Bringing a brother's writing back to life

Friday, September 10, 2004

CINCINNATI -- A fantasy tale given to family and friends on a young author's last Christmas 25 years ago has won recognition usually reserved for mainstream books.

Will Allen wrote his final story, filled with magic, heroes, villains and a lot of humor, after being diagnosed with cancer. Two years ago, his brother, Paul, began editing, typing, publishing and marketing the manuscript, despite knowing little at first about the book business.

"I never really thought about publishing 'Swords for Hire' until I began reading it aloud to my daughters and realized just how good it was and how much I wanted other people to enjoy my brother's humor and spirit," said Allen, a marketing consultant from the suburb of Mariemont.

The 168-page book aimed primarily at young readers ages 9 and up has achieved stature that does not often come to self-published or small press books.

"Swords for Hire" was selected No. 2 on the American Booksellers Association's most recent Book Sense Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Picks selected by independent booksellers nationwide, and it received a Writer's Digest Magazine national award. The book also won the fantasy-science fiction category in the 2004 Independent Publisher Book Awards announced in June at BookExpo America in Chicago.

Those awards are open to all independent publishers in North America, a group that ranges from major university presses to self publishers.

Voice of Youth Advocates magazine, a journal for librarians, educators and other professionals who work with young adults, included "Swords for Hire" in its Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror List released in April. That list included J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

"I think the high rating it got from our reviewer speaks to its excellence," said Linda Benson, the journal's book-review editor. "I was really blown away by its success so many years after it was written."

"Swords for Hire" also made the February list of 10 "Best Books" for teenagers chosen monthly by a reviewer for the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Rollicking, hilarious and delightful are adjectives that keep popping up in reviews of the comic adventure tale chronicling the exploits of 16-year-old Sam Hatcher and wisecracking, misfit soldier Rigby Skeet. They struggle to save the rightful king of Parmall from the dungeon where his scheming brother imprisoned him under the evil watch of the Boneman.

Along the way, the two unlikely heroes encounter a sorcerer, secret passageways, sword fights and even a maiden in need of rescue. Reviewers have said the book includes many of the traditional elements of fairy tales infused with a blend of humor, irony and suspense that can appeal to readers of all ages.

The story behind the story is that of an author who packed as much creativity as possible into a life cut short by cancer.

"My brother always wrote things -- hundreds of songs, stories, poems, even short movies that he produced with 8 mm film -- from the time he was in elementary school," said Allen, 49. "He was constantly jotting down ideas in a notebook for his next project."

Growing up in the Dayton suburb of Kettering, Will Allen acted in high school plays and competed on the speech team alongside classmate and friend Nancy Cartwright, the Emmy Award-winning actress who provides the voice of Bart Simpson in the animated television series "The Simpsons."

Both of them won scholarships in 1975 to Ohio University in Athens, where Allen wrote and produced a five-minute comedy radio show that aired daily on the university station. Cartwright, who played several of the characters on the show, wrote in her foreword to "Swords for Hire" that "I have no doubt in my mind that Will would have gone on to be a respected writer for film, television and literature."

In 1978, however, he was diagnosed with melanoma and had to return home to Kettering. He married his high school sweetheart, Anne Schmitz, the next year and began writing his final story.

"He was diagnosed so late that he knew he had no future, but it was like he was working on pure adrenaline," said Anne Allen Strand, who now lives with her second husband and two sons in Charlotte, N.C. "He couldn't even walk around the block by the fall of 1979, but he kept on writing.

"He wouldn't tell us what it was, just that it was a surprise. Then he gave us copies of his manuscript on Christmas Day."

Will Allen died four months later at age 22. Strand had his motto, "Here be dragons" -- an inscription used on maps centuries ago to indicate unknown and possibly perilous regions -- inscribed on his tombstone.

"He always believed that if you didn't have 'dragons' or dangers and challenges in your life, you couldn't appreciate the good things," she said. "Cancer was the dragon or evil he couldn't defeat, so he created a book where good wins over evil."

Andrew Caraker, 13, of Mason, Mich., said he couldn't put the book down until he finished it, even though he acknowledges that he usually likes movies more than books.

"I think this could really be a blockbuster movie," Andrew said. "It's kind of like 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' exciting and funny at the same time."

As of early August, 5,500 copies of the book had been sold. That is a substantial number for self-published or small press books, publishing industry officials say.

"It's not rare to find unpublished manuscripts when people die," said Mark West, an English professor specializing in children's literature at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who said he and his 11-year-old son both enjoyed the book. "What is unusual is that it has been published and has had success."

Paul Allen's drive to share his brother's legacy continues. He also hopes to publish some of Will Allen's short stories, poems and songs.

"Obviously the recognition of Will's talent has been gratifying, and it would be a dream come true if the book could be turned into a movie," Allen said. "But what means the most are the e-mails and reviews saying that even kids who are reluctant readers are drawn to it. Will would have loved that."

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