanese Civil War for a weekly news program.
By 1982 he had begun making television documentaries about cultural figures, including actor Laurence Olivier and painters Francis Bacon and David Hockney. He was producing a special about filmmaker David Lean, the director of “Lawrence of Arabia,” when Lean encouraged him to strike out on his own.
“He kept saying to me, ‘Why are you making a movie about me? You should make a movie about yourself, not about someone else who makes movies,'” Mr Evans recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
He later wrote and produced the 1992 comedy “Just Like a Woman” – about a transvestite financial executive (played by Adrian Pasdar) who strikes up an affair with his landlord (Julie Walters) – before writing novels. His second book, “The Loop” (1998), involved a pack of wolves tormenting cattle ranchers and sold 5 million copies. Her later novels include ‘The Smoke Jumper’ (2001), about a love triangle involving two friends who fight wildfires, and ‘The Divide’ (2005), centered on a wealthy young woman who becomes an eco-terrorist.
Mr Evans’ first marriage, to Oxford schoolmate Jenny Lyon in 1973, ended in divorce shortly after his first novel shot him to stardom. He then married Charlotte Gordon Cumming, a Scottish singer-songwriter. In addition to his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Max and Lauren; a son, Harry, from a relationship with television producer Jane Hewland; and another son, Finlay, from his second marriage.
On a trip to his brother-in-law’s Scottish Highland estate in 2008, Mr Evans and his wife accidentally ate poisonous mushrooms and were rushed to hospital convulsing. They suffered from kidney failure and needed transplants, which Mr Evans received three years later after his daughter persuaded him to take one of her own.
Mr Evans had almost finished his novel ‘The Brave’ (2009) when the poisoning happened, and said the novel’s themes of family secrets and guilt particularly resonated with his own foraging experience in the woods. He and another family member had picked the mushrooms “assuming the other knew what they were doing”, he told the Guardian.
“Guilt is my subject,” Mr. Evans liked to say. But this time, he joked, “I took the research to a rather extreme degree.”