'It was a gift for my kids': former hotel clerk tops best-seller lists

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As a first-time author William P Young had no illusions about his book. A former hotel night clerk and odd-job man who was raised partly among a stone-age tribe in New Guinea, he had written it mostly as an exercise in self-therapy with little thought of publishing. If his children would read it, he'd be happy.

They did, but so have a few other people. One year after Mr Young, aided by three friends, took the unlikely step of self-publishing The Shack, it has taken off in astonishing fashion. It has topped America's best-seller lists with sales just shy of two million.

Now arriving in British bookshops, The Shack did not seem at first especially marketable. At its heart is a father who has lost a daughter, possibly to murder, and his unexpected encounter with God. It is part breezily told yarn and part theological rumination. Among its characters is God Herself. Yes, God may be called "Papa", but here is an African-American woman.

The greatest mystery of The Shack however is not one of plot. It is how the book took an entire nation by storm, without even the help of Oprah Winfrey. Struggling writers everywhere will either despair or take heart. They should at least take note, however: personal pain sells. And faith sells. Or at least in America they do.

"I am the accidental author," Young, says. "This was meant as a gift for my children. I really had totally no idea that this was going to happen."

The writing of the book was also something he needed to do for himself. Young admits his life had been potholed with painful experiences, most especially dealing with memories of sexual abuse as a child in New Guinea where his parents were Christian missionaries. There was a near break-up with his wife, an extra-marital affair and personal bankruptcy a few years ago.

"I am all over the book," Young says. He is Mack, the main character, as well as Missy, the lost daughter. While Young spent 11 years in therapy, the events of the book take place mostly over one weekend. Mack has retreated to a shack in a remote corner of Oregon where evidence of his child's murder seems to have been found. It is there that Papa shows up.

What emerged, he says now, was a parable principally about finding a way to look behind the facade that we put up for others to see and confront the truths about who we really are. It sounds cheesy, but clearly the book is speaking loud and clear to a lot of people.

Which is remarkable when you know that Young printed only 15 copies at his local print shop after completing the book. When friends told him it warranted a bigger audience he consulted a writer friend, Wayne Jacobsen, who took him through several rewrites. Then they sent it to some publishers.

Nothing. The professionals told him it had "no niche". It was too out there for religious publishers – a black woman God! – while mainstream publishers said there was too much Jesus.

But by this time Young felt the book really might be worth something. So he, Jacobsen and two other friends created their own publishing company and called it Windblown Media. It had only one title – The Shack – which came out in a first print run of just 10,000. Within four months they had all sold. In short order, Windblown found itself printing a million copies.

Finally, the industry took notice. Last month, the Hachette Book Group agreed a partnership deal with Windblown in the United States. In Britain, it will be published by Hodder Faith, a unit of Hachette.

Young credits the internet in part for the book's remarkable success. "It's really been a grassroots, word-of-mouth kind of thing," he says. "We had no idea what we were doing."

But above all, Young thinks readers are responding to a message that God, far from being disappointed with each of us, angry even, remains supportive whatever our failings

"An angry God won't transform us," he says. "I really do believe that God is love, one of deep affection and grace and forgiveness and inspiration."

Extract from 'The Shack' by William P Young

"He now faced another dilemma. What should you do when you come to the door of a house, or cabin in this case, where God might be? Should you knock? Presumably God already knew that Mack was there. Maybe he ought to simply walk in and introduce himself, but that seemed equally absurd. And how should he address him? Should he call him Father, or Almighty One, or perhaps Mr God, and would it be best if he fell down and worshipped, not that he was really in the mood.

As he tried to establish some inner mental balance, the anger that he thought had so recently died inside him began to emerge. No longer concerned or caring about what to call God, and energized by his ire, he walked up to the door. Mack decided to bang loudly and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman."