Arts & Culture

‘Shack’ author makes horror – and hope – personal

“Shack” author William Paul Young will be in McPherson for talks Sunday through Tuesday.
“Shack” author William Paul Young will be in McPherson for talks Sunday through Tuesday. Courtesy photo

While his life is imbedded in what he writes, many people may not know from reading William Paul Young’s “The Shack” the specifics of how he grew up.

Young, who will make appearances in McPherson Sunday through Tuesday, was uprooted from one culture and placed in another, was sexually abused as a child, and committed adultery as a man.

“The abuse is definitely a bedrock issue. As well as the adultery. The losses we experience,” Young said of the personal subjects that he brings to the talks he gives in the wake of the enormous popularity of “The Shack” since it was published eight years ago. The novel, originally written just for Young’s six children, is about a man whose daughter apparently is brutally murdered, and the man’s subsequent healing encounter with the three persons of the Trinity – who appear in unconventional guise – at the shack where the girl’s blood-soaked dress was found.

The book was the No. 1 paperback trade fiction seller on The New York Times Best Seller list from June 2008 to early 2010, and more than 20 million copies of it are in print. Its theme of living in relationship with others and with God also imbues Young’s life: “the wonder that’s woven even in the broken places.”

Young was in Nashville last week and will be a guest of the Central Christian College of Kansas in McPherson. His public appearances will be at the Wesley Black Fine Arts Center on the campus at 7:30 p.m. Sunday; at The Well bookstore and coffee shop in McPherson at 7:30 p.m. Monday, with a book signing at 6:30; and at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, again at the fine arts center, on “Where Is God When It Hurts?”

Apart from personal horrors in life, there are modern-day horrors that people bring to Young’s talks and that he himself doesn’t forget, he says: ISIS brutality in Iraq and Syria, human trafficking, child sacrifice in Africa. But Young takes the horrors back to the personal again, saying that changing one’s own life will change the larger picture.

“We can talk all the global stuff you want. The only way we impact things are the changes we make inside our own world and inside our own day. You can get lost in a fear of an impending apocalypse and not even deal with what’s in front of you. The choice to forgive or ask for forgiveness changes the cosmos. … It has rippling consequences.” Young wants to break down the barriers between people – all part of the same huge family.

“Let’s talk about the ISIS that’s in me. And the damage that I did. And let me not make an us-and-them so clearly,” Young said. Defaming or assassinating the character of another person is a way to not “have to deal with your own crap.”

The ideas are the same as those expressed in “The Shack.” Young also has written a second novel, “Cross Roads,” and is finishing a third that is to come out this fall.

Young said he is not self-conscious about addressing personal issues, or about his own faith in light of the wide readership of the book. A “back-handed gift” of the bad things that happened to him “drove me to a place where I didn’t want to have any more secrets,” Young said. He never found healing living with secrets and shame.

“My life is so open, not as a technique or a means to an end. It is what it is. If we don’t hear stories of people’s lives, how do we expect to hear God inside to give us hope for healing or transformation?”

When Young speaks at the college, he’ll face audiences of students who have been given copies of the book to read ahead of time, to help them face their own problems, said Dean Kroeker, special assistant to the president at the college.

“I want them to feel that we care for them individually, because so many students are coming out of difficult home situations,” Kroeker said. “That seems to be the norm anymore, not the exception. It’s difficult for them to be transparent. I want this to be the window they can open, to open the shades and … leave with an element of hope that ‘I don’t have to live with this kind of pain the rest of my life.’”

Young’s talks will be very different, he said, and he’s not sure how they’ll start or where they’ll go. He’s a story-teller; he’ll start out with a couple of stories and see what happens.

“I’ve got 59 years of stuff in the cabinet somewhere, and it seems like I’m able to reach in in those moments. God is very present, and we get to participate. I very much interact with the audience. I really love that interaction.”

What people bring, of course, is equally unpredictable.

“The book has penetrated so far and wide that there’s always people who have read it. But the book is so layered and unexpected as far as how it impacts people’s paradigms, it impacts people as I never intended. It’s beautiful. One of the things creative work does, it creates space inside where people can hear for themselves. To me that’s holy ground.”

“The Shack” also upsets people. It disputes the creation of an institutional church, for example, and some other tenets of the Christian faith. Young’s mother called his sister after she read the book and said, “Your brother is a heretic.”

So people challenge Young on many aspects of the book, and he said he wants to meet them where they are.

“I love that. … I didn’t write it with an agenda to tick people off. Most of them are my people – they’re the same evangelical fundamental Christian.”

Some readers also are exposed to the Trinity for the first time in the book.

“I wasn’t trying to write anything that would define the Trinity by putting it inside a fiction,” Young said. “I just described the relationship, and the lights went on.”

Academic attempts to describe the Trinity without including relationship aren’t accessible, he said. But in the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, “you’ve got a basis of other-centered, self-giving love inside the nature of God.”

The unexpected notoriety and the platform for addressing people that “The Shack” has brought Young “should be saved for old people who have been to hell and back,” he said. Such fame can destroy younger people who don’t have a sense of who they are yet, he said.

For him, the fame could end tomorrow and he’d be fine: experiencing the best relationship that he’s ever had with his wife and children, being available to his grandchildren in a way he wasn’t able to be to his children when they were growing up. The fame is “more a curiosity, a deferral to God’s sense of humor, and the joy of participation.”

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

If you go

William Paul Young

What: Talks and book signing by the author of “The Shack” and “Cross Roads”

When and where: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Wesley Black Fine Arts Center at Central Christian College of Kansas, 1200 S. Main St. in McPherson; 7:30 p.m. Monday, The Well, 101 N. Main St. in McPherson (preceded by a book signing at 6:30 p.m.); 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, “Where Is God When It Hurts?” at the fine arts center

How much: Free

Information:, 620-241-0723