Hal Malchow co-authored “The Sword of Darrow” with his son, Alex. Their book came out on May 31. The following is a mostly complete transcript of Hal’s interview with Cracking the Cover.
Did you ever have aspirations to write prior to “The Sword of Darrow”?
I have one book that I wrote some time ago that’s a pretty boring book about using statistics to target political communications. It’s a long 300-page tome that’s certain to put you to sleep. Actually I had never aspired to write fiction before I started this process with my son. I never thought that I had enough to say. No, it was not an aspiration of mine.
Explain how the book came about with your son.
The genesis of the book is something that we call the Me, You Story. And the way it worked was, he had to come up with the characters and the situation and we would take turns telling these stories. This started when he was 4. At first, he just liked to hear me tell the story, but as he got older, he took a more and more active part in these stories to the point where when he was 8, he was really taking them over, I was having a hard time getting a word in. It really became obsessive with him. He really loved to do these stories all the time and in my job, I would write political advertising, so I would have to be creative all week and then I’d come home and Alex would go I have another Me, You Story. So sometimes it was a little bit of a chore, but your son wants to do these things and you have to nourish them.
The other issue with him, is he has dyslexia. He didn’t learn to read until he was 9 years old and we got him into a special school. So I would read him all these books, and we read great books. We read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Robinson Crusoe,” “Eragon,” and my wife read him the Harry Potter series, but the last one we read was “The Hobbit,” and I’d never read “Lord of the Rings” or any fantasy at all, but after I finished “The Hobbit,” which I loved, Alex comes back to me about a week later and says, “Alright Papa, let’s not do anymore Me, You Stories, let’s write a book.” And I just kind of smiled.
But what am I going to say? I go, “Sure, bring me some characters and a situation,” and he brought me all the characters in the book, except for the princess, because he’s an 8-year-old boy and he didn’t include a girl. So I added the girl, we talked about it, it took us about a month to find the plot twist, that Darrow was kind of incomplete but the princess secretly completes him and makes his success possible without him knowing. Once we got that down, we outlined 25 chapters. We would sit down, start with Chapter 1 and just meet and say, what’s going to be in it, what’s going to happen, and we’d talk it all through. Then I’d write it, and I’d come back and read it to him. He’d say “Oh I like that” or “What about this?” or “Why don’t we add that?” and I’d rework it and then we’d move on to Chapter 2. It took us two years. We had quite a few rewrites after that in the process of trying to get published.
When did the idea to actually get the book published come?
I was in advertising, and I think an author is a terrible judge of his own work, but we both thought, hey this is a pretty good story. So I got eight kids, most of them were Alex’s friends, they were 9 and 10-year-olds, we gave them copies of the book and a questionnaire. We asked them, among other things, we asked them to rate the book on a five-point scale from totally yucky to completely awesome. Everyone gave it the completely awesome grade and so looked at each other and said let’s try to get this thing published.
How long did it take to get published?
I’m a pretty persistent person and we found an editor on the Internet, she kind of helped us. We got a lot of suggestions along the way. When I finally found an agent, the agent really sort of got this book straightened out. He wrote me a letter that said, “Hal, you’ve written a big bedtime story, but this is no book,” and he explained why. So I fixed it. And after I fixed it, he really liked it. It was a process of both improving the book and keeping after it. Did I ever think we wouldn’t? No.
As your son got older and his reading and writing skills developed, did help out with the process more?
No. Not so much. Really after the two years and after we had a manuscript he kind of lost interest a little. When I would bring him issues, or have him read something I’d done, he would engage and was interested. But for him, these two years, this was the great process and was where more of his involvement lay. He has dyslexia and people who have dyslexia do not often read recreationally. Even though he’s a published author, he’s not an especially big reader. He reads a little. His interest moved on to other things. Of course now he’s re-engaging in the process and this is very exciting for him, but in the interim, sort of ironically as he learned to read and wasn’t relying on us to read to him as much, he really wasn’t being exposed to reading as much as he was when he couldn’t read at all.
Tell me a little about the story.
The basic story is this: Goblins take over this peaceful kingdom and on the night that the palace falls, an eccentric, mischievous 8-year-old princess escapes completely by accident. She’s eventually sent to the forest, to a deep, dark forest to study with a wizard, who is going to protect her and changes her appearance and teaches her a magic that takes ten years to learn. The magic is based upon going through a process where one, you remember all the good deeds people have done for you, and you feel the warmth and the glow from that and you gradually work through the list of people you’ve encountered from the people who have done the best things for you all the way down to your worst enemy. And what unleashes the magic is being able to forgive your worst enemy. She learns this magic. In the meantime, in the most remote part of the kingdom this young man emerges. He’s mad and can’t take it any more, and decides he’s going to go recruit an army and save the kingdom. He knows nothing about fighting. He walks with a limp. He’s small, he’s weak, but he’s very inspirational. His words are just magical and he has great courage. In his first few skirmishes it’s only luck that he’s not killed. He can hardly lift his sword. The princess in the meantime is watching all of this from afar. And she makes him a magic sword that is lighter than a feather and this transforms him over night. One of the big themes of the book is the theme of a hero, a hero is seldom as large as the legend around him but the fact of a hero makes the people around him larger than they otherwise could be. It’s a story of how with this magic sword and with the princess in various ways helping him along the way, that he saves his kingdom. In the whole book the princess and Darrow never meet.
What were the challenges working on it? And conversely, the highlights?
The challenge was getting it published. Getting through the first draft was almost pure joy.
I’m the sort of writer where I am not sensitive if someone tells me something doesn’t work, and so we didn’t really argue much. If Alex said that something didn’t work or you shouldn’t do it this way, I would go fix it. Because the reader has a perspective that towers over the perspective of the writer. The writer always knows what they’re talking about because it came out of their own brain. But a great writer knows how to listen to the reader and understand the reader. So if he says that he said something was not any good, I would just fix it and rewriter it. So we almost never argued. It was total fun. We’d get up Saturday mornings, he’d come pattering down the stairs and we’d sit on the couch and we’d talk about it. I’d read him some. It was a joy from the beginning to the end.
I think the two best moments where when he brought me all these characters, all these great characters and I thought, “Wow, we can do something with this.” And of course when we finished. We actually had a 300-page manuscript with a good story.
Planning any other books? Same process?
I’m working on another one. Alex isn’t as involved. You know he’s 16 years old and doing things with your dad aren’t as excited as when you’re 8. He’s enjoying the events. His life is moving on to some other things. He’s a very talented football player who will probably go on to play in college. So he spends his afternoons in the weight room. I have another one. It’s pretty thoroughly outlined.
What do you hope readers will get out of “Sword of Darrow”?
“The Sword of Darrow” is about unlikely heroes. People who you wouldn’t expect to do great things, but who take a chance and are able to do great things because they believe in what is possible. I hope our book tells kids whether you’re big or small or beautiful or not so beautiful or a great athlete or not, that if you have a dream and you believe in yourself, that you can do good things. It all starts with being willing to take a chance even on something where success is perhaps not so likely.
What kind of response have you had? Are you surprised by it?
We’ve had a lot of response. … We have 2,200 kids who have read book. And Utah per capita is our largest state. I have 50 young reviewers in Utah. We had 2,200 kids who read it, the response was, I’m sure every author says this, but whenever expected anything like what we got. We used our same old five-point scale that we used the first time and 50 percent rated the book completely awesome, 35 percent rated it really good, lots of best book I’ve ever read. The reception has been great.
One of the great things that ever happened to me in my whole life was going to the post office box every day and pulling out 50 reviews and getting to read them. I was starting to think I was really good.
Donating all royalties to International Dyslexia Association. Why?
We think it’s a way to help kids like Alex. It’s good for the marketing, it gives people a little extra thing to talk about. We’re really interested in getting the books into schools that serve the kids. We’re also doing author in a school program. If an LD (learning disability) school teacher wants assign the book she can request books, we’ll send them the books, the kids read the book and then I dial in the classroom on Skype and talk to the kids about it.