Best-selling novelist Nicholas Evans, famous for The Horse Whisperer, tells FIONA HAWTIN about his latest book.

Nicholas Evans was always the Indian as a child. His sister played the cowboy. Forty years on, it's hard to imagine the well-spoken Evans as a boy running round the garden making the noises of a brave. The British author strides into the lobby of the Carlton Hotel, Auckland. Best known for his novel The Horse Whisperer, which sold 16 million copies, he explains why that book and his two subsequent works, The Loop and the newly published novel The Smoke Jumper (Random House, $54.95), are all partly set in the American state of Montana.

"The American west has always been a great obsession ever since I was a little boy.

"As a kid I was a native American for the first 10 years of my life. American Indian culture always completely enthralled me in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire," says the 51-year-old.


"When you live in a crowded little island the appeal of a big place is only natural and you can fit Britain four times into the map of Montana. Britain has a population of 60 million and Montana hasn't even got a million."

The instant success Evans had with the first book came at a time when he felt unconfident about his flagging film career. The Oxford University law graduate had his heart set on an acting career briefly during university, realising law had no interest for him. He worked as a newspaper reporter before producing current affairs and arts documentaries.

From there, he wrote scripts for television and film. Just Like a Woman, starring Julie Walters, is his work. Next he wanted to write and direct his own project and spent the two years trying to raise enough funds. The Horse Whisperer was his first crack at a novel and made for some professional jealousy within the literary set when it became such a hit.

"I became aware of it when a journalist came to see me and I later found out she was just writing her own first novel. When I opened the door she said, 'Oh, so you're the man that every writer in London hates'."

Evans can't abide the snobbery of the English and New York literary circles.

"The very definition of literary and commercial fiction strikes me as being so incredibly snobbish. Something that sells by definition cannot have any literary merit. And even the other way round that something that is literary cannot possibly sell a lot of copies because people are deemed to be too stupid to understand it ... that the poor, ignorant masses who buy popular fiction are somehow beyond salvation."

The Montana connection in his books is not entirely due to his fascination with Indian culture or the TV westerns of his youth, but something far more random. As he does research for one novel, an idea for the next one occurs. Evans just happens to be in Montana each time.

He'd just been to see a wolf biologist while writing The Loop - a story about a woman who must save a pack of wolves and falls in love with the son of a committed anti-wolf farmer - when he saw the "Smoke jumpers" road sign. Wondering what that meant, he failed to see that the policeman ahead of him had stopped, and had to swerve.

The policeman gave him two things. First, a warning ticket for making an improper pass. (Evans found the citation so amusing he framed it for his office.) And he told him what smoke jumpers were.

"He told me that they were these firefighters that get parachuted into remote forest fires that you can't get to from the land. At the time I was going through a very turbulent period in my own life, my long marriage was breaking up and I was thinking about choice in my own life; about whether I had the guts to jump into the flames. And so this image of braving the flames just stuck somehow and a story started to evolve. It's about choice."

It's played out in an epic love triangle in The Smoke Jumper. Best friends Connor Ford and Ed Tully are smoke jumpers. They're both in love with Ed's girlfriend Julia. There is a fire that changes all their lives and choices must be made. She must choose between loyalty and guilt or following her heart.

Conscious choice is something Evans feels we must all make at some time.

"My daughter is 19 years old. She's in love with these two guys at the moment. She'd been travelling through Australia and Thailand and Borneo and she has a boyfriend back home but she met this guy and fell in love with him and she's braving the flames. In all of our lives there comes a time when you have to decide between loyalty and honour on the one hand and some ideal that we feel maybe we're attracted to in another way, whether it's some person or a vocation or some ideal."

Evans spent time with the smoke jumpers in Montana. The 400 smoke jumpers are found only in the American west. While he didn't parachute into raging forest fires in an attempt at method writing, he did stick close to them, drink a lot of beer with them and listen to their stories.

"There are all kinds of sub-cultures of fire fighters in the States. There are the hot shot marine-like characters with crew cuts who obey orders. If they're told to walk into a wall of fire they will do so, where smoke jumpers are very independent-minded. They're not exactly the hippies of the fire-fighting world but if you tell a smoke jumper to do something and he disagrees with it, he'll tell you."

Already, a major Hollywood studio is interested in buying the rights to the book.

The film deal with Robert Redford for The Horse Whisperer bolstered his earnings. With book and film rights, that first novel made him $10 million. While Evans feels Redford handled the horse angle well, he was less impressed with the film's ending, which he found depressing.

Already, he's working on his fourth book but the superstitious Evans won't reveal anything about the work other than it will be partly set in America.

This should come as no surprise as he enjoys plunging into another culture. Besides, he finds a lot of British fiction shrinks a story, becomes parochial and invariably ends up being about the class system.

"I'm attracted to big stories, not that sort of intimate Nick Hornby world of London.

"Imagine The Horse Whisperer set in Britain. When Annie takes the horse across to see the horse whisperer, she could leave after breakfast and be there by lunch and she wouldn't even have to fill up with petrol. Whereas in America, it's an epic crossing of a continent."