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The Prairie kid who built The Shack

William Paul Young says he wrote the book as a Christmas gift for his children, who passed it on to their friends and it gained a following. Now, the novel has made Young a very rich man.

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Thank God. He's bought a house.

William Paul Young, that is – the world's hottest new novelist, a guy who not 16 months ago was working, in his words, as “a general manager, janitor and inside sales guy” for a small company in Milwaukie, Ore.; a guy who, “with a couple of jobs on the side,” was living in a rented house because he'd declared bankruptcy in 2003 and had been forced to auction the home he'd owned for almost 20 years.

And now? Well, Young – born 54 years ago this month in Grande Prairie, Alta. – and his wife of 30 years, Kim, are getting ready to move into their very own four-bedroom home in a suburb of Portland, Ore., with a guest cottage out back. “Omigosh, it's a good time to be buying a house, lemme tell you,” Young said enthusiastically recently during a visit to Toronto.

The Youngs' change in fortune is due to one thing only, and it's not the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. It's the phenomenal success of William Paul's debut novel, The Shack, which has been at or near the top of the national bestseller lists in both the United States and Canada for close to a year. The book has taken Young from quasi-rags to real riches and, unlike other semi-instant millionaires who, after their windfall, say, “Nope, I'm goin' back to the post-office job first thing Monday, same as usual,” he's happy to let the money change everything.

Actually, not entirely everything. Sure, Young's “not holding down three jobs any more” and the new house is nice, especially for the three kids (out of the six) that are still at home, and the travel is good. He was in Toronto, for instance, to speak at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary at the University of Toronto. “But in terms of the things that matter to us,” he said, “it hasn't changed anything.”

Anyone who's read The Shack will understand why this is so. A sort of 21st-century Pilgrim's Progress, it's about the redemption of Mackenzie Allen Phillips, an Oregonian who's spent the last four years grieving over the disappearance (and likely murder) of his youngest daughter. One wintry day, he gets a typewritten letter in an unstamped envelope inviting him to visit the isolated shack where evidence of his daughter's murder was discovered. It's signed “Papa” – the nickname of sorts that Mack's religious wife Nan uses for God.

Mack resists at first, but eventually he drives to the shack where, for the next three days, he experiences a Christian therapy/healing session and theology workout involving God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God in this instance is a large, hug-giving African-American woman calling herself, uh-huh, Papa – a gambit in mixed metaphors to keep him “from falling so easily back into [his] religious conditioning.”

While there's long been a large market for religious fiction in North America, especially in the U.S., it's still rare for religious novels to cross over as mainstream successes, especially in Canada (225,000 copies have been sold here) and especially one like The Shack that started as a self-publishing effort by Young and two former pastors from California.

Young thinks a big part of the novel's appeal derives from it not being explicitly Christian. There's little or no Scripture in it. The novel, to Young's mind, “has given to people a language to have a conversation about God, evil, suffering and healing. … a language they didn't have before because all the language before has been very religious, loaded with religious land mines and everything else.”

Finally, though, Young acknowledges the overwhelming success of his novel is, well . . . “a mystery. I mean, I know why I had to be the one who wrote it. Because it comes out of my history, my damage, my pain, my process. Why does anyone write anything? Because it's specific to who they are.

“ I like [Swiss theologian] Karl Barth's statement: ‘God will not be God apart from man,'” he continued. “So for me, everything's about co-operative, participatory relationships. There are many things about this, even in the writing process, where I believe the presence of God was involved. At the same time, he didn't do this apart from me either. And I love that. I think that validates us as human beings.”

These days Young radiates a lot of calm, clarity and purpose. Short, stocky, with a dome of close-cropped, thinning hair and a greying goatee, he says he's just trying to “live the adventure of the grace of one day.”

It's likely not something he'd have been saying a decade ago, haunted, as he was, by his guilt over an adulterous affair, shame over numerous personal and career failures and memories of having been sexually abused as a youngster. (He spent more than six years in New Guinea, where his evangelical parents were missionaries.) Yet through all the ups and downs, Young clung to his religious faith.

He “tried” to give up his belief in God, he said, “tried to sever my head from my heart.” But “it seemed ludicrous to me that the ingenuity and design in the physical universe were arbitrary.” Moreover, “He was the only consistent being through the devastation of my childhood. Even as a child, I knew that the disaster in this world was not God's fault, that human beings were doing this to each other.”

Young wrote The Shack at the behest of his wife as a Christmas gift for his children. He's always been a writer of poems, songs and stories, but usually without ambitions to see them published and always as gifts for relatives and friends. This time – in 2005 – his wife wanted him to “put in one place what you think.”

The shack had long been a personal metaphor for Young – “the internal house made up of your emotional life, your intellectual life, your creative life, your will, your imagination … It contains our pain, our addictions, our secrets. For a lot of us,” he smiled, “we need a lot of renovation; we need healing.”

Young printed out 15 copies of what became The Shack for his children (they're now between 15 and 28 years old) and friends. These friends passed the story on to other friends, and as interest grew, Young wondered if the manuscript might not deserve a wider audience. Eventually, he connected with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, ex-pastors and writers of faith-based books, who agreed to help get Young's opus into publishable shape.

Sixteen months of rewriting ensued – but after the final manuscript was turned down by 26 publishers (half of them Christian), the trio decided to set up Windblown Media to publish the 256-page novel themselves. This was in the spring of 2007. For the next nine or 10 months, sales were carried by word-of-mouth, blog chatter and orders from this or that congregation. Then in May, 2008, Hachette Book Group U.S.A. – the muscle behind bestselling authors James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer – partnered with Windblown to print and distribute the book.

Young is currently at work on two new books, one fiction, the other “a narrative autobiography.” “The beauty of The Shack for me, personally, is that I can go in pretty much any direction I want to. The book has plenty of clout.”

While Young's parents were members of the Christian and Mission Alliance Church, he now claims no affiliation to a particular congregation. “I feel totally free to be part of those organized expressions. Or not. But I'm not a member; I don't belong to one and I won't sign on the dotted line to become one …

“To me, the church is people, and I don't care if they're meeting in a building with a steeple or on barstools.”

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