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Author of The Shack writes the book he didn't need, Cross Roads

“I didn’t need a next book, I have everything that matters to me,” author of The Shack, William Paul Young, told Publisher's Weekly earlier this year.

But a much-anticipated new book is exactly what he has with the novel Cross Roads published worldwide this week (Faith Words - Hatchette Group, hardcover, 480 pages) although in Australia it is available as 304 page paperback.

Once again Young turns to fiction as spiritual metaphor and this time the main character is not working out his pain in a shack in the woods but reassessing his life while in a coma:

"Anthony Spencer is egotistical, proud of being a self-made business success at the peak of his game, even though the cost of winning was painfully high. A cerebral hemorrhage leaves Tony comatose in a hospital ICU. He 'awakens' to find himself in a surreal world, a 'living' landscape that mirrors dimensions of his earthly life, from the beautiful to the corrupt. It is here that he has vivid interactions with others he assumes are projections of his own subconscious, but whose directions he follows nonetheless with the possibility that they might lead to authenticity and perhaps, redemption."

Blogger Bill Dahl, an unashamed Young fan, was sent the unpublished manuscript of Cross Roads by the author and, among his lashings of praise, he writes:
"Paul Young has an ability to write stories that cause creative, tangible, redemptive impacts by virtue of his life experiences, way with words, magnificent mind and incredible imagination. Cross Roads, like The Shack, will cause another cascade of these types of unanticipated, distinctly positive outcomes for a diverse and broad audience. TRUST ME!"
And there will be many joining Bill in his praise of Cross Roads, including those who were among the purchasers of the 18 million copies of The Shack which have been sold so far. However there were many detractors of The Shack - its writing, it's depiction of the trinity and its audacious success - so no doubt debate will embrace this new title.

To learn more, You can watch a live internet interview with William Paul Young on Wednesday, November 14, 11am Australian Eastern Daylight Savings Time.

Or you can check out my interview (below) with William Paul Young from several years ago. To purchase Cross Roads, click on the Booktopia banner.

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Three amazing stories weave through the publishing phenomenon that is The Shack – the author’s life and reason for writing, how this book came to be published at all, and the powerful response both positive and negative it is drawing across the globe. Peter Hallett speaks to author William Paul Young.(Alive Magazine, 2009)

It is not often or easily that a person admits to you their experience of being sexually abused or of severe dysfunction within their childhood family or of having been involved in an extra-marital affair. Especially not in your first conversation with them.

When this person is rapidly becoming famous as the author of a book that has more than 5 million copies in print, it seems an unbelievable transparency and vulnerability. But that is exactly why William P Young, or Paul as he prefers, came to write The Shack in the first place.

In the novel, Mackenzie Allen Philip’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to the shack for a weekend.

“The weekend Mackenzie spends in the shack represents 11 years of my life. That 11 year process of reconstruction in the shack of my internal heart ended in 2004 and I was pretty much ready to write this for my kids and it just flowed out,” Paul Young said in his interview with Alive.

His wife Kim had asked him to put his thoughts about life and God together in one place for their six children, in recognition of the journey of healing Paul and the family had been on.

“There’s a writer in Nashville and she sent me an email and said ‘I don’t know a lot about your history but my sense is Missy represents something that was murdered in you as a child and Mackenzie represents you as an adult coming to terms with this’. And I showed it to Kim and she said, ‘She nailed it.’ So I’m all over this book and so is my family,” said Young.

He recounts that just as Mackenzie in the novel has an abusive father, “…my issues with my father are not inconsequential. And it’s not that my father was trying to be dysfunctional person, but he was part of a generation that wasn’t aware of their own baggage and so they dragged it along and put it inside a religious package – missionary, preacher – it is not fun to grow up around.

“And as wonderful as the tribal people [the Dani of highland West Papua] were that I grew up with, and in many respects they were my family, …they were part of a very screwed up element of their culture as well so sexual abuse was part of my childhood… and then I went to boarding school … and there was sexual abuse there too.”

The family suddenly returned to Canada half way through a school year and Paul’s father then worked for several small churches in Western Canada during which time Young attended 13 different schools. The trauma of growing up remained hidden as Young later paid his way through Bible College in Portland Oregon, married Kim and worked on the staff of a large suburban church.

In his own words, he became a performer: “A religious, spiritual performer for a big chunk of my life before it all blew up.”

“On January 4, 1994 [Kim] confronted me, she had just discovered I was having an affair with one of her best friends for about three months. That’s when the spiritual facade all blew up…that meant there was nothing left but the shack.”

At first Young was suicidal and even planned to kill himself in Mexico so his family would not find his body. But the perseverance of his wife pulled him through and onto an 11 year period of recovery.

“Kim actually saved my life. Because she pushed me to deal with every piece of crap I had hidden from her. … I chose not to kill myself. And then it involved relationships, counselling… but mostly it was through Kim pushing me constantly. She was really angry and rightfully so…for a long time. I had hidden my whole shack from her and she had no idea. She came from a lot healthier family than me and she just didn’t understand…it was a huge betrayal,” Young said.

“For me the shack becomes the metaphor of my own damaged heart, the soul of an individual that got built wrong, built through damage, and I think all of us have a shack to some degree or another.

“And everybody responds to it differently. So the shack becomes the place you hide your addiction, the house of broken dreams, but more than that it’s the house of shame, held together a lot of times by lies.”

And so the story shifts from the author’s journey through brokenness and recovery and his telling of this for his kids through a work of fiction, to the rapid, breathtaking account of The Shack’s miraculous publishing success.

Young’s initial goal was to publish The Shack as a Christmas gift for family and friends in 2005. But running short of money and busy working three jobs, he finally got to his local Office Depot store just after Christmas that year and printed 15 copies.

“So there we are, 15 copies, and I gave it to my family, and friends and a few relatives. And the book did everything I wanted it to do and so I was done.

“But then my friends kept giving it to their friends, and their friends to their friends. And I started getting emails about how the story was touching people in a deep place, in transformational ways, affecting people in their relationship with God. That was not anything I was thinking would happen.

“And I’m not a real author… I’m working three regular jobs, two part time… so I’m an ordinary guy, and I’m getting this feedback, I don’t know what to do with it, and ended up sending an electronic version to Wayne Jacobson who is the only real author I knew, someone who writes books on purpose.”

Jacobson, author of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore, saw potential in the book and brought in two friends, Brad Cummings and Bobby Downes who thought it might get taken up for a movie screenplay.

After a re-writing process to bring the book to publishing standard, 26 Christian and secular publishers were approached.

“Twenty-six publishers turned it down,” said Young. “Faith based publishers said ‘we may like it personally but we don’t have a niche for it and it’s too edgy, and our constituent won’t like it, and our A authors will be upset if we publish something like this so please send it to the other guys’. The secular publishers said, ‘we may like it personally but we don’t have a niche for it and there’s too much Jesus in it.’ So I got stuck between edgy and Jesus which isn’t a bad place.”

So the group formed their own publishing company, pooled their personal funds and ordered an initial print run of 10,000. These copies along with an extra 1000 due to a printer’s over-run, arrived in Cummings garage in May 2007.

“Wayne and Brad have a podcast called godjourney.com and every once and a while they were talking about The Shack and so through that we’d pre-sold 1000 copies all over the world. Then we gave a bunch away to friends and then set-up a website where people could come and buy one or more copies,” Young recalled.

“And we watched the most unbelievable thing happen. Not just the emails that we started getting from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa all over the US, Canada, but people coming to the website and buying, 5, 20, whole cases of books.

“We shipped, from Brad’s garage from May 07 to June 08, 1.2 million books from $300 of marketing.

“ It’s a miracle, it’s a God thing, there’s just no other way to look at it. You can’t take people who don’t know what they are doing plus an accidental author writing about his life and spend $300 and have 31 weeks (as of January 2009) on the New York Times best seller list in a row. There’s 4.3 million books out there [now more than 18 million] and upwards of 40 translations starting to come out or in the works.

“This is nothing I was looking for, anticipated or praying for. It was something God decided to do and I got invited to come along on the journey,” Young said.

“People ask, ‘Is this what you’ve always wanted to do?’ And I say, ‘No frankly I’ve’ never even thought about it’, which kind of pisses some people off.”

And The Shack certainly creates a strong response – positive or negative – in most people who encounter it, which is just what Young wants.

“Back in the early church, people were rioting in the streets over conversations over the nature of God and that hasn’t happened for a long time! And here it comes again. And God is saying, ‘I’m not the God you thought I was. I’m not the God you created out of your pain’ and all of a sudden he’s stirring things up again.”

One criticism of The Shack made by some church leaders is that it presents a ‘me-centred’ view of God who is made to fit in with us.

About this criticism, Young questions, “Didn’t you read the gospel? God is centred on us and his relationship with us. The Good Shepherd will leave the 99 and go for the one. There it is. Again, to me it’s relationship that is at the centre. Not religion. Religion is always positing a God that is distant, invisible, unknowable, that is hiding doesn’t want to be known or bothered. “Mack [in The Shack] doesn’t get away with anything. He is constantly challenged about where he’s at, what he does, the fact that he doesn’t trust in God, that he’s a liar – how me-centred is that?”

And with the Trinity being a major focus of the novel, it is no wonder that Young has wandered into the firing line of many critics, concerned with doctrinal content. Young defends himself by saying he has the backing of many major theologians across the denominations but falls back to a simple anecdote as his winning blow.

“You know what, I get situation where a guy stands up in a public meeting, 40 years old, tears rolling down his face, and he says, ‘My mother just called, she has been a devout atheist her whole life and she said to me, son, I’ve just read The Shack and I now believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’ I’ll take one of those to stack up against all the negative comments.”

As a self-confessed accidental author, Young is hesitant about committing to any further writing projects, particularly in light of the unusual but unintended success of The Shack.

“Kim would like me to do something kind of autobiographical, and I have some other stuff happening. But again, I want to be involved with what God is involved in, I don’t want to be involved in what seems like a good idea.”

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