William Paul Young never set out to publish a best-selling novel.
He wrote "The Shack" as a Christmas present for his six children, wanting to give them something that could help them better understand how their father thinks.
But since then, the Christian novel has sold more than 18 million copies. It's become an international phenomenon, that has sparked conversations about where God is amidst pain and healing through a story that isn't tied up in religious prose.
"Growing up, I saw and experienced a lot of loss," Young said. "You either become really hardened to it, which was part of my history, or, as your heart gets healed, your compassion also begins to emerge."
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In "The Shack," Young -- who will be the guest speaker at Live to Give's "Sweets for the Soul" event Feb. 7 on Hilton Head Island -- tells the story of Mackenzie, who travels for a weekend to a secluded "shack" where his daughter was murdered four years earlier.
There, he encounters the Trinity: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
"Mackenzie's weekend in the shack represents an 11-year journey for me," Young said.
LOSS AND THE JOURNEY BACK
Young was born in Alberta, Canada, the son of missionaries. When he was 10 months old, they moved into the Highlands in the interior of New Guinea.
"Inside that culture, there was a lot of abuse that was endemic to it," Young said.
His childhood was marked with pain and lacked a sense of place. At 6, he was sent to a boarding school for missionary children in Sentani, New Guinea, where he was sexually abused. In addition, his relationship with his father was turbulent. Young says it took him 50 years to separate the face of his father from the face of God.
"Part of the tearing of my fabric as a child was that kind of being ripped apart at the seams, which I think is what sexual abuse does to someone," Young said.
For Young, his journey to "the shack" began in 1993, when he had an extramarital affair and began looking at his brokenness.
"It's a place on the inside that people help you build, where you store all our addictions and hide all our secrets," Young said. "And for a lot of us it wasn't a welcoming place. It's our own soul and heart that's been broken. ... And you've got to go back to that place where the woundedness happened."
Young spent the next decade in therapy, repairing his relationship with his family, himself and God, and taking responsibility for the ways he hurt himself.
"Healing is the process, and there are things that were stolen from us as children, and then there are things we turn around and break ourselves," Young said. "That's been a whole journey in my history about facing up to the things that were not just stolen from me, but that I turned around and broke."
Young came out of his "shack" in 2004, just as Mackenzie does in the book. Young came to terms with the loss he experienced growing up and the choices he subsequently made, paralleled to Mackenzie coming to terms with the death of his daughter. The next year, Young began writing "The Shack," not as a part of the healing process, but as a result of its conclusion.
"'The Shack' didn't give me anything that I already didn't have in terms of identity or worth or value," Young said. "Those things were in place before I was even able to write it."
MAKING OF A BEST-SELLER
Before publishing "The Shack," Young held a slew of jobs; he worked as a hotel night clerk, janitor and radio disc jockey, and in food processing, property management and writing for business websites. He wrote much of "The Shack" on the train he would take to one of his jobs.
When it was finished, he printed 15 copies at Office Depot, giving one to each of his children, wife and a few close friends.
"And I went back to work," Young said. "It didn't cross my mind one time to publish this."
Then friends of friends got hold of it, and Young was encouraged by more and more people to publish. After being rejected by 26 publishers, Young and some friends founded their own publishing company, Windblown Media, with the sole purpose of publishing "The Shack."
"The Shack" is now one of the most notable self-publishing success stories, debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times best-sellers list, where it stayed for the next year. It was No. 6 on USA Today's Top 100 best-selling books list of 2008 and 2009 and has sold more than 18 million copies.
"This to me is God's great sense of humor," Young said.
Young had written all his life, but never published. He calls himself an "accidental" author, not writing with an agenda, but as a means to explore questions. "The Shack" was one set of questions, addressing loss and the search for God amid pain.
"I'm trying to say, 'OK, what do we do about these kinds of losses? What do we do about the kind of damage we do to each other? Where is God and who is God in the middle of all of this?'" Young said.
In his second novel "Cross Roads," which was released in November 2012, Young addressed a different set of questions through the story of a man questioning himself and his choices.
To Young, writing is a river, one he steps into when the time is right and trusts will take him to a place of exploration and inspiration.
"Don't confuse me with someone who knows what they're doing," he said. "I could go back to cleaning toilets tomorrow if that's what life required."
Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.