The Horse Whisperer
Writers must be the most optimistic people on the face of the planet. We continue creating in spite of the odds of making money at it. We keep going, page after page, article after article, always hoping that we’ll hit it big, believing that some publisher or agent will find us and our work will be the title on everyone’s lips. While we might not admit it, we fantasize about our book becoming a bestseller or a blockbuster movie, resulting in the financial comfort that allows us to keep writing without worrying about how we’re going to pay our bills.
We secretly believe that success will happen to us, optimistic because — occasionally — writers DO make it big. Unexpectedly. Unbelievably. Undeniably big. Like the story of Nicholas Evans and The Horse Whisperer.
If it could happen to him, well….
It could happen to us.
“Hope springs eternal” for struggling writers and freelancers everywhere because of stories like Nicholas Evans.
Who Was Nicholas Evans?
Nicholas Evans hasn’t made much of a splash since the 1990s, so you may not recognize his name, but he died of a heart attack at the age of 72 on August 9, 2022. In the early 90s, I was a beginning writer, hoping to make my mark on the literary world. (Thirty years later, and I’m still hoping!) I remembered Nicholas Evans’ phenomenal success and gravitated to the obituary article in the New York Times that recapped his life. Reading his story reminded me of why writers believe that success may come to them, too.
Nicholas Evans got the kind of break every writer wishes for.
Evans was a smart, British-born, top-of-his-class, Oxford-educated guy who had a successful career in journalism before switching to documentary film production. By 1993, Evans had lost his “mojo.” He had been working on a film for two years when the project fell apart. Evans was utterly disillusioned with the screenwriting and movie industry and was having a sort of mid-life crisis at the age of 43. Now he was broke, 60,000 pounds in debt, and without a clear purpose.
From film to fiction
Somewhere along the line, someone had urged Nicholas to consider writing fiction. He started looking for ideas and met an English blacksmith who told him about “horse-whisperers.” Horse-whisperers are people who have the gift of soothing and healing wounded, traumatized horses.
Evans traveled to New Mexico, Montana, and California to gather information and take in the scenery for his book idea. (Forgive my cynicism here. As a struggling writer who has to work very hard to pay the bills, I have a hard time believing Evans was as broke as the articles implied if he could travel internationally on an extended fact-finding tour, but maybe that’s just my envy creeping in.) In California, Nicholas Evans met a guy named Tom Dorrance and two other “horse whisperers.”
Inspiration struck. Evans started writing a story about a young girl and her horse who are injured in a terrible accident. The girl’s mother hires a “horse-whisperer” to help heal them, and lots of drama ensues when the mother and the “whisperer” become romantically involved.
Here’s where the luck that all writers wish for came in.
A half-finished draft of a manuscript worth six million dollars?
Nicholas Evans wrote 150–200 pages, (different sources give a different page number of completed pages) and showed the partial manuscript to his friend, Caradoc King, a literary agent. (Wish I had a friend who was a top-notch literary agent!)
King loved the fledgling story and immediately started marketing it. King sent it to several publishers getting ready to attend the 1994 Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. A bidding war immediately ensued. (Be still my jealous heart!)
Nicholas Evans, a debut novelist, sold the North American publishing rights for more than three MILLION dollars, the largest award ever given to a first-time author at the time.
At the same time, an agent for Creative Artists Agency named Bob Bookman, (appropriately named, for sure) began casting the net for film rights. Evans told Bookman that he wanted to get a modest $50,000 for the right to produce a movie from his manuscript. Bookman was savvy and urged Evans to ask for 3 million dollars.
Evans got more money than he asked for when none other than Robert Redford, owner of Wildwood Pictures partnered with Hollywood Studios to buy the film rights to The Horse Whisperer for 3.15 million dollars.
A debut author made more than six million dollars — and did business with Robert Redford — on a half-finished draft of a story that took place in another country.
Critics hated it
As is often the case, critics hate what the people love. Even though a critic for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, said that The Horse Whisperer was
“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”
and Robert Short, another critic for the NYT said it was
“sentimentally bloated and wholly devoid of authentic feeling,”
people loved it.
The Horse Whisper sold more than 1.5 million books in its first year. Since then, it has been translated into 40 languages. The film was released in 1998 and grossed in excess of $186 million.
The foundation for a future
Critics may not have liked The Horse Whisperer, but after the success of his first novel, they were less critical of his following books.
Nicholas Evans went on to write four more novels, all based in the American West.
The Loop, 1998.
The Smoke Jumper, 1999.
The Divide, 2005.
The Brave, 2010.
On his website, Nicholas Evans says that he had teamed up with Harry Long and the Shanty Theatre to produce a musical version of The Horse Whisperer for the stage, but I can’t find that it was ever produced. With the ravages of COVID, it might be that the project never made it to completion.
Undaunted, undashed, undeniable hope
Even though the stage version of the musical Horse Whisperer might not have made it, stories like Nicholas Evans’ rise to fame and fortune fan the flames of hope inside me, threatening to burst through my skin like a berserk bronco being seared with a white-hot brand.
Writers, take note.
There’s always hope, however small, and it never completely deserts you.
Just remember Nicholas Evans.