Nicholas Evans, British journalist-turned-author whose novel-turned-film, “The Horse Whisperer” broke publishing and film records, along with readers’ hearts that made the book a bestseller in 20 countries, died on August 9 at his London home. He was 72 years old.
His longtime agent, Caradok King, said the cause was a heart attack.
In 1993, Mr. Evans, aged 43, was broke and emigrated. Working as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, he spent two years on a film project that eventually collapsed, when he began looking for an idea for a novel. Perhaps this wasn’t the most lucrative formula for mundane success, as he later pointed out on his website: “Why does a debut novel from an unknown author have a greater chance of getting off the ground than a movie?”
However, he did find a subject intriguing: the manly mystical art of whispering horses. His source was a farrier, and Mr. Evans soon learned that the profession of grooming horses had a centuries-long history.
However, in England, things about horses involved a lot of class baggage, he said, so he looked to the American West for his story. He stepped on a trump card when he met Tom Dorance, a laconic cowboy in his 80s, and watched him pacify a rabid mare in California. Then he found two cowboys practicing the same charismatic charms, and began crafting a character inspired by these three men.
Mr. Evans sat down and wrote nearly 150 pages of what would become “The Horse Whisperer,” a soapy drama about a young girl and her horse being hit by a truck, and what happens when the mother of a hard-driving East Coast magazine editor finds a horse whispering in Montana to heal their trauma. .
The healing that followed involved more than one horse. Mr. Evans showed his draft to Mr. King, who sent the partial manuscript to a number of publishers on their way to the Frankfurt Book Fair that year. Suddenly, Mr. Evans was in the middle of a bidding vortex, juggling offers from Hollywood as well as from book publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Bob Buckman, the agent at the Creative Artists Agency that negotiated the sale of the rights to the film, asked Mr. Evans what he wanted, Mr. Evans suggested a modest $50,000. “I think we can get $3 million,” said Mr. Buckman, as reported by Sarah Lyall of the New York Times. And they did. Hollywood Pictures and Robert Redford’s film studio, Wildwood Pictures, won the bid, at the time the largest ever paid for the rights to a first novel (nearly $6 million in today’s money). Mr. Evans’ book advance in North America, $3.15 million from Dell Publishing, set another record.
Mr. Evans then had to finish the book. He told Mrs. Lyall that he had become superstitious: he stopped riding his bike, and took the slow lane while driving. What he didn’t reveal, not even to his agent, was that he had been diagnosed with skin cancer.
However, it has survived and thrived. The book, published in 1995, was a worldwide bestseller, having been translated into 40 languages, although critics criticized it for its melodrama. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani described it as “a naive romance, with some passionate nonsense about the emotional lives of animals and a lot of nonsense and narratives about men and women.”
She added, “The only thing missing is the picture of Fabio on the cover.”
The film, released in 1998, was better reviewed and a modest box office success, thanks to Mr. Redford’s star strength and firm hand as director. He made a more conservative version of Mr. Evans’ tale, in which he played Tom Brooker, the Horse Whisperer. Kristen Scott Thomas was the mother of Annie McClain, and Scarlett Johansson played Grace, the daughter. Sam Neill was Annie’s cuckold husband. Mr. Redford’s version ended somewhat ambiguously. Mr. Evans chose a more confrontational path, initially dissatisfied with the change.
For better or worse, Mr. Evans unknowingly inserted the word “whisperer” into the popular lexicon as an umbrella term for experts who can tame complex creatures, such as children.
“It was an extraordinary event,” said Mr. King, recalling the frenzy surrounding Mr. Evans’ novel. “It was just the magic of the story. That was the thing.”
Nicholas Evans was born on July 26, 1950 in Worcestershire in the West Midlands, England. He studied law at Oxford University and graduated with first class honors and the highest distinction. He has worked as a journalist for newspapers and television and produced a weekly program on current affairs. In the 1980s, he made documentaries about artists David Hockney and Francis Bacon, writer Patricia Highsmith and director David Lean, among others.
“The Horse Whisperer” is followed by three more novels, all of which are bestsellers. The Divide (2005) explores the causes of the death of a young woman whose body was found in a frozen mountain stream. He told The Associated Press that the story was inspired by his interrogations about the causes of disagreements in marriage — a marriage that falls apart is the book’s back story. He said his 25-year marriage recently ended.
Like his characters, Mr. Evans was an enthusiastic outdoorsy man, and likened Bill Nighy’s ski and climb wizard. And in August of 2008, he seemed to fall into the plot of one of his own stories, a poetic family story turned into a semi-tragedy.
He and his second wife, Charlotte Gordon Cumming, a singer-songwriter, lived with her brother, Alistair Gordon Cumming, and his wife, Lady Louisa, in the Scottish Highlands. They picked and enjoyed a meal of wild mushrooms, which turned out to be poisonous. The four fell ill, and soon their kidneys failed. Mr. Evans, Mrs. Gordon Cumming and her brother required years of dialysis – and a new kidney. Mr. Evans’ daughter Lauren donated one of them. Mrs. Gordon Cumming was offered the college of the mother of her son’s best friend, and Mr. Cumming came from a patient who had died. Mr. Evans became a patron of a kidney donation charity. Mrs. Gordon Cumming made a documentary about her experience.
Among the survivors of Mr. Evans are his wife and four children, Finley, Lorraine, Max and Harry.
His reviews are becoming more positive with each book. However, he tended to avoid reading it.
“The field of book is very strange – and the definition of literary versus commercial fiction has always seemed strange to me,” Mr. Evans told the Guardian in 2011. The other with his ideas and the so-called literary merit. And there are all kinds of assumptions that have been made to influence this. So for example, if you sell a lot of books, you can’t have any interesting ideas, topics, or things to say. On the other hand, if no one buys the book, it is a sign of his appreciation because no one is clever enough to understand it.”