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by Linda L. Richards
Photo by David Middleton
Nicholas Evans was hungry when he started writing The Horse Whisperer, his first novel. Primarily a screenwriter, it had been a while between major projects and there were bills to pay and kids to feed. "I kept telling myself the novel probably wasn't very good. I had myself just about talked around when I showed it to a friend of mine who's an agent. He showed it to a few publishers in the U.K."
What followed is, as they say, history. The North American rights to The Horse Whisperer were sold to Dell Publishing at auction in November of 1994. Dell outbid nine other companies who were vying for the rights and paid Evans a record-setting $3.15 million advance. Just a few weeks earlier, Hollywood Pictures and Robert Redford's Wildwood Productions agreed to pay $3 million for the film rights. This is the largest amount ever paid for the movie rights to a first novel.
And -- as though to fulfill the faith of all of those earlier supporters -- the book made the number three spot on The New York Times' bestseller list four days after publication.
With a partially finished book now promising him millions, Evans says he began to feel very mortal. "I started really thinking before crossing the street. What if something should happen to me before I finished?" Evans laughs, "I told my wife, 'If I should get hit by a truck, don't tell anyone. Put me on ice and hire someone to finish the book.'"
Evans' voice is soft and well modulated: the accent decidedly Oxford. His conversation is self-deprecating and humor-filled and his affection for this tale that made him an overnight millionaire is obvious and very real
"It's not a horse story," Evans says of The Horse Whisperer. "It's about people. Relationships. The horsey elements are important, of course. What I wanted, though, was an epic romance."
Often compared to The Bridges of Madison County, Robert Redford directed and starred in the film version of The Horse Whisperer that co-stars The English Patient's Kristin Scott Thomas and Scarlett Johansson.
Though he worked on the screenplays for Just Like A Woman and Murder By The Book, among others, and though he thinks of himself primarily as a screen writer, Evans didn't work on the screen version of his novel.
"They asked me if I wanted to do the screenplay quite early on and I heard myself turning it down. But it was for all the right reasons, so I didn't question it too much. I've done screenplays of other people's work and I've had to be quite ruthless in cutting out important bits. I didn't think I could be that ruthless with my own work," he says honestly. "Also, for me it was a novel. If I'd been thinking of it as a screenplay it would have been a very different story. Not the story I wanted at all."
Evans found some freedom in working on the novel. "As a screenwriter you're really limited as to what you can do with your characters. Working on the novel was incredible! Suddenly I had the ability to plunge right inside my characters' heads. You just can't do that with film." Evans says that in exercising this freedom he found he was once tempted to jump inside the horse's head to share what he was thinking. "I'm really glad I resisted that temptation," Evans laughs. "It would have been a very different book then, wouldn't it have? It would have been another Black Beauty."
The story is culled in part -- as all good stories must be -- from the writer's own life.
One of the book's main characters is a British-born woman named Annie Graves. A writer and editor of some repute who lives with her husband Robert and daughter Grace in New York.
Annie's early history is very like Evans' own. Annie was born and educated in England, just as Evans was. Both of them went into the Volunteer Service Overseas -- the British version of the Peace Corps -- prior to university. Both served in Africa while with the VSO and both fell madly in love while there. Separated from their respective beloveds, both went to Oxford and studied journalism on their return to England.
The similarities, says Evans, ended there. "I fell madly in love, then never saw her again." Annie, however, meets up with her VSO lover a decade later and eventually marries him. This character, a lawyer named Robert, is -- says Evans -- very much like a good friend he had while in the VSO: in fact both Evans and Annie meet Robert in the same way. Freud would have fun.
In the story, a horrible accident leaves Annie's daughter Grace and Grace's horse physically maimed and emotionally twisted. Fearing for her daughter's life and willing to go to any measure to help her heal, Annie launches an epic journey across the United States to bring both horse and girl to a whisperer for healing.
"I guess the book was born the first time I heard about whispering," says Evans. "There was something in the very concept that excited me incredibly. Think of it: a human reaching across the boundaries of species to communicate."
At home in England, Evans had heard a story about a Gypsy man who lived on the moors and had the ability to calm wild horses by merely talking to them.
"The journalist in me doesn't go away. I started to research." Soon he'd compiled an interesting history of whispering: stories from ancient times of people who had the gift of calming horses almost as though by magic.
Evans says he never really considered setting the book in his own country. "It wouldn't have worked at all in England," he says. "There's a class thing there." He feels that the British distinctions in class would have prevented the romantic elements of The Horse Whisperer from happening.
"Set in Britain, Annie would have been this bitchy upper class matron. She would never have lowered herself. And Tom," the horse whisperer himself, "would have been 'someone from the stables,'" says Evans in a stiff-upper-lip Oxford parody of his own accent.
And what of the future? Asked if the incredible success of his book has changed his life, Evans says "I suppose it has, but I don't know how yet."
He and his wife Jennifer and their three children have bought a better home in the same London neighborhood. Evans has a new laptop and is planning on acquiring a desktop computer system. The family has enjoyed traveling more than they might otherwise have done: but not by a great deal.
"Creatively, I think it's really important to live a normal life. We've never wanted to do outlandish things anyway. You know, the things that require great gobs of money. And I think it's important that things stay about the same for the children."
"The Delacorte people have been wonderful to me. Incredibly supportive. Like a family." While attending the American Book Seller's convention, he joined the Delacorte powers-that-were-there for a meal. "Someone naturally enough asked me about my next project, and I said 'Well, I think the next one might be about gerbils. And not whispering this time. Maybe yelling.'" He reports that the shocked American faces that didn't register his dry British humor delivered in cultured Oxford tones almost made the trip a success all by itself.
We probably won't be seeing The Gerbil Screamer in this year's fall releases, but it seems fairly certain that we haven't heard the last of Nicholas Evans.
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.