The mission president's wife was making cookies in England when the jaw-dropping phone call came.
The ensuing conversation changed Heidi S. Swinton's life.
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson was on the line and he wanted Swinton to write his biography.
"I was shocked," Swinton said.
She had met President Monson a few times but didn't know him well. She could think of a hundred other people more qualified to do the project. She was in Europe. She felt overwhelmed, but how do you say no to the prophet? The award-winning author and screenwriter was about to climb the Mount Everest of Mormon literature.
"President, I would be honored," Swinton said.
Exactly 26 months later, on Aug. 18, Swinton was smiling as she stood next to the tall church president as he pressed the button to fire up the printing press for a 588-page book titled "To The Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson."
"What an incredible experience to spend your time studying such a great man," Swinton said. "There is nobody in the world right now just like him."
A product of countless hours of researching, writing, endless editing and fact checking, the recently released volume chronicles the life of a man who has spent decades serving and reaching out to others around the world. Page after page is filled with typical President Monson accounts that touch the heart and inspire. There are quotes from other general authorities, colleagues and those in his inner circle that provide insight into his personality and character. There are more than 140 rarely seen color and black-and-white photos.
Cory Maxwell, Deseret Book director of publishing, said the hefty book is a treasure trove of inspiration.
"I have a hard time thinking anyone could read this book and not feel inspired," Maxwell said. "I just came away so impressed with this great man and his ability to combine attention to the needs of the global church with his remarkable ability to render service to the individual."
Swinton first met President Monson when she was working on a PBS television project about Joseph Smith, "American Prophet." At the time President Monson gave her a blessing: "You can't write about a prophet without getting a blessing from a prophet," he told her.
In June 2008, when he asked Swinton to pen his biography, he reminded her of the blessing and said it would stand to serve on this project as well.
"I had that security … and that was very important to me. But I was still scared to death," Swinton said. "But it worked. I got a lot of good help from wonderful people, and it made all the difference."
While assisting her husband, Jeffrey C. Swinton, in presiding over the England London South Mission, Heidi Swinton worked all hours of the day. She carried her laptop around the mission and ducked into cold church classrooms when possible.
After returning stateside in summer 2009, Swinton was provided a desk outside President Monson's office in the Church Administrative Building, where she had access to 45 years of his daily journals, letters, talks and files. When she had a question, she popped her head into his office.
For two years she didn't sleep well at night and blank computer screens haunted her thoughts.
On those days when she struggled, she only had to reach for a binder on the shelf and read something. More often than not it was exactly what she needed. That's when she knew she was getting help from unseen sources.
"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.
'Befitting of a prophet'
Before his 1963 call to be an apostle, President Monson managed the Deseret News printing press and was an expert in all aspects of the printing business. As a result, he had the final say in all materials used in his biography.
Swinton said the prophet often used a pica ruler to check the margins, type size and other measurements. He selected the finest-quality paper, including marblelike end sheets, and helped design every element of the cover. In addition to the glossy photo pages, there is even a ribbon secured to the binding.
"He was very much a part of that process, as you would expect given his background, and he made great decisions," Swinton said. "It was fun to watch him pull out that pica rule and say, 'Well, let me see now.' It was really remarkable to watch."
Watts described the book as beautiful.
"It's so gorgeous. It's very befitting of a prophet's biography," she said.
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