WHEN BRITISH FILMMAKER AND novice author Nick Evans hit the literary equivalent of the Power Ball lottery with his first, then-unfinished novel, The Horse Whisperer, he feared his other, more dreaded number was up. "I'm quite superstitious, and I was convinced I'd get run over before I had a chance to finish the book," says Evans, 45, of his plight last year, when 200 pages of his work-in-progress set off film and publishing bidding wars that ultimately netted him more than $8 million—the most ever paid for a first novel. "I was very careful. I cycle around London a lot, but I didn't take my bike out for three months. I'd look five times before crossing the road. I was driving on the motorway at 40 mph. Thank God, I finished."
Evans' relief hasn't been shared by critics who have treated The Horse Whisperer harshly. Many compared the book—about a love affair between a Montana cowboy and a married New York magazine editor—to Robert James Waller's ripe megaseller The Bridges of Madison County. The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani deemed it "a sappy romance novel, gussied up with some sentimental claptrap about the emotional life of animals and lots of Walleresque hooey about men and women...the only thing missing is a picture of Fabio on the cover."
Stung, Evans feels the rich rewards he reaped from the book's sale are "blinding critics" who insist, he says, on "reviewing the money." The whopping sums began with Hollywood Pictures and Robert Redford, who paid $3 million for film rights after reading a faxed copy of the unfinished manuscript. (Redford plans to produce, direct and star in the movie version.) Dell Publishing anted up $3.15 million for North American publishing rights, and foreign sales (the book is being published in 30 languages) brought in additional millions. Evans also finds vindication in the response of readers; the book shot to the top of The New York Times' bestseller list just weeks after its Sept. 6 publication. "It's totally irrelevant what was said in The New York Times," Evans says. "People just ignore it."
Uncertain of the reasons for the book's phenomenal success, Evans defers to his wife of 22 years, Jenny, a lobbyist for breast cancer research, who encouraged him to write Whisperer not as a screenplay, as he had intended, but as a novel. "He expresses his emotions very easily," says Jenny, 45, "and that's certainly what makes the book work. There are not many men who write that way."
Despondent when a long-term film project he had been working on fell through, Evans was vacationing in England's Dartmoor region in the spring of 1993 when a local blacksmith told him about a young gypsy whose quiet whispers had restored calm to a traumatized horse. "Something about this story touched me," says Evans, whose research led him to three talented American horsemen who became models for the main character in his novel. "What I observed about each of these men was astonishing," he says. "What they have is a kind of spiritual calm and confidence that they are somehow able to convey to a poor, terrified creature to help it become centered again."
At the time, spiritual calm was just what Evans himself was lacking. The Oxford-educated son of a Midlands manufacturing company director and his wife, Evans had embarked on a highly successful career producing television documentaries and movies and 1992's critically acclaimed box office flop Just Like a Woman, about a love affair between a woman and her transvestite boarder. Hoping to direct a thriller titled Life and Limb, Evans turned to novel writing when funding for the film fell through. "I felt I'd really failed in a way," he says. "I was very raw emotionally at that time."
His bearings restored, Evans plans to start a second novel after what he calls all "this incredible razzmatazz" surrounding Whisperer settles down. He is also taking a cautious approach to success. So far, he has limited his extravagances to an upcoming move with Jenny and their two children, Max, 14, and Lauren, 13, from a South London home into only modestly larger digs, a Cape Cod vacation with his family and a new ski jacket. Says Evans: "My mother keeps saying, 'When are you going to buy a new car?' And I keep saying, 'When the old one breaks.' "
LYDIA DENWORTH in London