Utah author Richard Paul Evans recalls his troubled childhood in ‘A Christmas Memory’

He calls his new book his most personal. And Netflix adapts ‘The Noel Diary’ into a movie.

(Emily Drew) Richard Paul Evans new book, "A Christmas Memory," is his most personal novel ever.

Richard Paul Evans has written 45 novels, many of them have been bestsellers. Seven have been turned into TV movies. And yet … he’s more excited about his newest book, “A Christmas Memory,” because “it is so personal.”

And he is “very pleased” with the Netflix adaptation of his 2017 novel “The Noel Diary,” which also comes out this week.

But “A Christmas Memory” hits close to home for Evans. It is based on his own troubled childhood. “I really, really care about this book because it’s so personal,” Evans said. “It reads like a memoir, and it practically is.”

In the book — which is set to be released Tuesday — it’s 1967, and 8-year-old Ricky’s family is devastated when his older brother is killed in Vietnam. After his father loses his job and the family loses their Pasadena, California, home, Ricky and his mother move into a run-down old house on 3900 South in Salt Lake City. His parents separate, and Ricky doesn’t see much of his father. And Ricky is bullied by his teacher and regularly beaten up by his classmates.

His mother is a mess, and Ricky’s only escape is the home of an elderly neighbor, who chases off the bullies and — along with his dog — befriends the boy. But as the Christmas holidays approach, there’s more turmoil for Ricky.

It’s a tearjerker in the same vein as Evans’ first book and best-seller, “The Christmas Box” — a heartfelt tale that tugs at the heartstrings. ”I can’t get through the book without tearing up,” he said. “I had trouble even reading the audio book.”

(Simon & Schuster) Richard Paul Evans' new book, "A Christmas Memory," is his most personal ever.

Writing in his sickbed

Evans came down with a severe case of pneumonia in December, “and then I caught COVID on top of it. I’ve never been that sick in my life,” he said. “I thought, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this.’ It was terrifying. And then the book started coming to me.”

He lay in bed, he said, “scribbling down” what would become “A Christmas Memory” on a notepad. “I felt like I was writing my memoirs — writing my last thing before I die,” Evans said. “I thought, ‘It’s probably crummy because I’m so foggy headed, but I have to write it.’”

He didn’t look at it again until February. He realized he actually had a book and “couldn’t believe it. ... I felt like I had had a ‘Christmas Box’ experience. I didn’t write it for any reason other than to write the book.”

And among those who have read it, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. “When people start sharing personal stories, that’s when you know you hit it,” Evans said. “Like ‘Christmas Box,’ people would tell me about their life. And this book, that’s what they do.”

(Tribune File Photo) Richard Paul Evans at the Christmas Box Angel Monument candle-light ceremony in SLC Cemetery.

Salt Lake centered

“A Christmas Memory” is very Salt Lake-centric. For locals, it’s both familiar and a look back into the past. “It’s kind of seared in my mind,” Evans said.

Like his fictionalized counterpart, Evans and his mother did indeed move into a home on east 3900 South. He did collect bottles and take them to a local milk depot for the deposits. And he did attend Lincoln Elementary, at the intersection of 500 East and 3900 South.

The house, the milk depot and the school have all been torn down. There’s a newer Lincoln Elementary a few blocks from the site of the old one, but Evans sort of wishes the earlier building was still standing. “I would like to walk to that place because it was a time of abject failure and humiliation and pain,” he said. “And I would like to go back almost victorious.”

The teacher in the book is based on an actual teacher at the school, and Evans was “freaking terrified of her.”

He has a painting of the house by his mother that’s titled “Going Home.” For his mom, it was a “magical” place. But Evans’ memories of the house “are all horrid. Coming home after being beaten up. … We actually had a gang of Hell’s Angels park in the lot next to us, about 60 of them. And my sister went to see if she could leave with them. It was a bad time.”

Although Ricky’s only brother dies in the book, in reality, Evans has several siblings. And although one of them died, it was a sister, not a brother, and it had nothing to do with Vietnam. His parents did struggle to keep their marriage together, and his mother did struggle with mental health issues.

There are a lot of really adult issues going on, and “A Christmas Memory” shows readers what’s happening through the eyes of a child. “That’s what I hope,” Evans said. “That you feel like you’re him. That you forget you’re in a book, and you’re experiencing it just like he is.”

And, yes, the real Ricky tried to build a robot, the same as the Ricky in the book. “I think I built it because I had no friends. And I really believed if I could build this robot, he could be my friend. It was so sad,” Evans said. “I read about that little boy and I weep. It was a hard time.”

No spoilers, but “A Christmas Memory” does leave readers feeling hopeful.

A white boy and a Black man

Evans is fully aware that things have changed since the 1960s. That one of the central relationships in the book — Ricky and old Mr. Foster ��� wouldn’t happen today. “You would never let a young boy go to an old man’s house,” he said. “But he was great. He was a lonely old man who I’d go visit.”

There was a real Mr. Foster in Evans’ life, but he wasn’t Black. Evans combined the real Mr. Foster and an older Black man to create the character for the book — and he had a reason for that.

“All my friends were Black when I was a teenager,” said Evans. “I saw how racism worked.”

He recalled getting kicked out of places because he was with Black friends. White friends telling him he couldn’t go to their houses because he had Black friends. Told by “a woman with hate in her eyes” that he and a Black friend had to leave a bowling alley. “It’s like — why are you treating him like this?”

He wants to people to know that he’s always been on the side of equal rights — for minorities and women — and he’d like to put allegations that he sexually harassed a woman author at the 2017 FanX convention behind him.

Short and sweet

“A Christmas Memory” is a rather quick read — a small, 182-page book that you can get through in one sitting, if you like.

“I did that on purpose,” Evans said. He proposed to his publisher, Simon & Schuster, taking less money for a small book that harkened back to “The Christmas Box,” which has sold more than 8 million copies. “That was a small book that people could read quickly,” Evans said. “People would read it, they’d be emotionally touched and go out and buy more.”

He’s hoping the same thing will happen with “A Christmas Memory.”

“I actually tried to make it shorter but couldn’t,” he said. “It’s twice the length of ‘The Christmas Box,’ but I tried to make it that way.”

(KC Bailey | Netflix) Justin Hartley as Jake and Barrett Doss as Rachel in "The Noel Diary."

Happy with “The Noel Diary”

Evans isn’t overly pleased with many of the TV movie versions of his novels. A lot of them have been “chopped up” to the point that they’re “unrecognizable. But when they do it and stay true to it, it’s really a beautiful thing,” he said.

And that was how it turned out Netflix and director Charles Shyer (“Father of the Bride”), who were “really remarkable. They sent me the script early on — said, ‘What do you think of this?’ They wanted to be true to it, which, I mean, meant a lot.”

Justin Hartley (“This Is Us”) stars as Jacob, a rich, successful novelist who has returned to his hometown for the first time in many years, to settle the estate of his estranged mother. He meets a young woman, Rachel (Barrett Doss), whose mother once worked for Jacob’s family. And, when they discover an old diary, they set out looking for his father and her mother — and fall in love along the way.

Although it’s streaming on Netflix, “The Noel Diary” had a budget more like a feature film than a TV movie. “This is a major budget film,” Evans said. “And they were actually more concerned about what I thought than, like, the TV movies. I was very pleased. And so when I saw the movie, it was a lot of fun.”

Changes were made, of course — a movie is not a book, after all. “But I can see why they did that. I mean, I think they were true to it. They kept lines in there [from the book] and it was really pretty nice.”

It starts streaming on Thanksgiving Day.

A “Christmas Box” remake?

Evans would like to see a remake of “The Christmas Box,” and he’s been in talks with one studio about doing that “someday, and doing it according to the book. … I would like to see it done in the right time period and stick true to the book.”

(The book was set in the 1940s; the 1995 TV movie was set in 1995.)

To the best of his recollection, Evans was paid $30,000 for the rights to make a “Christmas Box” TV movie. And after the book hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, “The president of Paramount ... said, ‘Buy it at any cost,’ basically. But it was already sold to Bonneville.”

Back in the mid-’90s, Bonneville — the parent company of KSL — got into the production business. It teamed with Emmy-winning producer Beth Polson, who cast Richard Thomas, Annette O’Toole and Hollywood legend Maureen O’Hara in a 1995 TV movie adaptation.

One person told Evans he could have gotten at least $1 million for the movie rights.

He’s already turned down one offer to make “A Christmas Memory” into a movie — although he admits he was tempted when a producer told him he could get Denzel Washington to play Mr. Foster. “I’m a huge Denzel fan,” Evans said. “So I said to him, ‘If you get Denzel, we’ll talk,’ because that would be so cool.”

He’s waiting for the book to hit stores before entertaining offers.

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