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Author Interview

The Shack Author at a Crossroads with New Book

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - Never in the profound depths of his imagination did William Paul Young suspect what the last six years of his life would bring.  In 2006, at his wife’s urging, he sat down to write a book for his children as a Christmas present.  His intent was to simply share his perspective on God and the emotional healing he had experienced as an adult.  Little did he realize, but that manuscript eventually became the multi-million selling book, The Shack.

Controversial for its portrayal of the Trinity, Young received a fair amount of criticism from religious scholars despite The Shack’s staggering success.

Young has released his much anticipated follow-up called Cross RoadsIt is the story of a man who realizes he has built his life predicated upon a broken heart.  He must determine whether he has the courage to make a major change or just to go on living his life mired in his misery.

I recently sat down with Young to discuss the impact The Shack has had upon his life, his decision to write about the Trinity in the manner he did, and what God has shown him on this literary journey he has been traveling.

Let’s take a moment to close the door on The Shack.  The latest figures indicate it has sold in excess of 18 million copies.  I have to believe its success is beyond your wildest dreams.  What was your original hope for this book, when you first wrote it?

My original hope was fifteen copies, six for my kids for Christmas.  We didn’t have anything; we had no money. We’d lost our home we’d lived in for 17 years. I was working three jobs, and I wanted to write something for them for Christmas that Kim, my wife, had been asking me to do for a while. So, the hope was get it done for Christmas, to give it as a gift and accomplish what my wife had asked me to do, which was to put in one place how I think as a gift for my children. And that was the year I turned 50, and so I’m thinking, “Okay.”

Were you shocked by what has happened since?

I’m shocked ever since then, everyday.

Why do you think The Shack struck such a nerve with people?

Part of it was timing, in the sense that we now live in a shrinking global community. And so, there’s accessibility to an idea, or a thought. Partly, too, that we’re at a critical point where connectivity is high, relationships have obviously suffered. And also where religion has been found wanting along with politics and everything else. So, we’re really at a juncture, and this gave people a language. It’s really what The Shack did; it gave people a language to talk about God in a way that wasn’t religious, but fundamentally relationally. And so, that was huge, and it gave people permission to tell each other their stories, their great sadnesses. And all of that combined, it just resonated, and it resonated across every kind of barrier you can imagine, and into every kind of place you can imagine. So, it’s been phenomenal, phenomenal in the best sense.

Despite the book’s astronomical success you have received a fair amount of criticism from various Bible scholars for your portrayal of the Trinity.  Why did you present it in the manner you did?

You always have to remember that I wrote this book for my six kids, right? And my intent is to say to them, “I want to communicate to you, who is this God that showed up to heal my heart?” Because I had a broken heart, like so many of us, and I want to say, “Here, kids. I don’t want you growing up with the Gandalf-with-an-attitude God that I grew up with.” And I wanted to communicate that to my kids. So, I wanted to get as far away in imagery, as imagery could. Imagery has never defined God. Somehow we think it has, and in the West, we’ve got this Grandfatherly, white-bearded white guy, who is kind of distant and upset. Watching from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart. Right? And so, I used imagery in this, I mean, God is imaged as a fountain, as a rock, as a fortress, as a hand, as an eagle, as a horse, as a—you know? As a woman who loses a coin. You start going through all the imagery. Imagery is imagery. Imagery doesn’t define God; imagery is to help us understand some facet of the character and nature of God. So, I used imagery that sort of violated the Western imagery. Because I don’t believe God is that distant, unapproachable, unemotional, being that somehow Play-dough got us convinced about that. I believe that He is this arms-wide-open person, that everything was created inside of a relationship of other-centered self-giving love. And the picture of a large black African American woman fit that much better than Gandalf with an attitude. So, that was part of it, and my background growing up overseas as a missionary kid, that influenced some of that imagery as well.

Was it hard for you as an author, to deal with all of the criticism?

Not at all.  The only time it became hard is when people attacked my kids.  Because they knew that it wouldn’t bother me. I’ve got nothing to lose and nothing to hide, here.  I don’t have an identity as an author.  I’m just like kind of an accidental one, at best.  My attitude about criticism is, you’re telling me about you, you’re not telling me about me. Because I know about me, right? So, here you’re bringing to the table what you have. You were once a child, obviously something’s gone on in your life, you have a story, because you are one. And so, you’re telling me about you. So, as long as I can stay inside that, I can listen to what you’re saying. Because I want to know about you, even if it’s this stuff that you have said about me, you know?

Well, onward and upward.  Let’s fast forward to the present.  You have just released the follow-up to The Shack.  What can you tell me about Cross Roads?

Cross Roads is a story, like The Shack. It is the same genre, and we don’t know what that is, because The Shack has sort of created its own genre. And so, it resonates in similar ways. It’s a totally different story; it’s a broader story. The name itself is where I like to focus right now, because Cross Roads has a lot of different layers sometimes.

In the straight-aways of life, not much happens. It’s when we get to the intersections where we have to make a decision, we have to be relational, there’s somebody else in our way, there’s somebody that’s turning a different way than we are, and all of those things happen at crossroads. There are also places where we make choices that take us down one path or another, and we can change direction. So, all of that is buried in there, plus, you have the sense of those kinds of crucible moments, our crosses that we then bear, in terms of the choices that we have, and those things resonate out, throughout our lives and the lives of everyone that we’re in a relationship with. And all of that’s buried inside the story of this man who’s coming to these points of decision, and what is he going to do?

Do the words “cross” and “roads” have anything to do with Jesus?

Absolutely, because to me, everything is for, by, and through Jesus. Everything, right? Everything is held together by Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. And so, Jesus is embedded in these processes with us, always. When we come to a crossroads, yes. So, yes.

My main character, Tony, is confronted by a crossroads within that period of time. So, The Shack captures a situation in someone’s life. Crossroads captures it between life and death, in that space.

Cross Roads is shipping a million copies in its first printing, an incredibly substantial amount.  So, you have gone from printing just 15 copies for your family to having nearly 20 million copies of your books in print.  Considering this, have you learned anything about yourself that you didn’t know before?

I have learned a ton about myself. I’ve learned that in the course of these kinds of events, success will sometimes bring things out of people that failure never wouldn’t, right? I’ve learned more about what kind of hidden paradigms that dominate peoples’ lives, not just in terms of success, but in terms of what scares people. And I’ve learned things about myself, for example: because of a difficult relationship with my dad, for one thing, I kind of grew up with an orphan spirit, and I’m a third-culture kid, anyway. So, I don’t know where I belong, and until I belonged to Kim and to Jesus, I didn’t belong anywhere. So, I always had this orphan sense, and part of the orphan sense is that anything that belongs to me is actually just temporary. And if somebody comes along with “who’s got greater value?” which is pretty much anybody, or worth, then they can just take it away. And so, part of that, in this whole process, was dealt with, where, “No this actually is mine. I actually participated in the creation of this.” You know, I already know that about my kids, and my grandkids, and my other relationships. But I learned deeper about what that meant for me as a creative person. And somehow that was a huge thing for me. I’m very grateful, as difficult as some of the process has been. I’m very grateful for it.

What’s your greatest hope for Cross Roads?

I think my greatest hope is that it will touch the hearts of people, and they will recognize the essential and relentless affection that exists for them within the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I think that’s my greatest hope, that it will meet them at the places they are, and will sing to them, you know? I don’t have any—that’s as specific as I could probably get, because I don’t really think in terms of outcomes and agendas, that’s just not the way I live anymore, and I stay inside the grace of one day; everything else to me is just imagination. And if every human being has infinite worth, how many of those does it take to have an infinite impact?

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