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BRITISH AUTHOR NICHOLAS EVANS was slowly picking at a dinner roll during a banquet in Bellevue, Washington, sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. He was regaling the table with some Western trivia he had picked up while doing research for his best-selling novel The Horse Whisperer. The bookstore owners listened attentively as he described "pitchfork fondue," a delicacy prepared by melting chunks of lard in a huge kettle, then dunking slabs of beef into the oozing caldron with a trident.

In his speech after dinner, Evans recounted a tale the book dealers found more appetizing: how a struggling journalist and floundering filmmaker wrote his first novel and became an overnight sensation. "I am still bewildered that I have this new career," he said. "If I'd been asked to write a best seller a year ago, I guess I'd have tried a sexy thriller or something. But it doesn't work to think that way. You have to believe in the story; then maybe you really get lucky like I did."

The Horse Whisperer, a romantic yarn in which a Montana cowboy with a mystical gift for communicating with horses has a torrid affair with a British-born magazine editor from New York, caused a stir in publishing and Hollywood circles as soon as the manuscript began circulating last fall. Robert Redford and Disney ponied up $3 million for movie rights; Dell Publishing won North American book rights for $3.15 million; and foreign rights topped $2 million. And that was before Evans had even finished writing the book.

Now he's done, and The Horse Whisperer has climbed the best-seller lists, alongside Michael Crichton and Sidney Sheldon. It's something of a vindication for Evans, since most reviewers made their own pitchfork fondue out of his prose. ("Sentimentally bloated, and wholly devoid of authentic feeling," said the New York Times.) The similarity to another huge-selling novel about a mid-life romance caused some wags to dub it The Horses of Madison County. Evans is rankled by the comparisons to Robert James Waller's best seller. "Both books are about middle-aged people who fall in love--so are a million others," he says. "Mine's longer than his. More pages per penny."

And more pennies for his pages. Though not matching the sums paid for recent works by hot novelists like Michael Crichton and John Grisham, Evans got a bigger publishing advance--and more money from Hollywood--than any other first novelist in history. "It's probably good that, once in a while, someone proves the brass ring can be snatched," says Michael Korda, editor in chief at Simon & Schuster. "Otherwise, it's like a casino where none of the slot machines ever pay off."

Evans, 45, grew up in the Worcestershire countryside riding horses, watching TV westerns and reading Jack London novels. He worked as a journalist and a screenwriter, but after a directing deal he had fought hard for fell through, he decided to pursue a book idea that had come to him during a trip to southwestern England. Evans had met a blacksmith who told of a local Gypsy able to tame wild steeds through some mysterious psychic connection. A horse whisperer, they called him. The story, says Evans, "made me shiver."

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