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Moving on from the shack

04 January 2013

Five years after the worldwide success of The Shack, its author, Paul Young, returns with a second novel, which also features the Holy Trinity. He talks to Sarah Meyrick


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 laughing."

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 airing.

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 languages.

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 ball.

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 complicated."

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 distinctiveness.

"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 realistic."

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 messier."

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 misunderstanding.

"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 103."

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 The Shack.

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 editor."

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 afraid of."

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.'"


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