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Nicholas Evans / 'Guilt is my subject. I've taken research to an extreme degree'

Nicholas Evans, 2010


Nicholas Evans: 'Guilt is my subject. I've taken research to an extreme degree'

The bestselling author of The Horse Whisperer bares his soul about the event that nearly killed him - and almost tore apart his family

Decca Aitkenhead

Sunday 13 November 2011

Nicholas Evans is a celebrated storyteller, and the story he tells me is a cracker. A man and his wife go to stay with her brother and sister-in-law, a titled couple who live on a beautiful estate in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. On a balmy August evening, the man goes out and picks some mushrooms. He brings them back, fries them up in some butter, sprinkles parsley over them, and the family enjoy a relaxing evening meal.

The following morning all four awake feeling not quite right. By lunchtime they are seriously ill. They consult a book in the kitchen – a guide to wild mushrooms – and leaf through until they find a photograph. Anxiously they scan the text, and see the chilling words: deadly poisonous.The local GP is called urgently. The four are rushed into the local Highland hospital in Elgin. Ambulances race them down to the renal unit at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. On the journey the man begins to convulse, his body shuddering and shaking uncontrollably. He fears he is about to die.

The poison ravages their bodies, the violent vomiting of blood and bile remorseless as one by one all four go into kidney failure. Only the thought of his youngest son, just six years old, keeps the man clinging to life. To his horror, he realises that each couple's will grants the other couple custody of their children, in the event of the parents' death. All their children may soon be orphaned. Fearing the worst, he calls his solicitor from his sick bed and has a new will couriered up to Scotland, as the four fight for their lives.

They survive. But the man, his wife and her brother are left without functioning kidneys, and must endure five hours of dialysis every other day to keep them alive. All three need kidney donors. The search for suitable matches goes on for three years – until his grownup daughter eventually persuades him to accept one of her own, and saves his life. But his wife and brother-in-law remain on the transplant list, still sick and still waiting, leaving the family in a toxic tangle of illness, guilt and recrimination.

It is a classic Evans tale – intense family drama set in a cinematic backdrop of epic landscape – and would almost certainly be a bestseller. The author's 1995 debut novel, The Horse Whisperer, sold 15m copies, and his four subsequent books have sold many millions more. Unfortunately, however, this isn't a new plot dreamt up by Evans, but a horribly true story.

When he opens the door to his London loft apartment, Evans looks shockingly well. Just three months after surgeons removed a kidney from his daughter Lauren, 29, and transplanted it into his body, the 61-year-old looks so healthy that you'd never even guess he was the protagonist of this nightmarish tale. If anything, in fact, he's better looking than he used to be; he has an actor's mellifluous voice, and often used to be likened to Bill Nighy, but with shorter hair and a radiant complexion he looks more like a distinguished architect, say, or a classical conductor. I'm so taken aback that I ask how he would have looked had we met three months earlier.

"Well everybody now says I looked like a walking corpse," he smiles, "but at the time people said: 'Oh Nick you look great!' Now they say: 'No, you didn't at all.' I can see it myself in photographs. I just looked scary. Five hours of dialysis only cleans about 4% of your blood, so you're still walking around with 96% poisoned blood."

Before the transplant he could drink no more than one litre of liquid a day, and didn't pee for three years, so even the 22 pills he now has to take every day feel like a breeze: "I've stopped reading the side effects on these things, because you start imagining you've got them all." We meet a few hours after the launch of a new charity, Give a Kidney – One's Enough, of which he is a patron, which encourages people to make an altruistic donation of a kidney to a stranger on the transplant list. Evans is still reeling at the generosity of the altruistic donors he met that morning, so I ask if he could ever have imagined making such a gift himself.

"No," he admits without hesitation. "No, I'd love to say that I would have thought of doing that, but no."

"The whole question of donation," he explains, "particularly with friends and family, is an immensely complicated emotional and psychological thing. Some people just can't bring themselves to even think about it – people who love you, and whom you love, but find it's just too much. One or two friends, my closest friends, one or two of them didn't ever mention it. And that's perfectly OK. A very close family member who just couldn't do it came to see us a lot, and would break down in tears, and say: 'I feel so guilty, I feel so guilty.' And you just have to keep saying: 'That's OK."

It sounds like it must have created an emotional minefield around him. "Oh, God yes. Absolutely. You have to keep reassuring people it's OK. But then there are some people for whom it doesn't seem a big deal. There's the mother of a guy who runs a little local garage where we live in Devon who fixes our cars, a family business. I must have exchanged, I don't know, over the years a maximum of 20 minutes' conversation. And she just one day said: 'I'd like you and Charlotte [Gordon Cumming, Evans' wife] to know that if either of you need a kidney I'd be really happy to give one.' Amazing."

Then there were those who told the couple to forget about a transplant and opt for homeopathy instead. "It was astonishing the number of people who tried to persuade us that your kidneys could be healed." With what – positive energy? "Among other things, yeah," he says dryly. "My consultant said to me: 'If you cut your hand off will you grow another hand? It's like that.' But there are plenty of people who will say that they know of people who have regrown their kidneys. When you ask for the phone numbers or names or addresses they are, strangely, unavailable." He's smiling, but I ask if it made him angry.

"Does now. Because I think it's so irresponsible to suggest that these things can be an alternative to proper medical care. Somebody even suggested that dialysis might actually prevent our natural ability to heal our own kidneys. In fact, it would kill you."

A couple of strangers contacted him through his website to offer one of their kidneys – though a man in Texas sent an email which said simply: "Mr Evans. My kidney. $100,000." A consultant suggested he buy one from India, which he refused to contemplate, and all of his children offered to donate straight away, but he thought it would never come to that.

"No, no it seemed ... just outlandish, really. Your every instinct is to protect your child from any risk, however remote. And meanwhile I was having friends offer."

But none was a good match, whereas Lauren's kidney turned out to be almost perfect, and this summer, with Evans' heart beginning to fail from the effects of dialysis, she finally persuaded him to accept it. She was interviewed recently about the experience, and was upset that the article focused on the negatives – the pain, her scar, and so on. "We both want to help people to make the decision to do this, you see," says Evans. "It is true that it's major surgery – but you don't want to talk about that too much really."

Lauren is one of his two adult children from his first marriage, and he has a third from another relationship. Finlay, Evans's son with his second wife Charlotte, wanted to give one of his parents a kidney – but he is only nine years old. A friend in Devon agreed to donate her kidney to Charlotte, a 53-year-old singer songwriter, but doctors have found a stone, so now they don't know if the transplant can go ahead. Her brother, Sir Alistair, is also still waiting, and his wife Lady Louisa has only limited kidney function.

It's at this point in the conversation that Evans becomes much less forthcoming, and begins to look uncomfortable. He has always taken full responsibility for the accident, but in a recent interview he revealed: "The cause was much more complex than has been talked about. I did pick [the mushrooms], but it was really two people, each thinking the other one knew what he or she was doing." So what exactly did happen?

"I can't really talk about that." His voice is suddenly low and wary. "It's too sore a subject." Between the four of you? "No, between two of us. It was a complicated transaction, really, and it involved the two of us suspending our responsibility, assuming that the other one knew what they were doing."

Because the other said so? "Err ..." He pauses to consider his words. "It's really hard to talk about. I can't go into this, it's just too much. It's caused us too much pain. There's an unwillingness to share – to take any part of the responsibility. And I don't want to stir that up."

He won't identify the other person, but reading between the lines I guess relations within the family must be hellishly difficult. "Yeah, oh yeah," he agrees softly. Can he see it being resolved? "I don't know. I think maybe when we're all better. I think that will help enormously, when everybody's got a transplant."

Evans' latest book, just out in paperback, had been almost finished when the disaster struck. Coincidentally, The Brave explores themes of dark family secrets, and guilt, and the author has joked in the past that "Guilt is my subject!" He now jokes: "I've taken research to a rather extreme degree." He's not sure that he'll ever find a way to write about the poisoning – but does acknowledge that his own life has, quite by accident, featured an unusual degree of novelistic drama. For this was not the first time he found himself lying in a hospital bed, confronting death, with an unfinished manuscript on his computer. In 1994, Evans was a frustrated film director, up to his ears in debt. A TV executive, he'd always longed to work in the movies – but projects kept falling apart, and the bank was getting impatient. The wise course would probably have been a second mortgage – but in a wildly inadvisable gamble, he had a go at writing a novel.

A friend read the first 200 pages, showed them to publishers, and a bidding war broke out which earned Evans $3.15m for the book, and another $3m for the film rights. What nobody but his wife knew, however, was that Evans had just been diagnosed with malignant skin cancer. He didn't know if he would last the six months, let alone long enough to finish the novel. "The day after the operation, I was going round publishing houses trying to look suave and normal, and I was in a cold sweat, I was just dying, I was in such pain. But I thought, if I tell anyone they'll think I'll die."

He survived, and The Horse Whisperer became the stuff of literary legend, one of the bestselling books of all time and a Hollywood movie starring Robert Redford. "For three or four years my feet didn't touch the ground." His marriage broke up shortly afterwards, in part destabilised by his sudden stardom, but his second marriage appears to be strikingly happy, and until the poisoning the couple led what looked like a pretty idyllic life with their young son in a medieval manor house in Devon.

He says he never suffered from the classic second book syndrome, or felt inhibited by his initial success. "No, if you start thinking about what people think of you, and what your readers want, then you're on a hiding to nothing. You just have to find a story that excites and moves you and write it as well as you can. I think this is what's happened to TV and movies; it's all so bloody focus-grouped, and tested, and that rules out anything original. In the creative process I think good things come from obsessions, and trying to please yourself. And really the focus-group mentality has wrecked so much."

Evans thinks every book he has written since the Horse Whisperer has actually been better than his debut, but accepts that he will never experience that sort of stratospheric success again. One of his books, the Smoke Jumper, was optioned for a movie – "But Hollywood has stopped making the sort of films my books suggest. It's either big franchise blockbuster movies like Batman 10, or little independent films that cost a couple of million to make. The medium-budget drama doesn't really get made any more."

He has also learned to be sanguine about reviews. "The book business is such a strange one – and the very definition of literary versus commercial fiction has always seemed to me to be bizarre. One is defined by how many it sells, and the other by its ideas and so-called literary merit. And there are all kinds of assumptions brought to bear on this. So for example, if you sell tons of books you can't possibly have any interesting ideas or themes or things to say. And on the other hand, if nobody buys the book it's considered a mark of its esteem because nobody is bright enough to understand it."

Does that annoy him? "No," he says mildly, shaking his head. Evans is far too well-mannered to say otherwise – but I get the feeling he does mind rather more than he lets on.

When he sold the Horse Whisperer, he read newspaper reports declaring him "the luckiest man in Britain" while he was sitting in hospital being treated for cancer. Nearly two decades later, his wife is on dialysis in Devon and his daughter's kidney is the only thing keeping him alive – all because of a few wild mushrooms. When Evans looks back on his life, does he think of himself as lucky or unlucky? This time I do not doubt his answer.

"I think that I have been amazingly lucky."


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