Magazine article The Spectator

A Pilgrim's Progress for the 21st Century

Magazine article The Spectator

A Pilgrim's Progress for the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Because I spoke to him on the phone, not in person, you'll have to share my mental picture of William P. Young. There he is in a hotel room in Texas: 53, balding, with bright eyes and a greying goatee. He's ironing as he talks (he says so), his sleeves rolled up (I reckon), with a snowy pile of pressed shirts beside him. On the table beside his bed is a photo of his wife, Kim, and the six young Youngs back home in Gresham, Oregon. On the floor: piles of his extraordinary book The Shack.

It's extraordinary because of the subject matter -- a man called Mack meets God in a shed -- and also because of its phenomenal, inexplicable success in the face of what should have been certain book death. Though it was much loved by his friends, William P. Young's manuscript was rejected by nearly 30 publishers. That should have put an end to it, but Young decided to print The Shack himself.

He raised $15,000 (with the help of his pals Brad and Wayne) and created a website (total cost: $300). To date he's sold almost two million copies worldwide and The Shack is being hailed as a modern-day Pilgrim's Progress.

Paul Young (he uses his middle name) is No.

1 on the New York Times fiction bestseller list, the Borders bestseller list, the list at Barnes and Noble; and the internet is humming with tearful fans, swapping stories about how The Shack has transformed their lives. 'How did the author get so deep inside my brain and drag out the things I needed answers to?' Pete56. 'This book opened my heart in a way I thought was impossible, ' says Ccshaked. 'I don't think I can really explain it.' 'Have you ever loved a book so much you figured it must have been written just for you?

I simply can't thank you enough, William Young, ' says heavyheart20.

How did it all begin? 'Good Gordon, I don't know, ' says Young. 'I mean I've always written -- poetry, short stories and stuff -- but this one time my wife said, you know what? I think it would be kinda good for the children if you wrote about life, about God, about suffering. So I did. The Shack is a book about the nature of God as I see it, written for my kids.' It's not an absolute natural for children, I say, cautiously (the first part of the book describes the kidnap and brutal murder of our hero Mack's five-year-old daughter). Paul laughs: 'No, but I figured the worst possible situation would allow me to ask the best possible questions: who is this God really? Why does He allow suffering? Is He trustworthy?' Did you suspect, when you were writing it, that you might be on to a winner? In the silence that follows I get the impression I've missed the point. 'OK, you have to understand how little I take credit for it, ' says Young. 'I mean, sure, I wrote it, but good Gordon [his voice rises from growl to squeak] you know, I am so in way over my head! In the best sort of way!' By which he means, I think, that it's God who's pushing sales.

Another explanation is of course that the US has a bottomless appetite for spiritual self-help: the more horribly sugary the better.

But though Paul is not quite C.S. Lewis, and his prose style is sometimes pretty sickly, the book is curiously effective. And though The Shack is a God book, it's also a very odd book.

It's not stock shlock. The Almighty turns out to be a fat black lady called 'Papa'. ('To reveal myself to you as a white grand-father with a flowing beard would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, ' She says. ) Jesus is short and ugly and the Holy Spirit is Chinese.

But then for all his homey American life, William P. …

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