'Shack' author surprised by success

When William P. Young wrote a novel exploring faith and the nature of God, he intended it to be merely a gift for his children.

But somewhere along the way, and to Young's surprise, "The Shack" became both a nationwide best-seller and the focal point of a nationwide religious conversation.

On Monday, Young will visit Las Vegas for a presentation, "The Shack: Is God Really This Good?" at Christ the King Catholic Community, 4925 S. Torrey Pines Drive. The 7 p.m. program is sponsored by MaryKaye Cashman, and Christ the King is donating the venue.

Tickets for a 5 p.m. reception cost $100, while tickets for the 7 p.m. event are $40. Proceeds benefit Boys & Girls Clubs of Las Vegas. For tickets, visit the group's Web site (http://bgclv.wordpress.com).

That "The Shack" has become a best-seller, and that it even was published in the first place, still amazes Young.

"I've always been a writer, but not any kind of published writer," Young said during a recent telephone interview.

Rather, Young said he wrote "some poetry, short stories, whatever," and then "always gave them away as gifts."

Young wrote "The Shack" with the same intention, and gave the novel to his six children, who now range in age from 17 through 29. But when he also passed along a few copies to friends, a strange thing happened.

"They called me up and said, 'I've got some friends who I think really need to read this. Would that be OK?' " Young recalled. "I said, 'Of course.' So I started getting e-mails from people I didn't know."

The e-mails, as well as letters he received, told some "incredible stories," Young added. Through friends of friends, Young's novel found its way to a movie producer, who suggested that he try to get it commercially published as a prelude to, perhaps, adapting it into a film.

Young gave it a shot. And, he said, 26 publishers turned it down.

Young and his colleagues then published the book themselves and, eventually, via word of mouth and modest online marketing, "The Shack" landed berths on The New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists.

What was it about the novel that struck a chord in so many? "I think if you had 10 people in a room they'd give you 10 different answers," Young said.

But he suspects part of it is the "authenticity" of the main character, Mack, a family man whose life is torn apart when his youngest daughter is abducted and murdered by a serial killer. When Mack receives a mysterious note in his mailbox from "Papa" asking to meet him at the shack where his daughter had been taken, Mack encounters God in a way he never had imagined.

Mack is "dealing with great sadness, and we live in a world of great sadness," Young said, and the novel's central question -- how to reconcile the notion of a powerful and loving God with the reality that good people sometimes suffer horribly -- speaks to everyone.

"I grew up as a preacher's kid and a missionary's kid, and I've known great sadness in my life," said Young, who has spoken candidly about growing up with a "very angry" father and who is, himself, a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

Young said that, in "The Shack," he wanted to "use different imagery to introduce you to a God who is not inside the box, but who does show up in the middle of our sadness and tragedy," and convey his belief that "even in the midst of some terrible things, there is still a place to find forgiveness and hope and reconciliation."

Young said he doesn't consider "The Shack" a religious book, although it does offer readers "a language to have a conversation about God that's a safe conversation and not a religious conversation."

Young said some readers do find the novel's framing story -- the abduction and murder of Mack's daughter -- intense. But, he said, "in our lives, the deepest pain asks the best questions."

Others, meanwhile, have criticized "The Shack" for what they consider to be its sketchy and inaccurate theology as it relates to Christianity. But, Young said, "I love the controversy because it's become part of the conversation."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.