I was intrigued with William P. Young’s The Shack — I had finished reading the book and was partway into writing a review (published yesterday) when I thought I’d just drop him a note, say “hey,” and see about setting up a virtual interview. It was conducted via email, but just imagine we’re all sitting around a table in your favorite independent local coffee shop. We converse for a bit, but you’ll get your comments in edgewise a little further on. For now, grab that latte you ordered, pull up an extra chair and pass the biscotti.
Bro.M.: Willie, Pardon the intrusion… I was just preparing to write a review of The Shack, which I quite enjoyed. I wondered if you had time for a few questions…
WPY: Hi Brother, would love the questions…fire away. I actually go by my middle name ‘Paul’.
Bro.M.: Okay, Paul. You had me a bit confused there… but I’m the last person who should quibble about aliases! ;^) To start right in, I found I was able to relate quickly to Mack as the father of two girls myself. Knowing before I started reading that one of Mack’s daughters is abducted and killed, I was a bit hesitant… it’s not an idea on which many of us like to dwell. My wife is hesitant to read it for the same reason — what would you say to her about the reason you chose that event as part of Mack’s background experiences? Where did the idea come from?
WPY: We went through a six month period where my 18 year old brother was killed, my mother-in-law suddenly died of a massive coronary at age 59, and my 5 year old niece was killed the day after her 5th birthday. Having 4 boys and 2 girls myself, this is a situation that moves to the heart of theodicy as an issue. It is not about politics and cannot be easily put aside – it is about pain and suffering and injustice. I didn’t choose it for graphic reasons (as it is not very graphic at all), but because it captures our focus.
Bro.M.: I was curious about people thinking the book was a true story… not that I don’t have room theologically for the notion of God appearing as he did to Mack, but it seemed clear to me that the story was more literary device than factual account. What do you think accounts for this misunderstanding?
WPY: Remember, I wrote this story for my children (not to be published), so I took some liberties I might not have otherwise. In the first draft, I even had Mackenzie Allen Phillips as the author and me as the ghost writer, but after the book got away from me and a couple people almost flew to Oregon to meet Mack, we changed it, while keeping the idea of Willie ghost-writing for Mack. Beyond that the pain, the conversations, the process and the character of God are all real, so the line gets fairly blurred at times.
Bro.M.: So it was an earlier version that people had the confusion with, then. I think the whole motif captures your focus well, as you put it… in addressing the dilemma of evil (I was going to say “evil pickle,” but it sounded like a Veggie Tales villain!) through the story of an average guy to whom people can relate, the whole subject becomes a lot less “clinical,” as some of the treatments of the subject can be. That’s a lot of pain to pack into a year and a half, and I think the fact that you’ve been too close to the subject is partly what keeps it from being so clinical in the offer of a textbook answer. Thanks for writing through the pain, and sharing it. I appreciated the way this difficult touch of realism is woven into the narrative — and lots of Bruce Cockburn references….
WPY: What can I say… huge fan of Bruce Cockburn. As far as I am concerned one of the greatest lyricists alive (and an incredible guitarist to boot).
Bro.M.: I’m with you there… I actually enjoyed the allusions to or quotes from Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, Larry Norman — and then Blaise Pascal, Paul Tournier, and Jacques Ellul. It seems the book is making a bit of a splash… I’ve seen one or two mediocre responses, but for the most part it’s gotten a lot of rave reviews. Have you had anything from the other extreme, or did you expect criticism? I’m thinking of accusations of advocating lawlessness (pp.122-3 & 203) or universalism (p.225)… I think critics may be missing the point, so I’m not going to offer any criticism there, but have you had those sorts of mixed reactions? Uneasiness or criticism over language from God in the first person?
WPY: I have had a couple (2) very negative responses, and neither person would read past the first half of the book. It seems that their issue largely stemmed from some pretty unique personal abuse issues within the new-age movement, and they thought I was advocating the same. Other than that, some small gripes but overall it has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been a handful of folks who have tried to read the book like a theological textbook and found it wanting. No one has balked at God in the first person… at least that I am aware, which is rather remarkable now that you mention it.
Bro.M.: Well, I don’t want to start anything! I got criticized for it here once, but I’m probably more abrasive than you are. ;^) People need to keep the intent in mind, I guess, and understand the story for what it is. So what can you tell us about the prospect of seeing The Shack on the big screen?
WPY: Big Screen — very possible, but only if it done right. The CGI alone would be quite expensive but necessary, so this would have to be a major motion picture budget. There has been talk of that since day 1, and a couple studios initially tried to buy up the rights, but we were not ready for that conversation at the time. I would love it to happen, but only if done right. Otherwise, I am not a whit interested.
Bro.M.: Reading the book has changed a lot of people’s thinking on certain issues away from their traditional views. What did you learn from writing The Shack? How has your interaction with telling the story affected your life? Greatest lesson?
WPY: Wow…big question. Writing the book was an amazing and emotionally wrenching experience. At times it felt like stepping into a river that simply swept me away and deposited me downstream. Many of the concepts that are in the book were present in my own experience, but some of it was tentative. It was like standing at the edge of the high dive for the first time. The Shack simply came up from behind and pushed me in. The two biggest transitions from me were learning to live in the present(ce) of God, within only the single day’s grace allotted to me, and second, to have Papa’s affection for me a settled reality.
Bro.M.: I saw someone refer to the book as part of the literature coming from the emerging church, and there are a few themes in the book which would seem to fit that context. Do you think of this an “emerging church” book?
WPY: There was no intent that this be part of the emergent movement – the intent was a gift for my 6 kids. I am not a part of anything myself, so have no agenda at all about any of this.
Bro.M.: I want to quip that that’s very “emerging” of you, but I think such a description limits the book and its message unfairly… it will be appreciated by those in the emerging movement, but it really isn’t full of emerging-specific themes and ideas. Tell me, how did you approach the story… did you come up with the story arc as a means of stitching together a number of other subjects you wanted to address, or did the subjects that God and Mack touch on in the dialogue come along after the story arc was conceived?
WPY: I initially thought about doing an ‘A is for ________’ (hey kids, this is what your dad thinks about…..). But I thought that would end up being rather boring. So I started with the conversations, filling legal yellow pads with conversations as i rode the Max train to and from work (40 minutes each way). The day that I sat in front of the computer to start typing the notes into it (so I wouldn’t lose them), I still had no story. But I began asking the questions: Who is asking this question and why? And the story simply began to emerge using our own family experiences (camping at Wallowa Lake, for example). Later, I sat with three friends (Wayne Jacobsen, Brad Cummings and Bobby Downes) and we spent a couple days blocking out the story as if we were writing a screen play. That helped us see the weaknesses and strengths and helped us focus on the next 16 months of re-writing. Chapter 15 initially set the tone, and that chapter is exactly the way I penned it one Saturday afternoon in 2005. The re-writing was to raise the rest of the story to the level of Festival of Friends.
Bro.M.: Ah yes, another Bruce Cockburn reference! So what led to your decision to self-publish?
WPY: The decision was made for us…nobody would give us the time of day. Religious publishers said they liked it, but it was too edgy. Secular publishers told us they like it personally, but there was too much ‘Jesus’ in it. So Wayne and Brad created a publishing company and did it ourselves. It is all about our relationships with each other. There are no contracts, no letters of intent, no signed anything.
Bro.M.: There’s something fundamentally refreshing about that… very relational. So, will there be a followup book? What are you thinking or writing about these days?
WPY: Other book(s)…probably. I tend to gestate a while before actually writing…so I am working on a something right now…we will see. I don’t feel any pressure to produce, and I am grateful for that. I have a few projects sitting on the shelf that need some re-visiting also. Vague enough? As of today, I still have my 8-5, M-F job, some part time consulting work and a home full of family and friends, and our first two grandbabies. Papa will have to free some time up if there is more writing to come.
Bro.M.: Glad to hear it, and vague enough, yes! Keep us guessing… but don’t stop writing. Some of the comments I’ve seen suggest people might be looking for your next book(s) already, and I do see people online saying they want to read the book every year or have read it several times already. Some people are buying multiple copies or even by the case lot to give away… you may have more publishing options open to you the next time around. In the meantime, thanks for taking some time with us, Paul.
WPY: It was fun to do… thanks for the opportunity.