William Paul Young never set out to write a best-seller.

All he wanted was a story to give his children for Christmas 2005. A story -- as his wife told him -- "puts in one place how you think, because you think outside of the box."

Never in his wildest dreams did Young imagine his "true, but not real" story of meeting God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit at "The Shack" would sell 18 million copies.

Young is the keynote speaker opening "The Shame Factor: How Grace Transforms Life's Traumas," a three-day national conference at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, at 7 p.m. Oct. 24.

The conference, featuring 11 national scholars, will examine the issues of shame, honor and toxic unwantedness in our society.

It's a concept that intrigues Young.

"Shame dominates our world, our histories and relationships. Shame has an incredible impact," Young said in a phone interview from his Gresham, Ore., home.

"Shame is self-loathing. Its tentacles go into everything," he said.

"Shame is a hard task master. It really dictates so much of what our relationships end up being. Shame is an underlying sewage system that seeps out in our words and actions, and the way we run away and the way we fight.

"The soul has to be healed."

"The Shack" is Young's personal story of shame, healing and forgiveness written metaphorically through the lives of the book's characters: Mackenzie Phillips and his youngest daughter, Missy, who is abducted and presumably murdered during a family camping trip.

Young wrote "The Shack" in an attempt to tell his children "about the God who healed, not the God I grew up with," he said.

"The God I grew up with was a western, distant, disapproving God who never healed anything in my life. A God who wanted me to try to live up to expectations that I could never meet."

It was a God whose existence Young questioned. A God who bore the face of Young's father. A God often portrayed by organized religions, he said.

Young wrote "The Shack" to teach his children that God is a god of relationship -- "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in this circle of relationship, and mutuality and love.

"The intent of God's purpose is to include us into that. And, in exchange, God begins to enter into our stuff, to heal us from the inside out. That is the story of Mackenzie, which is really my story," Young said.

The oldest son of missionaries, Young spent the first 10 years of his life in the highlands of Netherlands New Guinea, living among the Dani, "a technologically Stone Age tribal people," Young said. He was the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language. Young grew up in a fierce warring culture steeped in the worship of spirits and occasional practice of ritualistic cannibalism. At age 6, he was sent to boarding school.

He suffered sexual, familial and educational abuse, he said, and his relationship with his father was tortured. He lived "with an underlying volume of shame so deep and loud that it constantly threatened any sense of sanity," he writes in a short biography. "Of dreams not only destroyed but obliterated by personal failure, of hope so tenuous that only the trigger seemed to offer a solution."

And then healing. Faith. Relationships with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Discovering "that God is good all the time," Young said.

Upon completion of the story, Young took it to Office Depot and made 15 copies, one for each of his six children and a couple of close friends.'

"Then I went back to work (as a janitor)," he said. "It never crossed my mind to publish it."

That is, until his friends kept giving away their copies and asking for more.

"I made 15 more copies at Office Depot and put it in the hands of people who thought it could be a movie," Young said.

That started the conversation of publishing "The Shack." He sent it to 26 publishers -- all turned it down. So two believers pooled their money, took out loans and used their Visa cards to have "The Shack" printed.

In May 2007, the printer delivered 11,000 copies of the book to a Los Angeles garage.

"People would come to the website and buy cases of the book. It was touching a really deep place," Young said. "I was just hoping to get through all 11,000 copies in a couple of years. But in 3 1/2 months they were gone."

"The Shack" is a metaphor for the human heart - "the house on the inside that people help us build," Young said.

It is what makes us unique, what shapes our relationships with others and with God, Young said.

"The Shack" is not without controversy. The first time she read it, Young's mother said she feared her son was a heretic.

"She likes the book now," he said. "She loves what it is doing."

He's not sure if his father has read the book. To date his dad will only say: "Every time I see that book I am amazed."

"I don't know what that means," Young said.

He does know that "The Shack" has struck a chord among people of all faiths and cultures. Young has received more than 110,000 e-mails from all over the world.

"It's like the book gave the world a language about God that was not a religious conversation," he said. "It's given people a way to have a conversation about God, about life, about pain, about suffering, about issues of forgiveness. It's given people a language to have that conversation."

Just as he hopes the conference where he will speak next weekend will give people a language for ending shame.

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.