Brian Lewis grew up on a tough council estate after arriving in England as part of the Windrush generation. At the age of eight he developed an interest in chess and joined a team of council estate children in tournaments with children, usually of a higher background. At the age of 12, he challenged and defeated a chess grandmaster.
You’ve probably never heard of Brian, but he’s one of thousands who are joining a fast-growing band of “ordinary” people whose ghost-written autobiographies are saving their lives for future generations story. Demand for these services has risen sharply in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
“I think during lockdown, people may start thinking about their own and their loved ones’ deaths,” said Rutger Bruining, founder and chief executive of StoryTerrace, one of the UK’s fastest growing biography services. “People don’t see their parents, the kids don’t see their grandparents, and people don’t know how long this will last.”
The company has a team of about 750 interviewers, many of whom are journalists or former reporters, who are sent to interview subjects. Prices range from £1,800 to £5,850, depending on the package.
Some stories of hope already look like something out of a book, like the Desiree Homes story. She lives a privileged life in a big house when everything changes. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer, her husband lost his job and they ended up living in a caravan. Her daughter is homeless and living on the streets.
Life seems to have changed irreversibly. Until one day her husband bought a EuroMillions lucky draw and won £1 million.
Desiree, who lives near Maidstone in Kent, always knew she had a book on her mind. She even has a title. “If I had ever written my life story, I would always say it would be called And Then. Because whenever I tell people about my life, just when they think I am telling them the most important thing, I say ‘Then…’,” she said.
But she never had time to sit down and write, and when she saw StoryTerrace mentioned in a magazine article, she got in touch, got writing samples from potential ghostwriters, and chose one after a phone consultation.
She added: “One of the reasons I do this is because I used to tell my kids the stories my grandmother told me and I realised that no one was passing them on by word of mouth anymore and I wanted to write it down Now writing I have grandchildren and great-granddaughters.
“Also, talking about my own story is cathartic for me, it helps keep me grounded, and I can always pick up my book and remind myself what’s going on.”
Still others wanted to document different types of major changes in their lives. Noshad Qayyum is one of them. A fine Muslim son, he married a woman his family approved of, but on his wedding day, disaster struck. His father stood up to give a speech and died of a heart attack on the spot. Norshard suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, faced suicidal thoughts and sought help, and later devoted his life to helping men with mental health issues.
“In the period after the incident, when I was in therapy, I kept a diary a lot,” he said. “It was part of the recovery process recommended by my therapist and also at this time I have sadly lost a lot of my male friends to suicide. It seemed like I had an opportunity to do something about it, to give some perspective on it and raise awareness because We cannot live like this.
“It’s kind of in place that I can use what I know and write a book, or have someone help me do that, as a way of speaking.”
Bruning said the impetus for starting the memoir company came when he was a child, and he used to spend school holidays with his grandparents. “My grandfather was a great storyteller, he started a resistance group in World War II and later moved to the Caribbean with my grandmother, where they started a GP practice. There are many stories , there always seemed to be new, or additions to the old stories. But when they passed away, the stories seemed to come much faster than I expected, and I regret that I never asked the questions I should have done.”
StoryTerrace isn’t the only company that ghostwrites ordinary people’s stories. The Book of My Life was founded by Alison Verna in 2007 when a neighbor asked her if she would ghostwrite her life story. With a background in writing and editing, Vina founded the company that provides 50,000-word biographies and images.
The company has grown steadily, she said, and now has a team of writers producing about 100 books a year. “We have noticed a significant increase in sales during the lockdown,” Vina said. “I believe it’s partly because people have more time for reflection and the opportunity to continue doing work they’ve long wanted but didn’t do — like writing a memoir.
“We’ve written books for businessmen, scientists, nurses, doctors, peers, teachers, etc. I’m fascinated by all the stories of our clients, especially because of the world they grew up in 60 or 70 years ago versus the world we know So different.”
Standout stories include a Ukrainian engineer who fled to Germany during World War II, a businesswoman who changed the General Post Office’s policy on women wearing pants, and an advertising man for the lunch coupon company founded in 1946, she said.A way for businesses to get tax breaks by offering employees food stamps [LINK: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/feb/06/workers-benefit-from-luncheon-vouchers-archive-1957]
“My advice to anyone who wants to write their own story or write a life story for a loved one is that it’s not too late,” she said. “Many of us regret not learning more about their lives from our parents and grandparents when we had the chance, but I have yet to meet anyone who regrets writing their stories.”
Not all biography writing services are for-profit. Hospice Biographers was founded in 2017 by journalist Barbara Altounyan, who before his death chronicled her father’s life story through a chat with his terminally ill father, and realized it was a service that could be offered to others.
The charity recently changed its name to Life Stories to reflect its expanding brief, as it is providing free services to people receiving palliative care in a variety of settings.
Stories for Life is funded through fundraisers and donations, rather than printed books, and provides professional-grade audio files of interviews with subjects conducted by its team of 100 volunteers. It’s about to launch a paid service that anyone can access and put the revenue into a free biography program.
“A person talking about their life can be very therapeutic,” says Claire Carter of Life Stories. “A lot of times, during interviews, they’ll think about things they’ve forgotten, and there may be stories in their lives that even their own family members don’t know.
“Traditionally, family stories are always told at parties, and I think that’s kind of forgotten. Especially during Covid, when people can’t meet up, the opportunity to pass those stories down to the family is taken away. I do think that Get people thinking about wanting to keep these family stories for the future.”
Bruning said the biggest obstacle for people trying to write biographies is that they don’t think they’re important enough. “They said my life was so boring and I never did anything,” he said. “But it’s not boring for their families, their stories show how the world has changed. And we’re not trying to write a bestseller, we’re telling real stories. There’s an old saying that everyone There’s a book, it’s true, it doesn’t need to sell 100,000 copies to be effective.”