Author Wm Paul Young tells Will Gore that his international bestseller The Shack was born out of a wrenching personal crisis
The Canadian author Wm Paul Young greets me with a hug. Being English, I am, of course, slightly taken aback.
“You’re going to have to get used to those,” he says, in an attempt to reassure me. It just about works, I think.
Young (whose first name is short for William) is in England to promote his second book, Cross Roads. His debut effort, The Shack, which tells the story of a father being visited by human manifestations of the Trinity as he grieves for his murdered daughter, was an international bestseller. The book was written in 2007, initially just for his six children. But Young was persuaded by some friends to self-publish the novel and from there The Shack has become a phenomenon.
To date, it has sold more than 18 million copies worldwide in 41 different languages.
Despite this enormous success, the 57-year-old tells me his trust in God helped him take the pressure of devising a follow-up in his stride.
“We live in a world that will give you as much pressure as you are willing to take,” he says, with a calmness that seems to be his trademark. “There is outside pressure – someone doing their job and needing you to meet their deadline – but then there is inside pressure, asking yourself: ‘Are you OK with failing? Are you still going to be able to put your trust in God?’ I came to the point real quick where I was free to be in the river and just let it take me, and whatever was going to happen happened.”
And Cross Roads is what he came up with. As we will see later, Young has endured many difficulties in his life and once again he tells a tale in which a troubled central character is visited by humanised versions of the Trinity. The story has a touch of A Christmas Carol about it. Tony Spencer, a morally bankrupt businessman who has been rendered unconscious after a fall, wakes to find himself wandering around an ever-changing landscape where he is shown the consequences of a life lived without thought for others or a strong faith in God.
Young admits that readers in a few countries, such as Japan, have struggled with the idea of humanised versions of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In The Shack Jesus appears as a Middle Eastern carpenter, while the Holy Spirit turns up in Cross Roads as an old Native American woman. On the whole, though, he says people have embraced this aspect of the books. “What surprised me with The Shack was how much people took to the idea of the Holy Spirit being a person and not just a mist or a force,” he says.
“It isn’t about defining God. It’s about understanding elements of his nature and power. Can the Holy Spirit reside within the wisdom of a Lakota elder? Absolutely. The Holy Spirit is not limited by our imaginations.”
Young tells me that, while many Christians, and in particular Catholics, have been enthusiastic about his work, people of different faiths, including Mormons and Jews, have also become fans. The reason for this, he believes, is that his books ask profound “human questions”.
“People are people and the more I travel the more I realise that,” he says. “The Shack is about an individual trying to deal with great sadness and this raises the question about the nature of God. In Cross Roads you see a man who has isolated himself from relationships and it asks the question about how grace finds its way into a troubled soul.”
Young may sound like an Evangelical, but he doesn’t like to define his Christianity in this or any other way. Even though his parents were Protestant missionaries and he has stayed true to this faith throughout his life, he doesn’t see himself as a preacher of any kind, either. Nevertheless, there is more than a hint of self-help speak in his literary and verbal outpourings. This is no great surprise. With the help of therapy, Young has had to come through some harrowing times in his life. When he talks of “grace finding its way into a troubled soul”, he is speaking from experience.
In 1994 his wife, Kim, discovered that he had been having an affair with one of her friends. In the fallout he was forced for the first time to face up to the terrible abuse he suffered during his childhood. During the late 1950s and early 60s, Young grew up in the former Dutch colony of Netherlands New Guinea, where his parents were carrying out their missionary work. They lived with a tribe, the Dani, and, although in some senses Young enjoyed an incredible upbringing, overall his experience was a dark one. He and his father clashed frequently over religion. Young senior couldn’t deal with his son’s wish to ask questions about his faith and responded by using violence against him.
“My dad’s doctrinal framework was punitive and retributive and his relationship with me was the same,” he says.
Even more troublingly, Young was sexually abused by the Dani tribesmen and later at a boarding school he was sent away to. For many years Young kept the pain of these experiences to himself. To explain how he did this he evokes the metaphor at the heart of The Shack. “The shack is the house on the inside where you store your identity, addictions and secrets. I dealt with my shame and my pain by creating an identity and façade for myself, but the façade has to come down eventually and we have to find out God loves what’s inside the shack and not the presentation of it.”
And for Young the façade was pulled down spectacularly when his wife discovered his affair. In the moment when Kim was tearing apart his office in anger, Young tells me he had to decide whether to kill himself or drive across town to face her. “I went to her and said: ‘Kim, if we are going to carry on then I have to tell you every secret that I have.’ She said: ‘Bring it on.’ And it took four days for me to tell her everything.”
Young was adamant that he wouldn’t use his traumatic past as an excuse for why he had betrayed his wife, but he also knew he had to deal
with those troubled beginnings. He found a therapist who specialised in treating sexual abuse victims and he began a long, hard period of what he refers to as “healing”. He says he is through the healing stage now and, although I remain doubtful as to whether you can ever be completely healed of such awful experiences, he does seem at peace with himself and what happened to him.
Now, as a bestselling author with a settled family life – he is still happily married to Kim and has reconciled, to some extent, with his parents – and a faith that is stronger than ever, Young has come through the darkest of times. In the coming months Cross Roads may, like The Shack, sell in the millions, but Young won’t worry about that. Instead, he says he will just “keep on trying to live within the grace of the day”.
Cross Roads is published by Hodder and Stoughton, priced £17.99