In 1993 Richard Paul Evans published "The Christmas Box," an 87-page paperback he originally wrote as a gift for his family that would eventually yield a $4.2 million advance from Simon & Schuster. Twenty years removed from his very sudden success with “The Christmas Box,” Evans is still selling beaucoup books — except that now he’s concurrently producing best-selling titles in very distinct genres via his The Walk and Michael Vey series.
The Walk is inspirational fiction, a five-part series about a man who walks from Seattle to Florida after losing everything important in his life. (In May the fourth installment, “A Step of Faith,” reached No. 5 on The New York Times best-seller list for hardcover fiction.) The Michael Vey series, on the other hand, centers on a boy with supernatural powers and really resonates with teens. Last September “Michael Vey 2: Rise of the Elgen” debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books.
Evans, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently sat down with the Deseret News to talk about his current projects and future plans, including how faith and family have been driving forces throughout his career.
Deseret News: As a writer, how have you changed during the 20 years since “The Christmas Box?”
Richard Paul Evans: When “The Christmas Box” hit really big and I had this massive book, I told my publisher I wanted to meet Mary Higgins Clark. So we went to lunch, and I asked her, "I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. What’s the secret to staying around?" And she said, "Your latest book always has to be your best one." So I made a decision back then that I would improve my writing over the years.
There was a certain magic to (“The Christmas Box”) and a certain pureness to it, which I never want to lose. But it’s been interesting, because I look back now and I can see where I’ve evolved. My writing has become more sophisticated: It has gone through some major things and just last year I won four awards for my writing, so it’s like I’ve reached this new level. I hope I never lose that joy of writing — that’s the most important thing.
DN: How much does your faith come out in your writing?
RPE: It’s impossible to separate me from my beliefs; it’s always been an interesting tightrope I walk. Some Mormons think, “Why don’t you push Mormon-dom?” And then the other side: “You’re pushing Mormon thought.” The truth is, 98 percent of people lie in the middle and they just want to read something that’s inspirational and that brings them closer to God, and that is my key. I’m not trying to proselyte, but I want people to know that God loves them. And that’s the most important thing that can come out of my writing on some level — I don’t come out and say it, but I hope they feel that and I hope they feel hope.
What’s maybe more interesting is watching how people respond to Mormons these days. After the (presidential) election, it’s changed. It used to be you’d tell people you’re Mormon, they’d get this weird look and be afraid of you. And now they ask questions.
DN: When you’re conceptualizing your writing, how do you fine-tune your stories to be inspirational in a faith-based way without coming across as overly denominational?
RPE: Most of my characters, like Alan in The Walk, are people who are explorers — people who are searching. Because by doing that, you don’t create these preconceived notions. If I come out and my character is Roman Catholic, then they’re going to have certain expectations of where they are and they can’t explore things that are simple because they should’ve at least already figured out in their own lives what they believe.
So a lot of my characters are really looking, and what that does is open up the door for my readers to look and for me to explore ideas as well.
DN: How did you come up with the idea for The Walk series?
RPE: I’d just come through a horrible time in my life. I had a business that was a huge disaster and almost bankrupted me, and my health broke. There were dark days; I woke up every night with panic attacks. I thought, “What am I doing?” After much prayer, it came to me: “You should just be writing. You should forget the rest of the stuff — just write.” And so I decided to write more than one book a year.
I wanted to write a series — I had never done that, but I thought a lot of good could come from a series because I could let people follow the story (from one book to the next) rather than having to introduce a new book every time. I was looking at how to do a series while still changing the scenery in every book. And then it hit me: What if a guy’s just walking? Because if he were walking, then his surroundings would keep changing. So then I backed into it: Why’s he walking? Well, he wouldn’t walk if he had a home, if he had a wife, if he had a job.
What happened is that it then became a much more important story about loss. And it hit at the right time, because in America four years ago people were losing their homes and their jobs and their lives and their self-esteem. So some of the people really gravitated to (“The Walk”) and really grabbed on to it. I had just come through this horrible loss, so it was really powerful to write this.
DN: As a writer, how do you step between the two different genres of The Walk and Michael Vey?
RPE: Oh, they’re so different! In fact, it would be more difficult if they were similar (genres) because then I would start confusing the stories. It’s really not that difficult. What’s hard is the time — it’s just that I’m writing so much right now that I don’t have much of a life.
DN: So when you’re in writing mode, how much time do you spend writing on a daily basis?
RPE: Probably like six intense hours of writing — which doesn’t sound that bad until you realize I do eight hours a day of business and promotion. It’s especially hard writing on the road and in hotel rooms. Like when you go to a book signing and you come back to the hotel room exhausted, it’s not easy to get into that place — and you have to get into that place. Like this last Michael Vey book takes place in Peru, so mentally I have to be in Peru. Moving in and out is a little bit difficult, because it takes a while to get kind of caught up in the mood and feel like you want to write.
DN: You’ve alluded to your insistence on never letting failure weigh you down. What’s the source of your ability to bounce back from disappointment with a fresh and pure enthusiasm for whatever is next?
RPE: Maybe it’s part of growing up and getting hit by a lot of losses. Every time we started to get on our feet again, we would lose the home. Like one time we built a nice home and it felt like we were getting ahead, but then my dad fell and breaks both his legs. I think it was kind of survival; I think it was probably good for me to learn to say, “Just keep going.”
I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever been more tired in my life. But the difference is, things are going really well right now. I am pulling in so many new readers. My weekly sales, every single week, are huge. And that’s not with a new book out — that’s just on a regular basis. So the fact that things are going well keeps you going, and frankly I really needed that after some really bad years of business choices.
The other thing is, with Michael Vey it’s fun because I’m dealing with kids. Kids have this incredible energy. They buy into it; they’re wonderful. It’s fun to see that and to connect to that and to see their eyes light up.
Honestly, I’m kind of in a new phase of life right now where I don’t care about the things I used to care about when I was younger. I’m in my 50s; I have a grandchild — it’s kind of a nice place to be in a way because I don’t want to say I don’t give a damn, but I really don’t care if I get an award. If a critic likes or doesn’t like a book, it doesn’t matter. I just really like my readers, and I hope my books are good diversions for them.
DN: What matters to you has changed over time, and you’re very busy writing these days. So what’s the next mountain for you to climb? What do you see yourself going toward?
RPE: The biggest challenge right now is family. I’m in the final teenage years with my youngest kids. I feel like my first two did great, and now I have three more who are right at that key part. So I think it’s a really crucial time for me; being there for them is the most important thing for me right now. The timing is really interesting, because by the time they’re gone I’ll probably just about be done with Michael Vey. So I think there will be another turning point at that point, to see where I go.
Michael Vey is the kind of thing that’s just out there. It’s getting bigger and bigger. You see the fan groups growing, and it’s just like it’s starting to roll. It has that potential to be this massive book that could change my life a lot, so I kind of have that out there as something that could happen. I’m actually excited for the next few years to see where it goes, but I don’t know where it’s going to go.
DN: When you see Michael Vey sort of snowballing, how does that make you feel?
RPE: It’s exciting, because I like Michael Vey — I like what he talks about and what he stands for. I love the fantasy of it.
When “Christmas Box” hit 20 years (ago), I don’t want to say I took it for granted. But I had everything. I’d go to a bookstore in St. Louis, and the front windows were all decorated with my stuff. I’d go to Saks Fifth Avenue, and the store was decorated with “The Christmas Box.” It was everything, and I was nonchalantly like, “This is cool” — not realizing that that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, that very few people will ever see that kind of saturation. I mean, it was selling at Twilight levels, actually Harry Potter levels.
I never thought that would happen again. So to see Michael Vey kind of moving in that direction, I know there are some things that I would do differently. I would just enjoy it more, because with “Christmas Box” I was always uptight. I was always so stressed. I was the new kid trying to survive. I think I would have more fun with it.
With Michael Vey, it’s like there are some things we can do that are fun, especially having kids involved. And it’s not just fun — it’s also meaningful. It’s getting kids to read. Parents are talking to their kids about some of the dilemmas they face. So it’s not just fluff — it’s something that’s worth reading. That makes me feel worthwhile.