Nicholas Evans, journalist and author whose novel The Horse Whisperer sold millions of copies and became an onscreen success – obituary

Nicholas Evans in 2011 - Clara Molden
Nicholas Evans in 2011 - Clara Molden

Nicholas Evans, who has died following a heart attack aged 72, was a journalist-turned-author who vaulted to the top of the bestseller lists in 1995 with his acclaimed book The Horse Whisperer, which also became a successful film.

Languishing in a scruffy house in Stockwell, south London, Evans was in debt to the tune of £65,000 when Robert Redford bought the film rights for his half-written debut novel for an unprecedented £3 million. When the film of The Horse Whisperer, starring Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas and a 13-year-old Scarlett Johansson in what would prove to be her break-out role, was released in 1998, it earned a Golden Globe nomination for best drama and a best director nomination for Redford.

Redford played the titular equine expert, with Scarlett Johansson as an injured young rider and Kristin Scott Thomas and Sam Neill as her parents.

The book became a staggering success. It has since sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, topped the bestseller lists in 20 countries and been translated into 36 languages. On the proceeds of his success Evans latterly lived the life of a country squire at his 14th-century manor house in Devon.

After receiving his massive advance, Evans became superstitious that “something would happen to me before I finished”. He stopped riding his bicycle and confined himself to the slow lane of motorways until he had finished the book.

Nicholas Benbow Evans was born on July 26 1950 at Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, the son of a motor trader, and educated at Bromsgrove School, where he became head boy. After a gap year teaching English in Senegal for VSO, he went up to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and took a first-class degree in Law.

From 1972 until 1975 he worked as a reporter on the Evening Chronicle newspaper in Newcastle upon Tyne. Subsequently he worked as a producer on ITV’s Weekend World (1977-80), editor on The London Programme (1979-82) and a producer on The South Bank Show, becoming number two to Melvyn Bragg, and making films about such figures as David Lean – who became a friend and advised him to take up writing fiction – John le Carré and Seamus Heaney, before becoming a full-time author and film-maker.

Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas in the film adaptation of The Horse Whisperer - Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas in the film adaptation of The Horse Whisperer - Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

After several lean years, his first success as an independent producer and screenwriter was with Murder By the Book (1991), which won the American ACE award for the best international film on cable television. But by 1993 he again found himself in low water. Finances for a film he had been developing for two years collapsed, and at 42 he had neither money, work, nor any idea of what to do next.

Fobbing off his bank with groundless optimism about the film, he travelled to the American state of Montana to research a book, having got the idea for The Horse Whisperer from a farrier who told him about people with the mysterious gift of healing traumatised horses.

“Yes, it was insane,” he agreed. “There I was, alone in this vast landscape, meeting people who healed f----d-up horses, and something came together for me. It was the nearest thing I’ve ever come to a spiritual experience.”

Evans's book has sold more than 15 million copies - CBW/Alamy
Evans's book has sold more than 15 million copies - CBW/Alamy

Back in London, he wrote the first several thousand words and took them, with a two-page synopsis, to an agent. When a typescript was sent to Hollywood, five studios offered £3 million for the film rights to the finished book, as did Robert Redford, who closed the deal.

While working on the book, Evans was told he had a cancerous mole on his stomach. Doctors removed it before the cancer cells could penetrate his skin. Evans, who had lost his mother to cancer, said the incident made him appreciate how important it was to make the most of life.

He wrote four other novels, The Loop (1998), The Smoke Jumper (2001), and The Divide (2005), which was inspired by the break-up of his first marriage. His last published novel was The Brave (2010); there were plans, he said, to adapt The Horse Whisperer into a musical.

Evans’s second wife, Charlotte Gordon Cumming, is a successful singer-songwriter who has written for the Sugababes. Her brother, Sir Alistair Gordon Cumming, is chief of the Comyn or Cumming clan, directly descended from William the Conqueror. One of Sir Alastair’s ancestors, John Comyn, known as The Red Comyn, was killed by Robert the Bruce in 1306 as the Comyn and Bruce families battled for supremacy in Scotland.

In 2008 Evans, his wife and several other family members ate misidentified deadly webcap poison mushrooms while staying at Alistair Gordon Cumming’s estate in Scotland. Several of them suffered kidney failure, and both Evans and his wife later had kidney transplants, in his case with an organ donated by his daughter Lauren.

Nick Evans is survived by Charlotte, and by a daughter and two sons of his first marriage, to Jennifer Lyon (whom he met in his first week at Oxford), and a son with a former television colleague, Jane Hewland.

Nicholas Evans, born July 26 1950, died August 9 2022