by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
In 2005, the Oregon-based father of six took The Shack—a spiritual parable about the tragic loss of a family’s young daughter—to Office Depot to make copies for Christmas presents. He made 15, passed them out to family and friends, and thought little more about it.
“I’m an accidental writer,” Young says. “I’ve always written, but the creative stuff has been for gifts. I have no formal writing education. It never crossed my mind to be published.”
That is, until Young began receiving e-mails from people he didn’t know, telling him they loved his book. His friends had given their copies to their friends, spreading the story in an ever-widening circle.
“The response was remarkable in terms of the impact the manuscript was having in people’s lives,” Young says.
Intrigued and surprised, he sent the book to the only writer he knew, author and former pastor Wayne Jacobsen, for an informed outside opinion.
“I still wasn’t thinking about publishing,” Young says. “I just wondered if he would take a look at it.” When Jacobsen called only three days later to rave about the manuscript, Young was shocked. “He told me he rarely encountered a book that he wanted to pass on to friends, but mine was one,” Young says. Jacobsen wanted to share it with two friends, Bobby Downes and Brad Cummings. From there the enthusiasm mounted. The three men were so enamored by Young’s story that they urged him to consider doing something with it in the hopes that they could adapt it into a screenplay.
With no publishing experience, Young followed Jacobsen’s suggestion to shape the text into a novel and try to get it published.
“It was a highly collaborative experience,” Young says. “We were all working regular jobs, but in between we were sending the manuscript to our friends and rewriting it.”
Once they felt the book was ready, they submitted it to 26 faith-based and mainstream publishers. “The faith-based publishers said that although they liked it, they didn’t have a niche for it; it was too edgy and would upset their constituents,” Young says. “The non-faith-based publishers said basically the same thing, except it was ‘too much Jesus.’ ”
Jacobsen and Cummings, however, had such a firm conviction that the book was saleable that they made Young a wild proposition: to publish the book themselves. Together they pooled their money and created a publishing house called Windblown Media with a single title—The Shack. They printed 11,000 copies that were delivered to Cummings’ California garage, threw up a quick website and hoped for the best. Their goal was to sell those copies in two years, and build momentum for a screenplay version of the book by selling 100,000 in five years.
They pre-sold 1,000 copies within 10 days, mostly from subscribers to Jacobsen and Cummings’ popular podcast “The God Journey.” In four months they sold the entire 11,000-book print run. They sold 22,000 more in 60 days and 33,000 more in 30 days, all through viral means. Since that initial print run the book has sold more than 3.8 million copies, with only $300 in original marketing funds. To top that, The Shack appeared at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for weeks.
Hachette Book Group acquired Windblown shortly thereafter, and now seeks to publish titles that follow the imprint’s mission: “to provide creative and intellectually honest literature for those seeking a renewal of love and faith.”
“Nobody who’s been on the inside of this isn’t surprised,” Young says. “We’d sit and laugh because it’s so far outside the range of any expectations. I feel like I’m on The Truman Show. I’m talking to thousands of people these days, and a year ago nobody cared what I had to say.”
A SHACK FULL OF DEMONS
The Shack draws deeply on Young’s religious experiences as the son of missionary parents. His childhood was full of confusion and pain, not the least of which was the death of his older brother in a motorcycle accident. Each of his siblings had a different location on their birth certificate, and Young attended numerous institutions by the time he graduated high school. The first 10 years of his life were spent in a tribal village in New Guinea.
“My background is in a highly religious context, but there’s a lot of devastation in my history,” Young says. “I had a very angry father and was disconnected from my family. Sexual abuse was a part of that as well. I was raised in a tribal situation, among cannibal people.”
Just before his 10th birthday, Young was “yanked out” of New Guinea and dropped into Canada after his parents finished their missionary service on the island.
The Shack, Young says, is a metaphor for the place behind a religious façade “where you hide all your secrets—a house of shame.” He adds that he wrote the fictional account to try to explain his relationship with God to his kids.
Though he’s deeply spiritual, Young says he’s at odds with religious systems, but in a “much more graceful way” because a crisis forced him to confront and re-evaluate his own religious and personal choices more than a decade ago. In 1994, Young’s self-proclaimed religious façade imploded.
“I had a three-month affair with my wife’s best friend. It was either kill myself or face my wife,” he says. “I went through her fury. She was the perfect person for me because her anger and betrayal were so deep that she just pounded on me until I saw how screwed up I was in my heart.”
As a result, Young’s relationships with God and his wife of 29 years, Kim, have since been transformed. The Shack, he says, is the expression of his healing.
“Last year Kim said to me, ‘I never thought I would say this, but it’s all been worth it.’ To me that’s a huge grace. She’s not saying the crap has been justified, but redeemed.”
A NEW CONVERSATION
So what made a little parable such a runaway success? The protagonist of The Shack, Mack, finds himself on a journey to revisit the site of his daughter’s tragedy, which is, appropriately, a shack. There he encounters God—or rather, Christianity’s holy trinity.
In Young’s story, Jesus is a dark-skinned Middle Eastern Jewish man who thwarts Mack’s expectation of a hunky blonde Jesus. God isn’t a white-haired wizard figure, but rather a matronly black woman who calls herself “Papa” in an attempt to challenge Mack’s preconceived notions. The Holy Spirit is a transparent creature named Sarayu who can’t be seen directly.
Young feels that it’s precisely his unorthodox imagery that is speaking to such a wide audience and—he admits—bringing him criticism, not that he pays much attention to it. He believes the book is encouraging readers to have honest conversations about off-limit topics that they’ve been putting off for years or keeping in their hearts.
Some of the responses Young has received include e-mails from estranged family members who reconciled with one another after reading the book, and from chronically ill patients who say The Shack has helped them in important ways.
Young also says his audience comes from all manners of tradition, inside and outside Christianity.
“I think people are tired of religion and how it divides and damages people,” he says. “You can name it whatever you want, Islam or Christianity, but if you have a system in which God is distant and angry all the time, and you’re trying to please him through the right disciplines, it isn’t going to work for everyone. People have a real need to be authentic and to not hide anymore.”
THE SIMPLE LIFE
Now that The Shack has sold millions of copies, one might imagine that Young’s life has taken a dramatic turn for the luxurious. That’s not the case, although his family did relocate to a new town.
“We moved from Boring, Ore., to Happy Valley,” he says, chuckling. “Nothing that matters has changed for me. I’m not shipping out soldering tips and cleaning toilets, but if all this went away tomorrow, I would be fine.”
While he’s not currently under contract to pen another book, Young does want to keep writing. “I’ve always written and so I’ll continue to write, but I don’t feel any pressure,” he says. “Whatever I write will be an expression of a gift, not something that’s my identity.” [WD]
by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Forced to leave Chile in the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet (who overthrew Allende’s uncle, President Salvador Allende), she fled with her young daughter and son to Venezuela, where she worked as a journalist and lived for 13 years before moving to the United States.
In 1992 her daughter Paula, 28, became ill while working in poor Venezuelan communities and died of complications from a typically manageable illness.
Allende’s world went black. But out of the tragedy’s ashes, she wrote the memoir Paula. Several novels later, Allende has returned with a new memoir, The Sum of Our Days—a catalog of her life in the years since Paula’s death.
The memoir exposes highly personal family issues, including her stepchildren’s struggles with drug addiction, which led to the death of a daughter; her son’s marital problems after his wife left him for another woman; and other intimate details of those in her “emotional compound.”
Allende is as outspoken and opinionated in person as she is in her writing, and here she talks openly about her life, her losses and her eclectic novels and memoirs.
YOUR NEW MEMOIR, THE SUM OF OUR DAYS, IS WRITTEN AS AN INFORMAL SERIES OF LETTERS TO YOUR DAUGHTER, PAULA. IS IT EASIER TO WRITE ABOUT YOUR LIFE WHEN YOU WRITE IN LETTER FORM?
Yes, because I’m used to it. I write to my mother every day, and of course in a daily letter you end up telling everything—stories, dreams, recipes, family, politics and the world. I never read them again. When I sit down and write while thinking about someone, the writing is much easier.
DO YOU EVER RUN OUT OF THINGS TO SAY TO YOUR MOTHER?
We’ve been writing for 30 years; I don’t think we’ll run out of things to say to each other. We don’t live in the same country. We have a platonic love that doesn’t go through everyday routines. It’s very spiritual. We’ve learned to accept each other as we are.
YOUR MEMOIR PAULA, ABOUT THE YEAR LEADING UP TO YOUR DAUGHTER’S ACCIDENTAL DEATH, WAS A WAY TO MAKE SENSE OF WHAT HAPPENED TO HER. YET, THE SUM OF OUR DAYS ALSO TALKS A LOT ABOUT HER. DID THIS BOOK CLARIFY NEW FEELINGS?
This book is about my recent family and what happened to us 13 years after Paula died. It clarified my role in the family and my role in life. After writing the book I realized I’m a matriarch. I feel that I’m like a big umbrella, and I try to protect my tribe.
Many years have gone by, but the feeling of loss [for Paula] is still there and there’s some sadness. I don’t want to get rid of that sadness; it’s part of who I am today. I feel like it’s a fertile soil at the bottom of my heart where everything wonderful grows—creativity, compassion, love and even joy; the joy of knowing that there’s a spirit I can connect to. At the beginning, the first few years were horrible. Now I know there’s nothing wrong with suffering. We live in a society where we don’t want to accept anything that looks ugly, like death, pain or poverty. We all want to be great, but that’s not what life is about.
YOU’VE SAID THAT IN WRITING MEMOIRS, YOU WORK WITH THE TRUTH AND THEN END UP LYING. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU MEAN?
A memoir is my version of events. My perspective. I choose what to tell and what to omit. I choose the adjectives to describe a situation, and in that sense, I’m creating a form of fiction. I realized this when I showed the manuscript to the people in my life before it was published. Everyone had a different version of the stories because their feelings were different. If you and I witness the same accident in the street, you’ll tell it in one way, I’ll tell it in another and maybe one of us won’t remember it in a week.
There’s basically an element of fiction in everything you remember. Imagination and memory are almost the same brain processes. When I write fiction, I know that I’m using a bunch of lies that I’ve made up to create some form of truth. When I write a memoir, I’m using true elements to create something that will always be somehow fictionalized.
MEMORY IS SO INSUBSTANTIAL. DID YOUR DAILY LETTER-WRITING PRACTICE HELP YOU WRITE THE SUM OF OUR DAYS?
Yes. I took 13 years of letters out of the closet and could go through and remember the events as they happened—not only the chronological events, but the feelings with a freshness they wouldn’t have had if I didn’t have the letters. I feel that if it’s not written down, I’ll forget it. I need to write everything that happens to me to make it real.
SO WHAT NEED OR IMPULSE DOES WRITING FICTION SATISFY FOR YOU?
I never know why I’m writing a book (with a few exceptions), but in general I have no idea why I’m obsessed with a subject until months after the book has been published. Then, journalists start asking questions and slowly it becomes clear to me how it’s connected to my life. Everything I write has to be connected to my life. One of the things that always comes up in my writing is the search for freedom, especially in women. I always write about women who are marginalized, who have no means or resources and somehow manage to get out of those situations with incredible strength—and that is more important than anything. I’ve learned to trust the ideas. If I have the seed inside me and it’s growing, now I trust it.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO LEARN TO TRUST YOUR IDEAS?
By the fourth book I started letting go of control. I was scared at the beginning. Every book was like a gift that fell from heaven into my lap, which I feared would never come again.
I’m not the one who invents the stories; I’m like a radio that picks up the waves. Somehow, if I move the dial very carefully, I’ll pick up the wave and get the story. But the story doesn’t belong to me; it’s somewhere out there floating. That’s very liberating.
YOU’VE WRITTEN 18 BOOKS—NONFICTION, HISTORICAL NOVELS, YA FICTION, AN ADVENTURE NOVEL AND EVEN A BOOK OF RECIPES—AND YOU USED TO WORK AS A JOURNALIST. DOES ONE OF THESE FORMS APPEAL TO YOU MORE THAN THE OTHERS?
Historical novels, because everything is given. When you study a period and a place, you have the theater in which the characters can move. Everything is given to you by history and by the place. You just have to move the characters within that context. Why am I attracted to a certain period? I have no idea. I don’t think I could write about the Roman Empire, but I can write about slavery in the Caribbean. I think of the human condition at the time. I find it easier to write from the perspective of a person of color, usually a Latin American woman.
HOW LONG DO YOU RESEARCH A BOOK?
For Daughter of Fortune, I researched for seven years, but I didn’t mean to. Things happened; my daughter died and I went into a writer’s block. Often, I research a book while I’m writing other books. I’ve been researching the book I’m writing now for five years. I’m researching all the time.
WHAT DO YOU READ FOR PLEASURE?
Fiction in English. All summer I read fiction because you must read for the pleasure and beauty of it, and not only for research. I don’t read thrillers, romance or mystery, and I don’t read self-help books because I don’t believe in shortcuts and loopholes.
YOU WRITE YOUR BOOKS IN SPANISH, AND THEN THEY’RE TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY YOUR TRANSLATOR, MARGARET SAYERS PEDEN. THEN, YOU GO BACK AND REVISE THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION. DOES MUCH CHANGE IN THIS PROCESS?
I read it line by line, but it would be very presumptuous to try to correct her English. Sometimes we work together on some irony, humor or subtlety that we could tighten up a bit; often after I read the translation, I change the Spanish because I realize if it’s not working in English, it isn’t working in Spanish.
HAS SHE DEVELOPED A SENSE OF YOUR TONE AND STYLE?
Absolutely. She knows the kind of adjectives I would never use, for example. She has translated everything I’ve written, except for my first book. It’s like a psychic connection. She said, “Be careful what you write because it will happen to me.” And she asks for happy endings, which I can’t provide, really.
YOUR FATHER WAS THE CHILEAN AMBASSADOR TO PERU. YOUR UNCLE, SALVADOR ALLENDE, WAS CHILE’S PRESIDENT. IS THERE A POLITICAL BONE IN YOU THAT COMES THROUGH IN YOUR WRITING?
I don’t think it comes from my family, but in 1973 we had a military coup. After that we had 17 years of a brutal dictatorship under Pinochet and I had to get out. I lived as a political refugee in Venezuela for 13 years. Then, I moved to the United States. The military coup made me aware of how important politics are. You can’t say you’re not interested in politics; it affects everything.
In all my books there are political and social interests, just as there are feminine issues. This is part of my life; I can’t write about anything else. Every life of a character is within a context. If I write detached from a social and political background, my story looks like a soap opera where everybody is indoors, not working and living off their emotions.
It was important for me in writing this memoir to write about what was happening in the country and the world. I had to mention Sept. 11. My American editor said, “Everybody knows about this—why do you have to write about it?” My books are translated into 30 languages, and they don’t all know about it or remember it. The American audience isn’t my largest. I was most interested in how it affected my family for this book.
DO YOU GET IN TROUBLE FOR WRITING ABOUT YOUR POLITICAL BELIEFS?
I think that I’m entitled to have ideas about this country that are influenced by what I see abroad. We’re very insular here, very provincial. We only look at our belly buttons and don’t contemplate the rest of the world.
WHAT IS THE MOST USEFUL PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE FROM YOUR ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER THAT YOU WOULD OFFER TO NEW WRITERS?
When in doubt, cut without mercy. Read everything aloud so you will notice tone, rhythm, repetitions, clichés, etc. Write a thousand drafts if necessary.
by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Considering you had no formal training, how did you discover you had an aptitude for writing?
I had been told by teachers growing up, “You’re a pretty good writer.” Mentors in the D.C. public schools sent me books. In general, growing up in the public school system in a blue collar atmosphere, [writing] was certainly not something I thought that kids like me were allowed to do. I had this idea of writers as waspy guys smoking pipes with tweed patches on their elbows.
Once your novels had some success, how did you decide to delve into the other side of the tracks—the drug dealers and gang bangers?
D.C., when I was growing up, was almost 80 percent black. In the kind of books I write, you can’t ignore the other side of the city. I got interested in the social aspect of all this as my life went along. When we were in Brazil adopting our second son, we got stuck down there for two months. It was the first time I saw kids everywhere who were hungry [and] desperate enough to do anything, including murder you, to get something to eat. It radicalized me. I saw the parallels with what was going on [at home], though it was behind closed doors and there was the Band-Aid of welfare on it, but it’s no less insidious. When I came back I decided to shift from the punk rock detective novels to something more ambitious. I had been reading a lot of novels by social realists like [John] Steinbeck and Edward Anderson and Richard Price. It got me amped up to take it to the next level.
Your work has often been called either crime or detective fiction, which you see as “ghettoized” genres. You’ve said you prefer to think of it as “social” crime fiction. What’s the difference to you?
I don’t think that what I’m doing is any loftier or better than anyone else, it’s just where my passions lie. If I’m going to sit down and write a book, it’s got to be about something I’m interested in. There’s nothing wrong with straight ahead thrillers, but I’m probably not going to do that because I’m pretty aware of my responsibilities vis-à-vis the path I’ve chosen, to get these issues out in the world and to do so in an entertaining way. That’s where the crime fiction part comes in; otherwise you’re just standing up on that soap box. If you can draw people in through entertainment, so much the better.
Your novels are known for the rich voices of your characters that leap off the page. How do you capture that kind of authenticity in dilogue?
That’s something that either you have in your toolbox or you don’t. In some ways it’s like being a writer itself; it’s sort of unidentifiable where it comes from. But I remember as a kid going to work with my dad on the bus, I was listening to people the whole time, very interested in not just the words they were saying and the slang and so on, but the poetry of it. To this day, what you have to do is go out there and breathe the air and feel the dirt between your fingers. You have to listen to people. It’s not so much asking questions. It can be as simple as stepping up to the bar and having a quiet beer and just listening.
How do you keep from getting stale in this genre?
I think my books are changing. The last couple books have been as much about family as they have been about the streets, and I think that’s the direction I’m going, [toward] more character-based stuff.
Do you feel your other books are not character based?
Well, there’s a lot more about the way that things work [in them]—how the guns are getting into town, what the procedure is for the cops. The Night Gardener was half and half. [There’s] heavy police procedural elements in some sections, and then there’s a lot of the book where people are just at home with their families—and that doesn’t require a lot of research or know-how. It’s been fortunate for me that I didn’t start writing until I was 31 years old because … from age 11–30 I was working all these jobs and doing all these things, and I’ve got a lot of material to pull from.
As a reader of your books, and touching on the HBO show “The Wire” as a viewer, I feel you have a great deal of compassion for your characters. Nobody is presented as pure evil or pure good. How do you manage this?
I come at it from the assumption that nobody is really bad to begin with. There are people who are sociopathic, but they got there for a reason. The more I work with kids in my spare time—I go out to the juvenile prisons—almost to a person you see there’s been a disconnect with their background, usually on the family level. The kids that go down on the corners to sell drugs, they’re going down there to find a family. So by painting people as just pure bad or good, it doesn’t throw any light on the actual problem. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that you have to consider in how lives get shaped.
Is it true that you write so cleanly that you only write first drafts?
Pretty much. I’m rewriting as I go. I generally write during the day and I come back to it at night and rewrite so that the next day I’m ready. I work seven days a week when I’m working on a book. It’s usually 3–4 months to write a novel, but it’s an intense time where I’m always working and I usually have a pretty clean first draft at the end of that time. I don’t know any other way. I was never around writers and [was] never taught anything.
You’ve had some books optioned. Any in production?
Right as Rain has been close for quite a while. It’s just a director away. The script was written by David Benioff—who did [the movies] Troy, Kite Runner—and Curtis Hanson is producing. It’s close. I wrote the screenplay for another of my books, and cast people in place. Now we’re just trying to sell it.
I’d think a lot of your books adapt nicely to the screen because they’re dialogue heavy and have great visual details.
You would think so, but I didn’t really enjoy [the process] that much. I’m very aware that the hands on the clock are moving quicker these days. I don’t want to waste a year of my life transposing my novel into another form, not knowing whether it will see the light of day.
Now that we’re on the topic of TV, sum up the premise of “The Wire.” Then tell us how you came to get that gig.
By the time the show is over you see this panoramic portrait of an American city [Baltimore] and how things work, and why things are the way we are. We’ve got politics, police, drug dealers, schools, the ports—these pieces that fit together. The next time you’re driving through a city and see those kids on the corner, hopefully you’ll know why they’re there. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. It’s a tremendous achievement. I can say that because I didn’t create it—David Simon did.
What was it like to write for TV, so different from writing novels?
It’s collaborative; you really have to work with a team of writers because each episode feeds into the next and borrows from the past. Before each season we get together—sometimes we’d go away for a week—and we’d decide what the season was going to be about, and the characters and their arcs. Then we’d come back and start beating out each episode. We wanted four episodes written before production started. That entails a scene by scene blueprint of each episode—very intense work in a room, putting cards up on a board in order, [with] different colors for each character. By the time you’re done you have 35–40 cards that represent scenes, in order for that particular show. That takes several days for each episode. Then you farm them out to the writers.
You say you studied film back in college; did you ever have aspirations to write for TV?
No, for movies. There weren’t TV shows like “The Wire” when I was growing up. I was a big fan of westerns and crime films. That was the kind of stuff I wanted to do. I think if I can say so humbly, “The Wire” is better than most films I say out there, and [I’m] perfectly happy to work in TV if that’s the kind of television.
What’s it like to go from stories unfolding on a page to having them acted out by talented people with great sets?
It was fun. Writing is a solitary experience, obviously. With novels I’m pretty much in the house for months straight, which can be socially retarding. It’s nice to switch gears and suddenly you’re working with 200 people. Watching what you’ve done is a little different. Writers always complain, “Look what you did to my words,” but what you never hear is “They made it better.” I’ve written scenes I thought were just average and then the actors and director got hold of it and developed it into something better than I wrote.
In the process for the show, did you get access to people you could not have otherwise contacted?
Yes. To compare, it took me 14 novels before the D.C. homicide would let me into their offices and shadow them. The first day I went to Baltimore and walked into the police station, the guy tossed me a Kevlar vest and said “Come on, we’re going to a drug bust.” I could go anywhere—morgue, courts … they were very open up there. I think that [the show’s portrayal of people] has been fair, and I believe they knew that. I got to know people in the [drug] life, both actively and who had done time and were out now.
Considering you didn’t go through a writing program, what advice do you have for aspiring writers who might not be able to go to school but have a passion for writing?
It’s very simple. Read a lot and live as full a life as you can before you try to write anything.
Along with fellow crime genre writers Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, Pelecanos was hired to write (and later produce and edit) HBO’s Baltimore-based cops and drug dealers’ series “The Wire,” which wrapped up earlier this year after five seasons. His writing for the show was nominated for an Emmy award, and Pelecanos has also scripted two hours of a forthcoming Pacific version of “Band of Brothers,” entitled “The Pacific.”
Like most of his novels, which are inspired by events he digs up in the library and the morgue that incite his passion—especially obituaries—his newest novel, The Turnaround (August 2008), takes a fictional exploration into the lives of people involved in a racial incident. In the story, black kids have assaulted out-of-town white kids in a small community of former slaves in the 1970s. “There’s a crime fiction engine in the thing to keep you interested,” Pelecanos says.
Read on to find out how he got his start, how he got involved with “The Wire” and just how, exactly, you can improve your writing by simply drinking a beer and listening.