A mistake that almost cost Nicholas Evans his life helped him craft a novel rich in pathos, as Nicky Pellegrino explains.
Nicholas Evans was always going to put a lot of himself into his latest book, The Brave (Little Brown, $39.99). His childhood love of the Wild West, his experiences in a brutal English boarding school, his long-lasting passion for the big country of Montana - all had already found their way into the mix by the time the author of the best-selling The Horse Whisperer had what he describes as "an empathy top-up", a startling brush with death that changed him and the new novel he had written profoundly.
In August 2008, Evans went out into the woodlands on his brother-in-law's Scottish estate and picked a basket of wild mushrooms. He cooked his find with parsley and butter and shared them with his wife, Charlotte Gordon Cumming, his brother-in-law, Sir Alistair Gordon Cumming, and his wife, Lady Louisa. Fortunately, none of their children ate any. If they had, they almost certainly would have died as, rather than being edible ceps, Evans had picked the deadly poisonous, but similar-looking, webcaps.
By the next day, the four adults were in hospital suffering renal failure and the long-term effects have been devastating. Two years on, Evans, his wife and brother-in-law need regular dialysis and are on the waiting list for kidney transplants.
"It was stupid, just incredibly stupid," Evans says over the phone from his home in the Devon countryside. "I've always been a cautious person, I get that from my mother, I think. I'm the sort of person who sees the potential for danger in everything. As a child I picked field mushrooms and where I live now is in the middle of woodland. But always if I picked anything I thought was edible I'd bring it back and check in a couple of books we still have in the kitchen."
Unfortunately, on this occasion they didn't consult a book until the next day when they had begun suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. The four of them were rushed to hospital and Evans says he was horrifically ill and counts himself lucky that they all survived.
"I've got a lot to be thankful for, really," he says.
The guilt of it though must be horrendous? "All you can do is tell yourself again and again that guilt is like jealously and regret - the most damaging and negative of things and there's no point in it," he says. "If you gave yourself such a hard time you couldn't survive it so steadfastly. You have to live for the now and the future. Again, in being able to do that I think I take after my mother. She was formidable, almost disturbingly able to move on. So that's a trait I'm glad to share with her."
Evans had completed the first draft of The Brave before the incident with the mushrooms.
For a long time afterwards, finishing it didn't seem important; all he wanted was to get life back to as normal as possible. The turning point came when he was able to exercise again. He went skiing, started running, bought a windsurfer and spent much of a summer on the water.
"It took about a year, I suppose. Then my American editor sent a jacket they'd prepared that was wrapped around someone else's book. It was beautiful and I thought 'dammit, I want my book in there'."
Having been so forcibly reminded of the preciousness and vulnerability of life, Evans looked at his original draft of The Brave with quite different eyes. "I've always been in the heads and hearts of my characters," he explains.
"I really live them. It's a bit like method acting. So, when I went back to the book I really felt for them and thought the first draft was a bit harsh and unemotional. I almost completely rewrote it and think now it's a better book because of what happened ... not that I'd want to go through something like that again!"
The Brave begins with the story of a little boy called Tommy growing up in 1950s England and who is obsessed with cowboys and indians. After discovering the secret his older sister Diane has been keeping from him, he is whisked away to Hollywood where she is an up-and-coming starlet, shacked up with one of Tommy's screen cowboy heroes. That narrative is interspersed with the modern-day story of the adult Tommy, divorced and damaged and facing the prospect of his marine son being charged with war crimes after serving in Iraq.
The same themes cross over between the two scenarios.
"The fallibility of heroes, the notions of bravery or of what is often taken for bravery," says Evans, who is fascinated with how myths of the Wild West endure even though we know it to have been a period of unbridled murder and violence.
Travelling for research has always been one of the joys of writing for Evans, but the practicalities of needing 15 hours of dialysis a week make that challenging now.
"I do miss it," he says.
"But the toughest part of all is, because I don't pee, I have to be careful how much fluid I drink and so spend most of my life being thirsty. Also, it's frustrating to have 15 hours of potential work time wasted. Possibly I could train myself to write while having dialysis, but I find it difficult even to read a novel - mostly I doze and listen to the radio."
Evans has had offers of kidneys from friends and family, but says he can't get his head round accepting an organ from one of his grown-up children. "I may have to eventually," he concedes.
"With three friends we've got almost to the last fence when something has gone wrong. One discovered he had a serious prostrate problem which he wouldn't have known about had he not made his generous offer."
He adds: "It'll happen though. In the meantime I've got an idea brewing that I hope will turn into another book."