RICHARD KAY: Author Nicholas Evans’ Horse Whisperer seduced the world
For a celebrated storyteller it was a tale that crackled with extraordinary tension.
While rambling over the Scottish estate of his wife’s brother and sister-in-law, a visitor picks some wild mushrooms and brings them home to fry them in butter and parsley for the family supper.
A day later, all four of the diners are seriously ill and are raced by ambulance to hospital. Their dinner-table mushrooms had not been edible at all, but were deadly poisonous — and lethal toxins are already ravaging their bodies.
As he hovers between life and death with acute renal failure, the man who has accidentally poisoned his family realises to his horror that each couple’s will grants the other custody of their children in the event of death.
Fearing that all their children may soon be orphaned, he calls his solicitor and a new will is couriered to his bedside.
Author Nicholas Evans’ death from a heart attack was announced yesterday (pictured with his girlfriend Charlotte)
The four battle on, but three are left without functioning kidneys and must endure years of dialysis to stay alive. They need new kidneys and the search for donor matches goes on for three years until the man’s grown-up daughter persuades him to accept one of his own and saves his life.
Meanwhile, his wife and brother-in-law remain on the transplant list, leaving the family enmeshed in guilt and illness.
Such a searing storyline, set against a dramatic Highlands backdrop, might easily have been dreamed up by author Nicholas Evans whose 1995 debut novel, The Horse Whisperer, sold 15 million copies, becoming a number one bestseller in 20 countries.
It has been translated into 40 languages and was made into a film, produced, directed and starring Robert Redford.
The mushroom incident, however, was no epic page-turner but a grimly true story.
Yesterday, as news of Evans’s death from a heart attack at the age of 72 was announced, the tragic events of that innocent foraging in woodland on the Altyre Estate in Moray 14 years ago, which left four adults fighting for survival — Evans, his songwriter second wife, Charlotte, who wrote the Sugarbabes 2001 hit Soul Sound, and Charlotte’s brother and sister-in-law, Sir Alastair and Lady Louisa Gordon Cumming —were being recalled.
Until the summer of 2008 and that mushroom-hunting expedition, everything about Nicholas Evans’s life had seemed garlanded with success.
The film rights from The Horse Whisperer, which also starred Kristin Scott Thomas and a young Scarlett Johansson, had helped provide a 14th-century manor house in Devon.
There were also three other successful books, The Loop, The Smoke Jumper and The Divide.
But everything changed the day he collected a basket of what he thought were tasty ceps. In fact, they were Cortinarius rubellus — also known as the Deadly Webcap — a fungus that contains the toxin orellanin which attacks the liver, kidneys and spinal cord.
It had been ten years since Evans had picked ceps and he didn’t spot a crucial difference — that the ones he’d dug up had gills and ceps do not. Poisoning was swift and overwhelming.
The Horse Whisperer has been translated into 40 languages and was made into a film, produced, directed and starring Robert Redford. Pictured: Robert Redford leads his horse during the filming of ‘The Horse Whisperer’ in 1997
‘In the beginning not only did I think I might die, but I kind of wanted to because it was so violent, so grim,’ he later said.
Three years later, aged 61, Evans received a kidney from his then 29-year-old daughter, Lauren, because his heart was under strain from thrice-weekly dialysis.
‘I was told that the average lifespan on dialysis is five to eight years,’ he later recalled. ‘I had done three and my heart was starting to cause trouble.’
Until then he had been reluctant to be helped by his daughter, a zoologist, even though her blood group was a match to his.
‘Your natural instinct is never to do anything to harm your kids, although statistics show there is only a tiny risk to the donor,’ he explained.
Lauren finally persuaded him to change his mind, and father and daughter woke up following surgery in adjoining beds at London’s Hammersmith Hospital.
‘It was marvellous,’ Evans said. ‘Gratitude is a completely inadequate word. It’s like being blessed by an angel.’
At the time of the poisoning Evans had nearly completed his latest bestseller, The Brave, about the corrosive nature of family secrets and guilt.
All the same, it is surely ironic that his own life has, quite by accident, featured an unusual element of storytelling drama.
For the second time in his life, he found himself lying in a hospital bed wondering if he would die before completing a book. In 1994, he had been diagnosed with a malignant melanoma (the deadliest skin cancer) while writing The Horse Whisperer.
Later, after successfully undergoing treatment, he found his own real-life drama taking the novel about a teenage girl and her horse recovering from a horrific road accident, in a different direction.
‘I had a new-found empathy,’ he said. ‘It became much more emotional.’
In the poignant story of redemption and resilience both horse and rider are traumatised by a terrible accident. Then the girl’s mother hears of a man said to possess the gift of healing troubled horses. The story unfolds in the majestic setting of rural Montana.
The success of the book — and film — didn’t just propel Evans to fame and fortune.
It also made the name of American Monty Roberts, who had helped tame some of the Royal Family’s horses.
Roberts was the subject of two documentaries and was widely seen as the inspiration for The Horse Whisperer. But Evans denied it.
The film rights from The Horse Whisperer, which also starred Kristin Scott Thomas and a young Scarlett Johansson (pictured), had helped provide a 14th-century manor house in Devon
‘When I met Monty I knew that he was not my role model,’ he said. ‘His keen commercial eye, the Rolex and the cashmere sweaters fixed that for me.’
At the time of its writing Evans was a frustrated film-maker up to his ears in debt.
As a TV executive, he’d always longed to work in the movies but projects kept failing to happen, and with two children by his first wife — at private school and an overdraft of £65,000, the bank was getting impatient.
Instead of taking out a second mortgage, he decided to spend four months writing a novel. A friend read the first 200 pages and, just ahead of the annual Frankfurt Book Show, sent them off to publishers.
A bidding war broke out which earned Evans $3.15 million (£2.1 million at the time) and another $3 million for the film rights. What no one knew was that he’d been diagnosed with skin cancer, and didn’t know whether he would live six months, let alone long enough to finish the novel.
‘The day after the operation [to have the melanoma removed], I was going round publishing houses trying to look suave and normal, and I was in a cold sweat, I was just dying . , , was in such pain. But I thought: ‘If I tell anyone, they’ll think [I’m going to] die.’ ,
Evans survived and his novel became the stuff of literary legend, one of the most phenomenally successful books of all time.
The good-looking Evans basked in all the attention.
‘There would be women queuing up to get signed copies of the book, looking at me as though I could tell them the meaning of life.
‘I know they saw me as Tom Booker [the charismatic horse whisperer played by Robert Redford in the film]but it wasn’t true at all.’
In fact, he likened himself to ‘messed-up Annie’ (Annie Graves, played by Scott Thomas, the mother of the traumatised girl who was helped by the horse whisperer).
‘Luckily, too, there was a little bit of my brain that told me it was dangerous to believe in other people’s image of you,’ he said.
But he acknowledged later that ‘for three or four years, my feet didn’t touch the ground’.
His two-decades-long marriage to Jenny broke up shortly afterwards, in part destabilised by his sudden stardom.
Aged 61, Evans received a kidney from his then 29-year-old daughter, Lauren, because his heart was under strain from thrice-weekly dialysis (pictured together).
‘Although there was a lot I treasured around me, there is a certain madness that happens to us men once we reach our mid-40s,’ he once reflected.
‘We see things slipping away and tend to look beyond our current life.’
He was hardly the first successful man to have had his head turned by money and fame.
Three years after leaving Jenny, Evans met and moved in with Charlotte Edwards, daughter of a Scottish clan chief, who had also been through the pain of divorce. They went on to have a son, Finlay, who is now 20.
For a writer who specialized in the great American outdoors, Evans’s own upbringing was hardly rural. Born in 1950, his early years were in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where his father was a sales director for an engineering firm.
At eight he was sent to a boarding school. ‘I think fending for myself from an early age was good for me,’ he said. ‘But it made me feel I should become a corporate type of person, and it took me a long time to find out I wasn’t.’
After leaving school, he did a year of Voluntary Service Overseas, teaching English in Senegal — an experience he used in The Smoke Jumper about men who are parachuted in to put out forest fires — before going to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, to read law .
Then, to his father’s disapproval, he chose journalism over law.
After a stint on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, he became a researcher on TV’s Weekend World. In June 1973, he married Jenny, whom he’d met at Oxford. They went through a difficult patch when Evans had an affair with a colleague who bore him a son.
He and Jenny stayed together and he always credited her with integrating his son, Harry, into the family with their own children, Max and Lauren.
Evans, meanwhile, worked for Melvyn (Lord) Bragg’s The South Bank show before going freelance as a documentary-maker in 1984. Fearing he was becoming a corporate man, he then got out.
The Horse Whisperer, sold 15 million copies, becoming a number one bestseller in 20 countries. Pictured: Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas in the Horse Whisperer, 1998
‘I had a company car,’ he said. ‘I remember parking it in Bay 32 and thinking: ‘What am I doing? This is something I should be doing when I am 52.’ ,
His mentor, the famous director David Lean, advised him to start making films that mattered to him. Evans produced the film Just Like A Woman, which starred Julie Walters. It was a modest financial and critical success.
His next venture, Life And Limb, did not fare so well. Funding dried up and so, too, did his confidence.
What happened next, of course, is the stuff of history. Asked why he’d set his books in the American West, he claimed it was because he felt more at home in a culture that was not his own. He also said he was moved by the vast scale of rural America.
Evans was never inhibited by his initial success, nor did he suffer second-book syndrome. ‘If you start thinking about what people think of you, and what your readers want, then you’re on a hiding to nothing,’ he said. ‘You have to find a story that excites and moves you, and write it as well as you can.’
As for reviews, he suffered only one true stinker: a New York Times critic described The Horse Whisperer as ‘a sappy romance novel gussied up with some sentimental claptrap about the emotional life of animals’.
Judging by his astonishing success, the real critics — Evans’s readers — could not have disagreed more.