Nicholas Evans looks every inch the British novelist. If there was an archetype, Evans would fill it. Tall and lean, he wears his hair long and somewhat professor-ish. It's the sort of hair you can imagine him running his hands through distractedly when working out a particularly tricky passage or a challenging bit of dialogue. Evans, who has homes in London and Devon, England, studied law at Oxford then worked as a journalist before working in television and film production.
All of these biographical facts and physical clues would, however, give no hint about the work Evans is best known for: Though his own personal history is as British as the BBC, Evans writes American novels set under the big Montana sky. The publication of his first book, The Horse Whisperer, recreated Evans as an overnight publishing darling. When the combined book advance and film rights brought Evans over six million dollars, a record at the time, the publishing press promptly dubbed the soft-spoken Brit The Six Million Dollar Man. The Horse Whisperer performed, if anything, better than expected, jumping out of the starting gate straight onto the bestseller lists and selling over 15 million copies since its publication in 1995.
Evans followed with The Loop, again set in Montana, this time around a father/son relationship with wolves providing the eco-balance to the human tale.
Evans' most recent book, The Smoke Jumper, is also set in Big Sky Country. The Smoke Jumper is centered around a tragic triangle involving two firefighters who parachute out of planes to put out forest fires -- smoke jumpers -- and the woman they both come to love. Smoke jumping, says Evans, is as much a metaphor in this book as it is a part of the action, "the last thing on earth I want people to think of it as is a firefighting book, because it's not. It's a book about three good people who have to make choices that affect the rest of their lives."
Linda Richards: I know you're a serious research guy. Did you do any parachuting in preparation for writing The Smoke Jumpers?
Nicholas Evans: No, I didn't jump. I spent a lot of time with these smoke jumpers: hung around with them. But mainly drank beer. [Laughs] And I asked them a million questions and saw forest fires from the sky and all that sort of stuff, but I never jumped.
In Montana? Or other areas?
No, in Montana.
The Loop was also set in Montana, wasn't it?
Yes. It was all set in Montana. Well, Helen's story started in Cape Cod.
So, I guess the question everyone is asking you then: Why this fascination for you with Montana?
Well, it's partly this childhood obsession with the West. As a kid I was an Indian. I was an Indian for the first ten years of my life. In those days kids played cowboys and Indians. It must have stopped around, I suppose, the 70s or something when it all became space and Star Wars and stuff. My kids never played cowboys and Indians. They think it's kind of quaint and strange [that I did]. But that's what it was and my earliest influence were Westerns. I used to just devour all those corny TV Westerns: Rawhide, Wagon Train and Cheyenne. And even earlier, there was a great black and white one called Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans. Oh God it was good! The Hurons -- these really cool deathly Indians -- would scalp people and there was Hawkeye and his great coonskin cap. Oh wonderful. I loved all that stuff.
Did that passion translate to literature, as well?
Oh, yeah, although I suppose Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson were the first sort of proper writers that I connected with. Very soon after that were the Zane Greys. Actually, I didn't really devour the Zane Greys with the same greed I did Jack London. When I came across Jack London, I thought: That's it.
But you asked me why the Western things. The other part of the answer to that is that when I'm researching something -- and I think a lot of writers are like this -- my antennae are just so raw and sensitive that I pick things up. Even things that aren't germane to the story that I'm supposed to be researching. And I store them away. And so when I was researching The Horse Whisperer I came across the story of The Loop. I went to see a woman who had this special way of working with horses. She was married to a guy who knew more than anybody else about the return of the wolf to the Rockies. A guy called Bob Ream who became a good friend. And so, I was thinking of a father/son story and I thought: What a fabulous setting! So that's why The Loop was set in Montana.
When I was researching The Loop three years later I was driving down from the Nine Mile valley, which is northwest of Missoula, after spending a weekend doing some wolf tracking with a wolf biologist friend of mine. I saw this road sign that said: Smoke Jumpers. And I thought: What's that? Because I wasn't enough of a Montanan to know. And interestingly, actually, a lot of people on the East Coast of America don't now about smoke jumpers. And I really like that because it makes the title so much more mysterious.
So I nearly drove into a police car. I turned back and this police car had stopped in front of me and I had to swerve to go around him and nearly took his wing mirror off as I went by. And the lights went on, you know, and he stopped me and bagged me down and I played the kind of ignorant Brit. You know: Oh, you have speed limits here and that sort of stuff. And he gave me a warning. He gave me a warning ticket. And so I know the exact date of that: I've got it framed on my wall at home. It was the 17th of April, 1996. And the citation is: Made an improper pass. [Laughs] I thought that was kind of funny.
The Horse Whisperer did unsettle me, in a way. It just turned my life upside down although I kind of pretended that it didn't, at the time. And my long-term marriage was sort of coming to an end. And, when I was told, as I was that evening when I asked these friends who I was staying with: What is a smoke jumper? And they said it's somebody who jumps into the flames, basically. Jumps out of an airplane and parachutes into the fire. And I thought: This is kind of the ultimate metaphor. Here you've got this idea of having to choose in life. I really believe that for all of us -- my 19-year-old daughter is going through it at the moment -- there comes a point where you have to choose between honor and loyalty and friendship or whatever it is: The thing you feel you should do and the thing that you want. Maybe it's passion for somebody you want to be with, or some ideal you feel you have to devote your life to. But you know there are flames there and to get to that thing you have to plunge into the fire. So I was mulling over this story about choice and how terrible, at the end of my life, to have felt regret that I didn't do something. That I didn't have the courage to jump into the flames. So that's the kind of emotional core or background to the story.
So then smoke jumping is as much of a metaphor in the book as it is a reality?
I noticed as I read that less than half way through the book, they kind of stop smoke jumping.
Yeah. I mean, the last thing on earth I want people to think of it as is a firefighting book, because it's not. It's a book about three good people who have to make choices that affect the rest of their lives. And that, I suppose, is what it's about.
The last time I spoke with you, just after The Horse Whisperer was published, you were talking a little bit about how you felt you had to proceed carefully so that all of the money you were suddenly making wouldn't change your life. You looked a little freaked out.
Did I? I was kind of two feet off the ground the whole time. It was a big, big thing. And I remember my stock answer to: How has it changed your life? Was: Had it happened to me when I was 25, it might be a different story but by the time you're 45 you understand what's important in life. All of that stuff. At the time I believed it, but it does unsettle you. I mean, that book has now sold something like 15 million copies across the world. I get letters from people saying: You must have had such a great strategy in getting published. There was nothing. It just happened. The whole experience, in a way, was blessed. There was nothing bad about it. But it gave me back a lot of self-confidence that I'd lost because I was in such a bad way with my film career [which] had kind of gone down the tube. But, at the same time as giving me back that self-confidence, it opened up horizons. And I know that's really why my marriage ended. It kind of empowered me. I'm sure if it hadn't happened I'd still be married to the same woman.
There's been so much controversy around you, too. More, I think, than almost any author writing just now.
You know, people tell me this but how do you know this? I'm not aware of it.
I hear the weirdest stuff about you.
People have asked, for instance: Do you think he wrote that book? The Horse Whisperer.
You've heard this, right?
No. Never. Who is supposed to have written it then?
Some other person.
Oh really? I wish!
And then people talk about you having had a big falling out with the original horse whisperer.
[Sighs] The original horse whisper. There's a guy called Monty Roberts who has gone around the world saying that he was the original model for my character, Tom Booker. It's entirely untrue. He just kind of hitched his rope to the bandwagon. I met him early on -- I've never seen him with a horse. He has subsequently claimed that I went to his clinics, that I've seen him work with horses: it's entirely untrue. It's weird. People have tried to get me involved in this war of words but it's just not worth it. I just let it go.
Last time we talked you joked that you might do a book called The Gerbil Screamer. I guess that didn't happen?
No. The guy that writes all my books is working on it at the moment. [He sketches an ironic grin.]
Do you have a place in Montana?
No. One day, maybe. But my kids are still very much based in London. I wouldn't want to move away until they're much more settled and grown up. I mean, they're pretty grown up now -- they're in college.
How old are they?
Nineteen, 20 and 21.
Do you write in the landscape? Or do you do your research and then go away?
No, I write at home. I go back to England.
It interests me that some writers want to be right at the place they're describing and others prefer to do it from a distance.
It kind of distills itself in your head, I think, if you're not there. Also, if I was there, I'd just want to be out there the whole time. Sitting inside in Montana would be -- well, I guess in winter it would be OK -- but I just love being there and up in the mountains. I think I'd find it hard to discipline myself if I lived there.
Sometimes an outsiders' view really brings something special, too. You see things in a new way.
That's exactly right. I think if I'd been brought up there or lived there for a long time I wouldn't notice things. But I do notice things. I've got friends who are native Montanans who say: I didn't realize, but we do do that, don't we? It might be some little kind of hospitality thing or the things people do in stores or when they're filling up with gas. Those quirky little things that I love to find and I really treasure that outsider's lens that you look at things through.
If you were to put your novels in a category, could you? Would you?
I don't think I could, actually. Or in a very broad one. I suppose it's slightly unusual for a male writer to write about human relations -- those kind of man/woman relations -- in the way that I do. And sort of the relationship between parents and children in the way that I do. I suppose I let it hang out, certainly more than a lot of British writers. I don't really feel I'm, in my writing, British. Funnily enough, when I read as I have been these last three weeks traveling around the United States, when I read from my work it doesn't sound right: the voice of it, in my head, is American. And it's always American literature -- not always, but -- that has had much more of an impact on me than a lot of English literature. Certainly the contemporary stuff.
A few years ago I made a documentary about David Lean, he was the director of Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and two great Dickens adaptations early on -- Oliver Twist and Great Expectations -- and his films, when I was a kid, of the half dozen movies that most affected me when I was a kid, at least four of them were his. Leaving aside the three Dickens ones, those three others are huge, intense personal dramas -- relationship dramas -- set against a vast backdrop. Not just a physical landscape, but huge world events. I made two 90-minute documentaries about him and he became a good friend and a mentor for the rest of his life. He died in 1991. And it was he who gave me the courage to jump into the flames and give up my job with a secure TV company to start writing screenplays. He and I used to talk all the time about storytelling ... he liked to paint on a big canvas. And that's something that has always been true of me, too. Maybe that's why we got on so well. He influenced me a great deal. And with The Smoke Jumper I wanted to create in a book something that had that epic feel, too. Kind of an old-fashioned story where three good people who are behaving honorably and doing the decent thing are forced to make very harsh decisions and then Connor goes off onto this kind of epic, dark journey of the soul. That was the intention, anyway.
So, that's the long answer to your question: What category am I in? Luckily I don't think I belong to a genre. It's really been interesting, actually, this book going around the country. In two different places people talking about the kind of epic, poetic language. [In one place] this guy comes up and says: There's poetry in your language. I hear this poetry. And I thought: Wow! That's so lovely. Because I'm aware of it. I mean, I know the sound of it is kind of like verse to me but I didn't know anybody else got it and I've had two people say it in questions after readings. And that's lovely.
One of the things that fills me with despair about the so-called literary world is this distinction between commercial fiction and "literary" fiction. In other words, if something sells, it can't be good. And if something is good it can't possibly sell. And it's only that little rarefied group of cognoscenti who are able to get it. So, it doesn't matter if people in the street don't understand -- Salman Rushdie or Martin Amis or whoever it might be. These great gods of British contemporary fiction. It doesn't seem to matter if readers get it, it's just important that the people who review the books and [give] the awards get it. And almost they define themselves by the fact that most people don't get it. The way sometimes people wrote about The Loop, I thought: Gosh, you just haven't got it. There was so much going on in The Loop. And some people got it. In other countries they get it.
Outside of the UK, you mean?
Yeah. In the States a lot of people did get it. In England, generally, not. Although it sells a lot there. But in other places like Germany and Italy, interestingly Australia. [In some places] it's like I'm a philosopher. [Laughs] It's kind of embarrassing, actually. It's weird. It's very strange, you know, how different cultures bring different baggage to a writer and don't have these preconceptions.
That must be very interesting.
With The Horse Whisperer, more people get this now when they talk to me or ask me questions about it but I always knew when I was writing that book that there was another story going on. It was going on in the corner of my eye and that was an ancient mythical thing. And you can follow the main story and not even bother with that, or not even look at it if you're reading. But I knew as I was writing it that what I wrote on the literal kind of A-to-Z plot had to be in accord with what was happening in this other story.
In that story, for example, the horse whisperer character -- the Tom Booker character -- is an immortal. An angel, if you like, or a shaman: a healer figure who, in the end, has to move on. If you read Joseph Campbell you know that all of these extraordinary stories from different parts of the world that have never really had any contact with each other, they have the same myths. And in these ancient myths, the immortal can't mix with the mortals. He has to do his job, or her job, and move on. And the ending of the book, Tom Booker has to go. I mean, he really does: his job is done. Some people say the end of the film was a kind of happier Hollywood ending because Tom Booker didn't die. Actually, I think it is the most tragic, heartbreaking ending because they're trapped forever in that prison of regret of what might have been. Whereas in the book, Tom Booker goes but he's an immortal so it doesn't matter because he lives on in all of them. And for the healing to be complete, he has to move on to set them free. The ending of the book is so full of hope, but you read that this was a book about horses. Actually, that's the last thing on earth it was about.
How did you like the film?
It was OK. I thought the horse stuff was brilliantly done. I thought the age difference between the Tom Booker character and [Annie] was so great that the love story kind of wasn't really a love story. And it missed all of that kind of mythic dimension: the metaphorical stuff which to me was so important. But metaphor on film is so hard to do. Film, interestingly, is a much more literal medium than books. You can't do metaphor on film.
If you're doing metaphor on film you have to only be metaphorical.
Yeah. The Europeans are better at that, I think, than Hollywood.
Any film interest in Smoke Jumpers yet?
There is, actually, but I can't really talk about it yet. Or I'm told that I shouldn't. But there is. I'm not in a great hurry, to tell the truth. I just think it's nice for a book to be a book for as long as possible.
Is The Loop being made into a film?
There was a great flurry of activity when it first came out but they all kind of went away. I don't know what happened. And it's odd because it would make a much better movie than The Horse Whisperer, I think. It's a really contained story and a kind of classic American small town being turned in on itself. Kind of a racism movie, really. The hatred of the wolf infecting this little community and tearing it apart. These animals coming back to where they belong and setting the humans against each other.
All three of your novels have featured strong female characters and a good portion of the books are told from their perspective. How is it you write women so well?
I know I'm much more like the women in my family than the men. My mother and my grandmother were very out there emotional types. My mother would cry at the drop of a hat. I've always been like that. Not like the stiff upper lip men. So maybe that's why, I don't know. I've got a lot of women friends. I've always found women much more interesting than men in many ways. I think men are a much less highly evolved sex than women.
Earlier we talked a bit about fire as metaphor. Tell me more about that.
One of the things that really intrigues me about fire is that it does all of these different things. It destroys and brands and sears and leaves its mark and kills. And yet, it does all of these other things, too: It purifies and purges, cauterizes. In the forest fires that are raging, in a year's time those forest floors will be full of new growth. And the way that these trees require extreme heat to reproduce -- the lodgepole and the jack pine need that to crack open a reproduce. So, to come back to that sort of central thing that the story for me was about: that choice and whether you are going to plunge into the flames. If you manage to come through the other side, you may be a better person. | September 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.