"I had the weight of responsibility of writing about a living prophet. I felt I had to be good, so the Spirit would stay with me," said Swinton, who attended the Northwestern graduate school of journalism. "Did the heavens open and fabulous things show up on my screen? No, I had to work for it."
"Story" isn't the preferred term for President Monson; "personal account" is more accurate, Swinton said. "These are true experiences. 'Story' implies you have a little fun with the details," she said.
Swinton's favorite personal account from President Monson is told in the introduction. On his first free weekend in months, in December 1979, the young apostle flew more than 5,200 miles and crossed behind the Iron Curtain at Checkpoint Charlie for one purpose: to give Inge Burkhardt, the wife of a friend and German church leader, a blessing.
She also loves an experience when President Monson went to the hospital to give one of his former missionaries Dan Taylor a blessing. He ended up giving two blessings — one to a Dan Taylor he didn't know but happened to run into, and another to the Dan Taylor he knew.
"To the rescue — that is what he is all about," Swinton said. "He is all about doing the Lord's work."
The biography contains accounts many Mormons have heard in general conference as well as never-before-heard tales. His favorite TV show is still "Perry Mason." He loves hunting and fishing. He loves musical theater and adores Birmingham roller pigeons.
Maxwell has listened to the 16th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a number of years and thought he knew a fair amount about the prophet.
"I found out there was a ton I did not know," he said. "I love biographies of church presidents. You can take different insights, and there are great gospel lessons or character traits that get illustrated. They can inspire the rest of us and help us try to become better people."
A quote Swinton obtained from President Boyd K. Packer, president of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, summarizes President Monson the best: "He is more Christlike than the rest of us. He is known for emphasizing and elevating things that are most important, the ordinary things. He is one for whom the widow and the orphan are not just statements in a book."
The balancing act
Swinton's first draft contained 900 pages. President Monson read it, loved it; then she cut it to around 600, a necessary step.
The manuscript was passed to Emily Watts, one of Deseret Book's most experienced editors, who was told she had roughly three months to review the material and catch any mistakes.
"I would have liked six months," Watts said. "Let's face it, 600 pages is a lot of words, a lot of life to cover."
Watts compared the editing process to a circus performer doing a high-wire balancing act. When you see the incredible act, it's graceful, beautiful and perfect. "It looks so effortless," she said. What you don't see are the hours of practice, broken bones and mistakes. "It's an incredible balancing act these people do behind the scenes," Watts said.
Watts has edited the biographies of other church leaders and said each is unique. In addition to catching grammatical errors and inaccuracies, it's the editor's job to assure the story stays true to the main character. In the end, reader enjoyment is the goal.
"Heidi has done a remarkable job selecting the materials that really give you the sense of a remarkable man," Watts said.
Numerous people contributed to the successful outcome of the project, Maxwell said. It was invigorating, and everyone gave a golden effort for President Monson.
"We have an opportunity to be involved with a lot of really wonderful and important books, but nothing rises above the level of working on the biography of a church president, particularly a living prophet," Maxwell said.
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