NORCROSS - William Paul Young describes himself as an accidental author.
The former resident of Boring, Ore., said he has always been a writer, crafting stories and poems to give as gifts to his family and friends, but never intending to publish anything.
In 2005, at his wife's request, he began writing a story for his six children to explain the way he thinks. The result was "The Shack," which has spent 20 weeks at No. 1 in trade paperback fiction on the New York Times' Best Sellers Lists.
"The first run was 15 copies at Office Depot at Christmas in 2005," Young said. "I was done."
But he wasn't. Friends urged him to publish the novel, which tells the story of a man who receives a note, apparently from God, to visit to the place where his daughter was murdered four years earlier. After 26 publishing companies rejected the manuscript, Young's friends started their own company, Windblown Media.
Now more than 4 million copies have been sold, and the book is being translated into 20 languages, Young said Tuesday before speaking to high school students at Greater Atlanta Christian School.
"It's a God thing," said Young, who recently relocated to Happy Valley, Ore. "I didn't ask for this. It's part of the beauty of this."
Young said the book is fiction, but it tells his story. He said both the protagonist, Mackenzie Allen Philips, and the daughter, Missy, represent him. Missy represents something murdered in him as a child, and Mack is the adult trying to deal with that pain.
Jenna Stokes, a ninth-grader who is reading "The Shack," said she enjoyed listening to Young.
"It made me see (the book) in a different way, once I realized it was about him and his experiences."
David Fincher, the president of Greater Atlanta Christian, said the book had the potential to change students' lives.
"Every one of these kids carries some deep sorrow," Fincher said, "and we have found this book to be a way to dig deep and help them find a relationship with a God in a world where they're skeptical of religion."
Although he was born in Canada, Young grew up in New Guinea with the Dani tribe, a primitive group that sometimes performed cannibalistic rituals. The tribe took care of him while his parents focused on their missionary work.
"It wasn't until I went to boarding school that I found out I wasn't black," he said.
As the child of missionary parents, Young said he grew up with the ability to move between cultures.
"Missionaries' kids, because they don't know where they belong, are as messed up as they get," Young said.
For years, Young said he would change who he was based on who he was with, just because he wanted someone to think he was valuable.
"I became a performer," Young said. "I spent the majority of my life trying to please other people."
Struggling with the pain he endured as a child - abuse from a father he feared, molestation at the hands of other students at the boarding school - Young sought help from a counselor named Scott Mitchell. After nine months of work with Mitchell, Young was able to write "The Shack" for his children.
"Stay free," he told the high schoolers. "Do you understand what I'm telling you? If you don't now, you will. Freedom is only found in religion with a God who has a great affection for you."