THE author of The
Shack, Paul Young, is beaming. He finds the runaway global
success of his first book hugely entertaining. "It's one of the
funniest things that God has perpetrated on the human race," he
says. "All my family and friends are shaking their heads, and
Indeed, the story of his
phenomenal achievement is the stuff of fairy tales. The
Shack - written by Young for his children while he was working
as a janitor and hotel night porter - was taken up by a couple of
enthusiastic friends who believed that the story deserved a wider
Having failed to find a
publisher (there were 26 rejections), his friends set about
printing it anyway; launched it, in 2007, with a marketing budget
of $200; and dispatched the first orders out of a garage. Five
years later, 18 million copies of the book have been sold, in 41
Young, a Canadian who lives
in Portland, Oregon, is in the UK before Christmas as part of a
tour to promote his new novel, Cross Roads. After covering
20 states in the United States in two weeks in November, he has had
a punishing schedule in the UK, but, none the less, he is looking
forward to getting home to his family - his wife, Kim, six
children, and six grandchildren - for Christmas. Kim keeps a strict
eye on his schedule, to make sure that he keeps his eye on the
He shrugs off the suggestion
that the astonishing sales of The Shack might have put him
under extra pressure when approaching his second book. "There's no
pressure. I didn't ask for any of this. I see it as God's sense of
humour. I live with enough grace for one day. I'm just not that
THE first book featured
Mack, and his life-changing encounter with God after the tragic
death of his youngest child. Cross Roads tells the story
of the multimillionaire Tony, whose huge wealth and worldly success
come at a significant personal cost. He collapses with a brain
haemorrhage, and, while he is in a coma in hospital, he is given
the opportunity to review his life, and make choices about the
future. On his inner journey, he encounters God the Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit, rather as Mack did.
The aspect that most divided
readers of The Shack was his unusual depiction of the
Trinity. God the Father, for example, is portrayed as a large
African-American grandmother who calls herself both Elousia, and
Papa. The Holy Spirit appears as an Asian woman, Sarayu. While
readers in their millions embraced the book as life-changing,
church leaders across the US denounced the book as sacrilege. Even
Young's own mother declared him a heretic.
In terms of the Trinity, the
new book covers similar ground, which, the author says, is
inevitable. "The Trinity is about relationship. That's absolutely
essential to me - the only thing that gives any coherence to me.
Relationship is the character of God. The three persons of the
Trinity share absolute oneness, but never lose their
"I'm not talking about some
impersonal 'oneness', or a hierarchy where God the Father is
someone we need protection from. And the historical person of Jesus
is crucial to me. So, yes, this will be in all of my writing."
His characterisation is not
intended to be taken literally, but as part of a long tradition of
describing God in different ways. "In Genesis, the Holy Spirit is
female, and all the verbs used are female. There's a broad scope of
imagery in the Bible, from the inanimate 'rock', to animals like
lions, eagles, and a chicken gathering her young.
"But imagery doesn't define
God. Every person is unique, and if we are made in the image of
God, people will see the manifest character of God in that
uniqueness. People struggle with this because they haven't thought
it through, or realised that that imagery is a created one. Think
about the image of God as 'shepherd' - a shepherd was an outcast,
the dregs of society. But people have concretised that image."
WHAT is different in the new
book, I suggest, is the humour. There is also a much larger cast of
characters than in The Shack. "It's altogether a broader
story," he says. "I think it's better written, and it's certainly
more community-centred. It's much more communal rather than about
one individual. Because I believe in a God of relationships, then
relationship is where things happen; so it's a little more
He talks with great fondness
about his characters: Cabby, a young man with Down syndrome, who is
based on a family friend, Nathan; Maggie, a nurse; and Clarence, a
policeman who has a profound encounter with his elderly mother
during the book.
I ask him about the ending -
Tony's choice - wondering if it was always part of the game plan.
"No, I had no idea," he says, smiling broadly. "I wasn't sure till
the end how the issue of healing would be resolved. I just didn't
see it coming."
It will not spoil the plot
to say that there is no neat ending. "The fact that there's no
final resolution is deliberate. I don't like Christian- fiction
fairy-tales - that's not real life. So, ten days ago, one of my
cousins whom I grew up with, who struggled with schizophrenia, took
her life. That's not right. It's still wrenching and wrong. But
life is like that. Faith is way messier; relationship is way
THIS, he says, is why he
chooses challenging contexts - in his first book, the murder of a
child; in the second, a life-threatening illness - because extreme
situations pose the best questions. His influences are C. S. Lewis,
Charles Dickens, and George MacDonald. The Shack has been
called "Bunyanesque", but he is quick to say that this is a
"Eugene Peterson [the author
of The Message] said that; but he was comparing the impact
of my book with The Pilgrim's Progress. But it's not an
allegory, but a parable. What I write is true, but not real."
He still writes principally
for his family and friends. "There's no agenda. I'm way simpler
than people give me credit for. I'm just exploring questions that
we all have, and it spills over. I'm continually surprised how wide
the impact [of my writing] has been, across every barrier -
agnostic, atheist, religious, people from ten to 100. Last week, I
spent an hour Skyping a care facility in Connecticut, where they
have formed a group of 'Shackettes', and one woman there was
His process of writing is
chaotic, he says, and he always has four or five possible
storylines in mind. Cross Roads was the one that happened
to bubble up to the surface first.
"I'm the most undisciplined
writer you've ever met. The best analogy I can come up with, as a
man, is that it's like being pregnant. It's as if you are carrying
a seed inside you. There are days where you forget about it, and
then it shows up and you're sick, and then it gets so you can't
ignore it. It starts to kick, and then it has to come out, and
there's a timing to that. That's my process."
So he did not sit down to
write Cross Roads until the end of January 2012, and it
was ready for editing by mid-April. This time, he has access to an
editorial process that was absent when he wrote and self-published
He is relaxed about editing.
"Other people hear it through different ears. They can say: 'Why
did you say it this way?' There's an inherent conflict in the
editorial process, but I value it a great deal. I love a good
THIS is not the only thing
that has changed. In the space of five years, Young has gone from
having to do three jobs ("when you've got six kids, you do anything
to put food on the table") to huge material success. Again, he
shrugs this off.
"Sure, it means I'm now able
to travel and speak. Here I am in London, in a hotel just down from
the Sherlock Holmes Museum. But the things that matter haven't
changed. My sense of identity and worth haven't changed.
"We've bought a house.
Fortunately, Kim has good taste. I'm a missionary kid - I can live
out of a shoebox. But we have the same old car."
Much of his earnings has
been invested in a foundation, which has funded projects - mostly
associated with children and young people - in Honduras, Uganda,
Moldova, and closer to home in Portland, Oregon. The problem is
having almost too much choice.
"We've always been giving
people, but suddenly we're exposed to a bazillion opportunities.
You can't do everything. There has to be a process of discernment.
My skill-set is narrow - I can speak and I can write - but we have
a number of great friends and advisers, and that's incredibly
helpful. It offers a layer of protection."
The other, less material
changes in his life in the past five years have been in some of his
relationships. A number of the attacks on his theology have been
savage. Largely, he brushes these off. "I love the controversy.
Angry people are at least not ambivalent. It tells you what they're
But where it hurts is when
his children have suffered. In some instances, lifelong
relationships have been withdrawn by former friends, who fear
contamination if their children mix with his. "You choose not to be
a part of the spirit of that, but it's still very painful."
His relationship with his
parents has also changed. They were missionaries, and, as a result,
Young grew up among an indigenous tribe in the highlands of what
was New Guinea. He has spoken openly about the trauma of his
childhood, when he was sexually and physically abused.
His father was an abusive
disciplinarian, and his mother suffered from depression - which, he
says, was just as hard, if not harder, to cope with as a child.
Much of The Shack is about his struggle to come to terms
with his relationship with his father. Cross Roads has
less of his own story in it.
To begin with, his mother
hated The Shack (it is unclear whether his father has read
it). She eventually came round to it, thanks to the intervention of
Harold, a Canadian Anglican priest whose life she had saved when he
was a baby in 1946, when, as a nurse, she disobeyed the orders of
the doctor. Years later, they became friends, and he helped her to
work through her difficulties with Young's image of God.
"Now she loves it, because
Harold loves it," Young says. "Two weeks ago, she wrote me an email
and said: 'My relationship with God has changed since I read it.
Now I know he has always loved me, and will always love me.' This
from an 85-year-old retired missionary's wife."
Young dedicated a follow-up
book of reflections on The Shack to his parents: "To my
mother and father Henry and Bernice Young. It will forever be said
of you that you were a man and woman of prayer."
"In the same email, my mother said: 'I wish you could have seen
his face when he read that. I think it is the first time he has
accepted your forgiveness for the past.'"