Life imitates art as publicity wolves close in for the kill

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The Independent Online
THE WOLFPACK is circling and nothing will sate its hunger; nothing will calm its frenzy.

It could be a scene from The Loop, Nicholas Evans' new novel about a rogue pack of Rocky Mountain wolves, but, in fact, it more accurately describes the marketing and publicity scrum which has preceded the book's publication on 8 October.

Evans' second work is pitched squarely at the 11 million readers of his first and phenomenally successful novel, The Horse Whisperer, and as a result, the machinery of literary hype is operating at full tilt.

Publishers Bantam have billed it "an epic exploration of man's conflict with nature and the wild within himself".

"The Loop," they add, "is destined to capture the hearts and imaginations of readers worldwide". The dust jacket of the book goes on to warn that this will be "an epic tale of primal passion and redemptive love". And so, indeed, Bantam executives must have believed when they paid Evans a six-figure sum, reputedly in excess of the record-breaking pounds 357,500 they paid to secure The Horse Whisperer in 1994.

Yet, through the hysteria that heralds the imminent arrival of a second novel, some doubting Thomases are speaking out. Is money, they wonder, the real theme of The Loop? Has Evans mechanically put together the ingredients of another bestseller or does the book have literary merit?

"This is another wonderful story," a Bantam spokeswoman maintained. "Nicholas became fascinated by the whole wolf question while he was out in Montana researching The Horse Whisperer," she explained.

"We had secured the first book on a one-book deal and then we went back to him for the second novel."

On the strength of his first book, Evans, a former documentary-maker who grew up in Bromsgrove, Hereford and Worcester, was catapulted into the millionaire blockbusting league. So far The Horse Whisperer has sold more than 160,000 hardback copies and 1,187,000 paperbacks in Britain and more than five million copies in total in the United States. Robert Redford snapped up the film rights for US$3m (pounds 1.8m). He and the British actress Kristin Scott Thomas both star in the film which is due to open here this month.

The Horse Whisperer is typical of the blockbuster fiction every literary agent wants to snap up: the cinematic novel that can be seamlessly converted into screenplay.

Clare Ledingham, editorial director of Simon and Schuster, detects a growing emphasis on finding formula successes with movie-making potential.

"It is starting to make a difference to publishers if there is the possibility of a film deal," she said. "It has been the case in America, but it is said that it is happening here now."

"It is inevitable that some writers will focus on the formulaic elements of the blockbuster," said Minna Fry, marketing director of Macmillan. But real writers, she argues, still stand out. "There will always be those who have wanted to write books first and foremost, like Roddy Doyle and James Kelman: writers who may concentrate on dialogue, but who are primarily interested in the written word and not the film deal."

Publishers looking for the key elements of a bestseller will tend to home in on romantic themes, she added.

"This is probably what drew filmmakers to our book The English Patient, but no one could say that had been published with all the spin-offs in mind."

Evans' latest story centres on one woman scientist's fight to preserve a threatened pack of wolves that is provoking unwarranted panic in a town called Hope. Like The Horse Whisperer, it is a tale which pits man against nature.

Yet, if there really was a sure-fire formula for catching the public imagination, everyone would be doing it as Tom Weldon, publishing director of Penguin Books, points out. "Writers may aim at that, but they usually fail. What was great about The Horse Whisperer was that it was such a strong story and it also pushed the right emotional buttons."

In the end it may be the movie studios that lose out, according to the British film producer Stephen Garrett. He contends that the biggest selling novels, even those with literary acclaim, do not always translate into good films.

"Books which acquire cult status are bought up by film executives for the wrong reasons," he said. "Epic sprawling novels are notoriously difficult to adapt because they work best in the imagination."

He cites works of magical realism, such as Isabel Allende's novel The House of Spirits, which do not tend to convert well to the screen.

"It is just that the film industry is even more craven than publishers and they are ready to pay out because the potential profits are so big," he said.