His novels, more than 40 of them, have sold over 35 million copies and translated into 24 languages. The predominant theme is Christmas, dating back to his first book, “The Christmas Box,” a self-published (at first) runaway bestseller that launched the improbable career of an author The New York Times has labeled “The King of Christmas Fiction.”
His latest in the series, “The Christmas Promise,” debuted this month at No. 7 on the Times’ bestseller list. Like its many predecessors, it’s a heartwarming story about finding peace and meaning at Christmastime.
But Richard Paul Evans is yet to write what might be his greatest Christmas story ever.
And unlike the others, this one is true.
* * *
It all began when he lost an election.
All of 29 years old in 1992, Richard, who worked for a Salt Lake advertising agency, decided to run for a seat in the Utah Legislature. Young, brash and full of ideas, he was confident he would win. He didn’t.
Suddenly, the budding politician had time on his hands. Never one to sit still, he decided to see if he could fulfill another goal of his and write a book. Beginning after Election Day, he spent the next four weeks producing a short manuscript he called “The Christmas Box.”
At his neighborhood Kinkos, he bound 27 copies, attached a laminated cover and handed them out to friends and family in time for Christmas.
The feedback he received was so positive and encouraging, he sent manuscripts to Deseret Book and Bookcraft, Utah’s two biggest publishers at the time. Both sent him rejection letters.
Undaunted, he self-published 7,000 copies and began soliciting bookstores to place his book. One thing led to another to another and before he knew it he’d landed at No. 2 on something he didn’t even know existed — The New York Times’ self-published bestseller list.
This attracted the attention of a number of New York publishing houses, who entered into an auction for this little novella from Utah. Simon & Schuster won with a bid of $4.2 million. At just 16,452 words, “The Christmas Box” took its place among the best word–per-dollar deals in the history of publishing.
The book was released nationwide just before Christmas 1995. It quickly vaulted to No. 1 on the published bestseller list and stayed there for six weeks. Newsweek called it “The most popular holiday tale since Tiny Tim.”
This left Richard and his wife, Keri, with the enviable problem of what to do with their newfound wealth.
There was no manual for this. They thought about setting up a trust fund for their two young daughters, until a financial adviser filled them with horror stories of what inherited wealth can do to offspring.
That led to this thought: “Well, why don’t we give some of it away?”
Since the theme of “The Christmas Box” was making sure children are loved and not neglected, they decided they wanted to do something to help children.
In 1996, mere months after getting their windfall, Richard and Keri began construction on a shelter in South Salt Lake that would provide a safe haven for abused and neglected children.
Mere months after that, the $1.5 million they had budgeted for the project had turned into $2.5 million, and they were running out of money.
Fortunately, Richard’s next book, “Timepiece,” published in time for Christmas 1996, became another bestseller, and that helped shore things up for a while. But the overruns continued, until the board of directors Richard had assembled for his new nonprofit decided it would be best to shut down the project and avoid financial ruin.
Apprised of this decision, Richard went into a closet and prayed.
“I got a very distinct answer,” he recalled. “It wasn’t no, it wasn’t yes, it was, ‘If you fail no one will succeed.’”
So he took out another loan.
Something else Richard recalls distinctly is the conversation he had not long after that prayer with a man he’d never met named Bob Gay, the venture capitalist from Bain & Co., who came out to tour the yet-unfinished shelter.
He said, “‘How are you funding this?’ I said, ‘I am.’ He said, ‘All of it?’ I said, ‘98%.’ He said, ‘Do you have that much?’ I said, ‘No, I’m taking out loans.’ He said, ‘I’m going to help you.’ The next day he sent a million dollars. I love that man.”
Finally, four long years from when they began, The Christmas Box House at 3660 S. West Temple was dedicated and fully operational.
Ever since, the short-term orphanage has given abused and neglected children a place to be cared for until the state can find a place for them to go. Additional shelters have been added in Ogden and Moab. To date, more than 125,000 children have slept under a Christmas Box House roof. During the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the number of children helped was 8,990.
Twenty-five years later, how does Richard feel about his decision to build the kids’ shelter?
To answer, the storyteller tells a story:
“I had a book signing. Near the back of the line was a girl and she’s staring at me, which was great ’cause I’m in my 50s and there’s a cute teenage girl staring at me. She kept staring until she gets to the front and says, ‘Mr. Evans, my whole life I’ve wanted to meet you.’ I say, ‘You like my books?’ She says, ‘I’ve never read them.’ I say, ‘Why did you want to meet me?’ She says, ‘I’m a Christmas Box kid. My parents were drug addicts, and when they took us away’ — at this point she put her arm around the boy next to her and introduced her brother, Eric — ‘they said we were never going home again, there was no place for us, and no one would want two kids. My case worker told me because of the Christmas Box House we had somewhere to stay until someone would take both of us. I have a brother because of you and I wanted to say thank you.’
“That night I’m lying in bed and I thought, ‘I’m good.’ Not that I’m a good person, but that I did something decent. I made the world in a small way a better place. Everyone wants that, right? To help kids, that’s all I wanted.”
It’s a true Christmas story full of peace, meaning and love – made possible by the story he made up.